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Franklin County Special Coverage

Waiting Game

Scenes like this one are nowhere to be found right now at Historic Deerfield

Scenes like this one are nowhere to be found right now at Historic Deerfield, which is developing plans for a September opening.

Magic Wings is a year-round operation, Kathy Fiore said — even when its doors are shut.

“This is different from a clothing store,” said Fiore, who co-owns the butterfly conservatory in Deerfield with her brother. “When we closed our doors, we still needed to have staff here, because we have to take care of whatever is happening. Butterflies are laying eggs every day. Caterpillars are hatching out every day. We need to feed and care for the lizards, tortoises, birds, fish … all sorts of animals have to be taken care of.”

And that means expenses that don’t disappear when no visitors show up — which they haven’t since the facility closed to the public in mid-March, part of a state-mandated economic shutdown in response to COVID-19.

“We kind of saw it coming, and then it just happened,” she said of the closure. “As owners of the business, we’ve tried to remain positive and upbeat and assure our staff, assure our customers.”

As for when Magic Wings will be allowed to reopen, phase 3 looks most likely, which means very soon. But the state’s guidance is only one consideration. The other is keeping visitors safe and helping prevent a viral flareup in a region that has effectively depressed infection rates, as opposed to states like Florida and Texas that were more lax about regulating crowds — and have seen cases spike in recent weeks.

“When we closed our doors, we still needed to have staff here, because we have to take care of whatever is happening. Butterflies are laying eggs every day. Caterpillars are hatching out every day. We need to feed and care for the lizards, tortoises, birds, fish … all sorts of animals have to be taken care of.”

“My brother and are watching how things are going,” Fiore said. “We’re certainly watching other businesses open back up, but we’re also hearing about the resurgence in certain places, about people getting together and going right back to a situation we don’t want to be in.”

Historic Deerfield, which shuttered its buildings to the public a few weeks before the start of its 2020 season, doesn’t expect to reopen most of them until September.

“We had a lot of different challenges and things to figure out,” said Laurie Nivison, director of Marketing, explaining why the organization’s leadership isn’t rushing back before they feel it’s safe. “Just thinking ahead to when it might be possible to open again, we decided to move some bigger things to the fall. The fall season is always a big time for us. That’s when people start thinking they want to come to Deerfield, so we said, ‘let’s look at opening around Labor Day weekend.’”

Losing an entire spring and most of summer is a considerable financial hit, of course, and the center was forced to lay off dozens of staff. But at the same time, it has looked to stay relevant and connected to the community in several ways, including putting a series of ‘Maker Monday’ workshops online, taking a virtual approach to teaching people how to stencil, make their own paper, or building a decoupage box, to name a few recent examples.

Meanwhile, museum curators have been sharing plenty of interesting artifacts from the collection online, while the director of historic preservation recently took people on a virtual tour of the attic of one of the historic houses.

“People never have the opportunity to do that, so that was great,” Nivison said. “We’ve become really creative trying to think of what we can do to bring Historic Deerfield to people when they can’t come here. Being closed down, we still want to have people engaged.”

Many Franklin County attractions, especially of the outdoor variety — such as Zoar Outdoor and Berkshire East in Charlemont, where people can engage in ziplining, biking, kayaking, and other outdoor activities — are already open. But indoor attractions face different challenges and are on a different reopening pace, due to both state guidelines and their own sense of caution.

But a wider reopening is the goal, as area tourism officials consider the region a connected ecosystem of activity that draws visitors to take in multiple sites, not just one. In short, the more attractions are open, the more each will benefit.

Kathy Fiore says Magic Wings won’t reopen

Because it’s an indoor attraction, Kathy Fiore says Magic Wings won’t reopen until she’s confident visitors will be safe.

“We’re talking a lot about how we can convince visitors to come back when the time is right because there’s so much outdoor fun you can have here,” said Diana Szynal, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce. “We have hiking, cycling, fly fishing, regular fishing, walking trails — there’s so much opportunity for things to do here that are perfectly safe and healthy.”

Safety First

Szynal was just scratching the surface when she spoke to BusinessWest. From retail destinations like Yankee Candle Village to museums, golf courses, wineries, and covered bridges, it’s a region that has plenty to offer, and attractions like Magic Wings and Historic Deerfield certainly sense anticipation among fans and potential visitors when they connect with the community on social media.

But they also don’t want to jump the gun and see the region turn into another Houston.

“It’s been a little unnerving, but from the beginning, my brother and I didn’t want to reopen until we feel it’s safe, even if the government lifts the regulations for businesses like Magic Wings. We don’t mind waiting it out a little bit to make sure everything is safe,” Fiore said.

“We normally can take in a lot of people, but we’re different because we’re an indoor facility,” she added, noting that Magic Wings will follow the state’s guidelines for social distancing, masks, and crowd count, while considering options like visiting by appointment as well. “We’re trying to think of all the different things we can do to make sure people are really safe but still have a pleasant experience.”

It helped, she said, that the conservatory procured a Paycheck Protection Program loan to keep its staff paid, and now that reopening approaches, she’s hoping to get everyone back on the regular payroll. “We’re responsible for the livelihood of a lot of people.”

But the shutdown also posed an opportunity, she added. “It’s beautiful here — it’s in pristine shape, because we were able to do some cleanup things, different projects, that we don’t have the opportunity to do when we’re open every single day. We hope to welcome people back to a nice, fresh environment that’s better than they remember.”

While the museum houses of Historic Deerfield remain closed for now, the organization got a boost from the reopening of Deerfield Inn and Champney’s Restaurant & Tavern. The week she spoke with BusinessWest, Nivison said the restaurant already had more than 100 reservations lined up for the following week.

Those facilities will benefit from September’s museum reopening, but this fall may still look a little different than most, as tours may be limited — or be smaller, self-guided experiences — while outdoor tours may be expanded. Demonstrations of trades like blacksmithing may be moved outdoors, while the annual Revolutionary muster event, typically held on Patriots’ Day in April, will likely happen this fall as well.

“We’ve become really creative trying to think of what we can do to bring Historic Deerfield to people when they can’t come here. Being closed down, we still want to have people engaged.”

“We want to be able to give a good experience to folks and really take advantage of all the outdoor things they can do,” Nivison said. “There are a lot of things we can do.”

One thing people aren’t doing as much as they normally would is getting married — with crowded destination receptions, anyway. Because Magic Wings is a popular spot for weddings and receptions, that was another significant revenue loss this spring and summer, Fiore said.

“Couples had to shift everything, and a couple bumped their weddings into 2021. One couple canceled altogether,” she told BusinessWest, noting that weddings already have a lot of moving parts, and couples are simply unsure right now how many guests they’ll be allowed to include until the state offers more guidance.

All Aflutter

That said, Fiore has been buoyed by the number of people calling since the closure. In addition to its social-media presence, Magic Wings also recently ran a television commercial featuring soothing sights and sounds inside the conservatory — to put a smile on viewers’ faces more than anything.

“It was an opportunity for people to take a deep breath,” she said. “We’re all in the same boat, we’re all experiencing something totally new, and we’re all concerned and feeling anxious about what’s going to happen — what’s safe and what’s not.

“People love butterflies, and they do come see us from all around,” she added. “But they also want to know it’s not going to be a huge health hazard, and that’s what we’re working toward.”

Szynal understands the concerns, too.

“People are taking this seriously,” she said. “I see the masks. When people are out on errands, walking through stores, they’re giving each other space. As long as this behavior continues, people will feel better moving around a bit more” — and that includes visiting Franklin County attractions.

“I feel people respect this virus and respect each other,” she concluded. “So far, they’re taking the steps they need to keep Massachusetts on the right track.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus Special Coverage

Destination Unknown

John Doleva

John Doleva says the Basketball Hall of Fame still has a big, important year on tap, even if the schedule has shifted quite a bit.

As he talked with BusinessWest about his industry and his family’s hotel group, Kishore Parmar kept glancing back and forth between the lobby of the Hampton Inn in Hadley and the parking lot outside.

He did so with a look that blended something approaching disbelief — still, after roughly three months of the same view — with resignation.

“This lobby is essentially empty, and this is not how it is,” he explained. “If this were a normal day in June, you’d see families, you’d see business people in and out, there would be staff going up and down the hallways. We would be sold out for tonight, or very close to it.”

Instead, there would be maybe six or eight people staying in this 71-room hotel just off Route 9 that night. The lobby was empty. Just a few vehicles dotted the parking lot, all of which Parmar could identify as belonging to staff.

This view is a metaphor of sorts for what hotels have been experiencing since mid-March, something none of those in it have ever seen before. Business for the Pioneer Valley Hotel Group — which also includes a La Quinta by Wyndham in Springfield, Hampton Inn and Homewood Suites by Hilton in Hadley, Holiday Inn Express in Ludlow, and Hadley Farms Meeting House in Hadley — is off roughly 80% from what it was a year ago. And the numbers would be even worse if some first responders didn’t stay in these hotels in the early days of the pandemic.

Perhaps the most unsettling thing is that Parmar doesn’t know if, when, or for how long things will get appreciably better.

But while the view for all hoteliers in the region is similarly troubling, there are some signs of life in the broad tourism and hospitality sector. Indeed, many area restaurants are now open for outdoor seating, and a good number of them are creating intriguing spaces as they welcome back customers that have been relegated to takeout for more than three months.

Signs at the Hall of Fame

Signs at the Hall of Fame will use players’ wingspans to send a message about standing six feet apart — or, in Giannis Antetokounmpo’s case, more than seven feet.

Meanwhile, some tourist attractions are moving closer to opening their doors. The state’s casinos are eyeing a late June opening — although MGM Springfield has not committed to a specific date — while the Basketball Hall of Fame, which is in the final stages of a $23 million renovation project, is targeting July 1 as its reopening date.

President and CEO John Doleva isn’t sure what kind of turnout that opening will boast, although he told BusinessWest the Hall will be aggressive in marketing what was supposed to be a high point in a year of many high points.

“In January, I sat down with the senior staff and said, ‘first of all, this is going to be the greatest class ever — Kobe (Bryant), Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett. That was before Kobe passed away, which was pretty unbelievable,” he recalled. “On top of that, we had a 100% new museum, top to bottom, that was going to open up on May 1” — not to mention a commemorative coin from the U.S. Mint, to be unveiled at the Final Four in early April.

The coin was eventually released, but the Final Four was cancelled, the 2020 induction was moved into 2021, and, who knows what the July 1 grand opening will bring? But Doleva is optimistic.

“The good news is, all these things are going to happen; it’s not like we lost them. They’re just not on the time frame we thought they would be,” he said. “But we do feel that people want to do stuff — but how will they decide?”

That equation has surely changed in the year of COVID-19.

“People always ask, ‘what am I going to see, what does it cost, how far away from my house is it, and what kind of experience is it?’” he noted. “But kind of rising to the top is, ‘what kind of procedures and protocols does an organization have in place to ensure my family’s health and safety?’

“Safety is paramount at any tourism destination at this point,” Doleva added. “You’ve got to communicate not the traditional marketing of ‘we’re fun and we’re affordable; your family’s going to have a great time and talk about it forever.’ It’s also, ‘you can come here and feel safe — and here’s everything that we’re doing.’”

And that presents an opportunity in a region rich in attractions that are often taken for granted by locals. There are indications that, due to real concerns about traveling in anything but a car, area destinations might get a boost from those looking to take a ‘staycation,’ rather than typical vacation, and that includes visiting sites where they feel safe.

“This lobby is essentially empty, and this is not how it is. If this were a normal day in June, you’d see families, you’d see business people in and out, there would be staff going up and down the hallways. We would be sold out for tonight, or very close to it.”

But a host of challenges remain for this sector, and questions remain about everything from how hotels will serve guests breakfast to whether there will be a Big E — which benefits a number of businesses in this sector — and what that fair might look like. But as tourism lurches back to something resembling life, there’s plenty of hope in the air, too.

Animal Attraction

It was opening day at the Zoo in Forest Park & Education Center in Springfield — a full nine weeks later than usual — but Sarah Tsitso liked what she saw.

“People are definitely responding,” said Tsitso, the zoo’s executive director, as guests took advantage of a new timed reservation system that, at least for now, lets only 10 people in every 10 minutes, to promote social distancing. “It’s great seeing families and children so happy being out seeing the animals, and the animals are happy to see their friends come back. We close the first week of November. That’s a long time to be closed to the public.”

The key word is ‘public.’

“The zoo is open 365 days a year for the animals. They live here, and they’re fed and get vet care whether it’s winter or summer. We rely on the visitor season to generate revenue for the months we’re closed.”

Those nine lost weeks cost the center some $200,000 in revenues, losing not just gate receipts but educational programs, a robust schedule of spring field trips, and three major events typically held annually between March and July.

“That’s a pretty huge loss,” she said. “We’re still not sure what’s happening with summer camps, which would start around June 25. We’re not sure what that’s going to look like.”

Whatever shape the summer takes, it will be better than the waiting game to reopen, during which the zoo managed to secure a Paycheck Protection Program loan to keep staff working and developed the protocols now in place, from a mask requirement and sanitizer stations to additional barrier fences and a one-way path around the grounds.

“It was certainly challenging, but manageable,” Tsitso said. “The biggest change was probably the timed ticketing system. But we were quickly able to identify a system that works for us and get it up and functioning. We were just waiting for the green light.”

The light turned decidedly red for Peter Pan Bus Lines back in March, CEO Peter Picknelly told BusinessWest.

“We ran for a few weeks once the pandemic hit, but within two and a half weeks, sales declined over 90%. So we shut down for about eight weeks,” he said. “Shutting down was one of the hardest things we have ever done.”

When the buses did start rolling again earlier this month, making limited runs to major destination cities, Picknelly was pleasantly surprised. “Activity has been pretty good,” he said after the first week, adding that the second week was looking even busier. “There’s a pent-up demand to get out of Dodge, and that’s what we help people do.”

One issue is that destination cities like Boston and New York are still reopening in their own way, and once the big cities fully open, he expects more of a rush. For now, the company is getting its “sea legs back,” he said, and making sure everyone on the bus feels safe.

Kishore Parmar

Kishore Parmar says the most unsettling thing about the pandemic, from the hotel industry’s perspective, is not knowing when business might get better.

To that end, Peter Pan has improved its contactless boarding procedures while introducing PermaSafe, a CDC-approved product that purifies passenger cabin air while making interior surfaces anti-microbial and self-sanitizing. The company also uses electrostatic handheld sprayers to sanitize and disinfect the buses every night. In addition, passengers are required to wear a face mask at all times, and employees have been issued personal protective equipment, including face masks and hand sanitizer.

“Here’s my theory — nobody wants to get sick; nobody wants to get someone else sick,” Picknelly said. “But nobody wants to be cooped up any longer, either. A lot of what we do is leisure travel, but people also have to travel for medical appointments, for school, for business. There’s not only a pent-up demand to get out of Dodge, there’s also a need.”

But, they also need to feel safe, he said. “As time goes on, people will be more and more comfortable getting out. I’m confident this is going to end way sooner than people think. And I think any smart business person knows, if you want customers to come in — and come back — you’ve got to make them feel safe and comfortable.”

At the hall of fame, protocols in place for the opening include regular disinfection of all frequently touched surfaces, complimentary stylus pens to use on interactive touchscreens, an electrostatic disinfectant air-mist system, and … well, the list is frankly too long to detail all of it here.

“We’ll have the clean team out in the museum unlike ever before,” Doleva said. “People will see it in action.”

And it’s important they see it, he added.

“People are clamoring to get out. They’re looking for the safe places that are paying attention — but I definitely think there is pent-up demand.”

Some will want to be among the early visitors, he added, while others will take a wait-and-see approach. “It will be a short summer, but we are going to showcase the museum. This is a grand-opening summer, and everyone has the opportunity to come here.”

Room for Improvement

Parmar told BusinessWest that, for his group’s hotels, and most all facilities not in the shadow of ski resorts, winter is a slow, difficult time.

And what he fears is that, unless some things change, 2020 might take on the look of a 12-month-long winter in terms of occupancy rates and overall vibrancy.

“We might go from winter … right into another winter,” he said, adding that July, at this moment, doesn’t look much better than June, and the rest of summer and fall amount to a giant question mark.

The company has essentially seen its busiest season wiped off the calendar, losing college commencements, visits to area colleges and universities, business meetings, weddings, bridal and baby showers, and much more.

This certainly isn’t what the company was expecting in 2020, a year that began with hopes and expansion plans. Indeed, this is the first full year for the Homewood Suites facility, opened just over a year ago and off to a solid start, and there were plans to create a new hotel on the site of the old Howard Johnson’s on the Mohawk Trail in Greenfield and completely renovate the Roadway Inn in Hadley, which is currently closed.

That’s were. “We had a plate full for this coming year, and we were very excited about it, but then we had it all taken away,” Parmar said, adding that those projects have been put on ice, and the company is essentially trying to make the most out of what will be a trying year.

The company applied for and received a PPP loan and used it to bring its employees back to work after many were furloughed earlier in the spring. The problem now is that the money is running out, and business certainly hasn’t come back — as evidenced by the parking lot and the front lobby. Parmar said there is little if any leisure business at this point, and also little if any business travel, as companies continue to rely on Zoom meetings.

“We’re bootstrapped right now — we’re counting every penny, we’re counting every dollar,” he said. “We’re doing our best to reduce every cost there is.”

While hotels might continue to struggle, however, many in the tourism sector feel they will see more ‘staycation’ action than usual — particularly if out-of-state travelers are put off by Massachusetts’ suggested (but not required) 14-day quarantine when entering.

“If someone from Enfield wants to come to the Hall of Fame, they’re not going to take a 15-day trip to see a one-day experience. So that’s got to be clarified,” Doleva said. “I do think it is an impediment to tourism. People see ‘suggested,’ they think ‘required.’ So we’re hoping for some clarification because it affects us, and it affects hotels, restaurants, and other attractions.

Doleva said he never foresaw what 2020 would bring when he began a two-year term as board chair for the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau back in November. But he’s been impressed with the planning the GSCVB has done to hit the ground running once tourism ramps up again this summer.

“We have a very aggressive plan to advertise the region like never before, the attractions especially,” he told BusinessWest. “We’ve never brought people together the way we are now. That’s a blessing in disguise — this is bringing the different factions of the tourism business tighter than ever.”

As chair, he also hopes elected leaders develop a greater appreciation of the impact of the tourism and hospitality industry and the numbers of people it employs, as well as the taxes it generates — and make investments in supporting tourism statewide over the long term.

“I think, if we look for the silver lining, this has caused us all to step back and focus on how we’re all interdependent, and when one improves, we all improve,” he added. “We know we have something special out here. It’s a nice place to visit, we’ve got a lot of things to do, and the industry is very focused on safety. Now we need to move forward together.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

A Six-month Checkup

Mike Mathis, foreground, with recently promoted MGM employees

Mike Mathis, foreground, with recently promoted MGM employees, from left: Marissa Dombkowski, Bill Blake, and Nickolaos Panteleakis.

A half-year after opening its doors, MGM Springfield is well behind its stated goals and expectations for gross gaming revenues, or GGR, and the numbers have been declining each month since the fall. But the winter months are traditionally the slowest in this industry, said Mike Mathis, president and COO of the resort, and the company is still ramping up its operation. Overall, he said, there are a number of positive indicators.

‘Ramping.’

That’s the word you hear quite frequently from MGM’s leaders as they talk about the $950 million property in Springfield’s South End. Jim Murren, president and CEO of MGM Resorts International, used it early and often in a conference call with stock analysts last month following the release of MGM’s fourth-quarter earnings in 2018.

And Mike Mathis, president and COO of MGM Springfield, leaned on it as he talked with BusinessWest late last month, six months after the facility opened its doors. With casinos like this one, Mathis said, the ramping-up process, if you will, goes on for three years or so and is quite involved.

It entails watching, listening, learning, and adapting, all with the goals of growing visitation and, therefore, the bottom line, while also improving efficiency and making the operation in question more profitable.

“I think it’s premature to judge us, or anyone, on a partial data set; it’s a little early to say we’re going to underperform or overperform for our first year.”

“In the context of a new resort, it’s commonly understood within the industry that there’s a three-year stabilization period — a ramp period to stabilization,” he explained. “Three years serves as a benchmark. You’ve been through a few different seasonality rotations, you see the different ranges of weather, you see the different ranges of how holidays land, whether they land on weekends or midweek — you get all those different scenarios.

“You’re also building up your database,” he went on. “Seeing how your competition’s reacting to what you’re doing — how are they activating their property. You get a feel over a couple of years — did we do well that weekend because the competition didn’t have much going on? Or did we suffer because they put in a big act to counter that weekend? That all shakes out over two or three years.”

These references to ramping up are being generated by questions about revenues at MGM Springfield, and, more specifically, about why they are not approaching the numbers the company projected to the Mass. Gaming Commission.

‘Slower’ is the operative word being used with regard to revenues, and it fits if one considers MGM’s projections of $418 million in annual gross gaming revenue (GGR) in its first year of operation, or $34.8 million per month. Indeed, the company recorded $21.58 million in GGR in December, and just $19.7 million in January (February’s numbers will not be released for a few weeks). GGR for November was $21.2 million, the number was $22.2 for October, and in September, it was $26.95 million.

Mathis, while certainly acknowledging that the numbers are lower than projected, at least for the winter months, told BusinessWest that the $418 million projection given to the Gaming Commission was made several years ago, and that the landscape has changed in some ways since then.

Mike Mathis says the winter months are traditionally the slowest for casinos

Mike Mathis says the winter months are traditionally the slowest for casinos in the Northeast, and he is optimistic that visitation will climb as the mercury does.

Meanwhile … it’s early, said Mathis, referring to the fact that the casino has only been open for six months, and a few of those months (January, February, and early December, before the holidays) are among the slowest for casinos, especially those in the Northeast.

“I think it’s premature to judge us, or anyone, on a partial data set; it’s a little early to say we’re going to underperform or overperform for our first year,” he told BusinessWest. “If you look at our August and September numbers, we would have exceeded our expectations. And going into the winter months … that’s the low end of the season.”

And, overall, the casino is still ramping.

That means it’s still learning, collecting data, watching patterns develop, and adapting to what the data shows. As he said earlier, it’s an involved process that involves a number of factors, including the weather. Make that especially the weather.

Mathis said he and his team are tuned into the forecasts, because one thing he’s noticed thus far — and this counts as one of the surprises on his list — is that, despite a reputation for being hardy, people in New England are apparently easily scared off from traveling in snow — or even forecasts of same.

“We thought New England would be hardier than what we’ve seen on some of these snow days,” he said with a laugh. “We’ve had a little bit of experience with snow in Detroit and Atlantic City, but I think every market is unique, and we’re learning some of the patterns and behaviors.

“And it’s not just snow,” he went on, sounding much like area golf-course operators when they talk about rain and how it impacts them. “It’s what type of snow and what time of day it hits and what day of the week it hits. Weather forecasts have become an important tool for operating and planning; it’s been a very interesting learning curve.”

One that extends, as he said, well beyond snow, and into other realms such as where people are visiting from, how often they visit, which games they play, which restaurants they frequent, and much more.

Overall, and as might be expected, Mathis is optimistic that the monthly numbers for GGR will improve as the weather gets better and the casino can make much better use of its outdoor facilities with concerts — Aerosmith is coming for the first-anniversary celebration — and other activities.

But looming over MGM Springfield, in a big way, is the opening of a competing casino in Everett, slated for sometime this summer. Mathis said that development will further alter the landscape and certainly add new wrinkles to the ramping process.

Driven by Data

Mathis told BusinessWest that this first six months of operation have been a learning experience on all kinds of levels, and this, too, was to be expected, because gaming is still relatively new to Massachusetts (Plainridge Park Casino, a slots facility, opened in the fall of 2017), and while those at MGM had expectations, they didn’t know exactly what to expect.

What have they learned? For starters, they’ve learned that visitors much prefer the weekend to the weekdays. And while that sounds obvious, the disparity in the numbers is eye-opening.

“I’m surprised at how weekend-centric the business has been — the difference between weekends and weekdays is pretty dramatic,” Mathis noted, adding that, with the former, visitation averages roughly 18,000 to 20,000 a day, while with the latter, it’s closer to 10,000.

This disparity is far greater than it is in Las Vegas and with most other MGM properties, said Mathis, adding that one big reason for this is a still-ramping (there’s that word again) meeting and convention business in Greater Springfield.

Mike Mathis says the ROAR! Comedy Club has become a solid attraction for MGM Springfield

Mike Mathis says the ROAR! Comedy Club has become a solid attraction for MGM Springfield and a vehicle for bringing new audiences to the resort.

“We have the ability to impact those numbers midweek by putting more convention groups in the MassMutual Center, getting more citywide events, and getting more entertainment mid-week, which we plan on ramping up,” he explained. “There’s ways to impact that midweek business to the benefit of the entire downtown.”

What else have they learned? There’s that aversion to traveling in snow that was mentioned earlier. That was in evidence a few weeks back. The weekend before Presidents Day was one of the best the casino had since it opened, said Mathis, crediting MGM’s ROAR! comedy shows and a host of other things happening downtown and elsewhere, including two Thunderbirds games and a camping and RV show at the Big E, for the surge, one that contributed to one of the few real traffic jams recorded since the property opened.

But the holiday itself (a day off for the vast majority of workers in this region) was considerably slower, and Mathis believes that the few inches of snow that fell overnight had a lot to do with this. Of course, Monday is also a weekday.

What else? Well, to date, MGM Springfield is “underperforming” (Mathis’ word) when it comes to attracting people from Central Mass. Indeed, while the casino does well in drawing people from Upstate New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Connecticut (the I-91 corridor), the numbers from the central part of the state are less impressive, which, if you take the glass-is-half-full approach, which Mathis does, means there’s considerable room for growth.

“We’re trying to understand the phenomenon of east-west travel on the Pike, frankly,” he explained. “I think there’s a bias to go north-south — I think that might be the more the traditional traffic pattern, and that’s what the data shows — but we’re also doing well with Boston.

“The good news about how this data shakes out is that there’s upside opportunity for us in Central Mass.,” he went on. “And this might blunt the impact of the Everett casino.”

There have been a few other surprises, including the number of people making their first visit six months after the ceremonial ribbon was cut.

“I’m still surprised by how many people I’m meeting on the floor who are seeing it for the first time,” he said. “Our team has been at this since 2012, so sometimes I feel that anybody who was interested in coming would have come in the first month or two. But there are people hitting the floor every day who are brand new, and for whatever reason have decided that this is the weekend they want to check it out.”

A Laughing Matter

While much of the media’s focus has been on GGR and the hard fact that the numbers are not where they were projected to be, Mathis said there are a number of positive developments to note as the casino passes that six-month mile marker. Here are several he listed:

• The data clearly shows that the opening of MGM Springfield has grown the overall gambling market in this broad region, he said, adding that this becomes clear when one does some simple math and looks at MGM’s revenues and the declining numbers for competitors. The former is larger than the aggregate of the latter, which translates into growth, which bodes well for all players.

“I think one of the good things about new properties coming into the market is it keeps everybody in a position of having to keep up.”

“I’ve met countless customers on our floor who have said that MGM Springfield is their first casino gaming experience, and there’s a few reasons for that,” he said. “Some say they were in Las Vegas, they’re Mlife members, and they’d been to a convention or show, but didn’t happen to go into the casino on that trip; with this in their backyard, they thought they’d give it a try. Others will say they like our non-smoking gaming environment and had never gone into another casino because they didn’t want the smoke; that’s a real competitive advantage for us.”

• The ROAR! Comedy Club has been a solid addition to the MGM lineup, helping to drive visitation, especially during some of the slower months on the calendar. Located in the historic Armory, the shows have drawn consistent crowds, said Mathis, adding that, as the calendar turns to spring and then summer, the team at MGM Springfield will look to maximize its outdoor facilities with a full slate of entertainment to be announced in the coming weeks.

“In talking with the comedians, they say we’re now the buzz within that community — it’s a cool venue, something all the comics want to play on their East Coast rotation,” he told BusinessWest. “it’s a great way to expose the building to different customers.”

• The team continues to find new ways to leverage its many facilities at the casino, said Mathis, noting that it has added entertainment in its ballrooms — Sinbad recently performed two sold-out shows — and the staff continually looks for new opportunities.

“We’re doing a lot of fun activations in different parts of the resort,” he explained. “We want to make sure we understand the booking patterns for convention and meeting groups, and when we see holes, it’s like an empty airplane seat; how do you fill it, and how do you bring new customers to the resort?”

• The hotel and food and beverage side of the casino operation has been exceeding expectations, said Mathis, adding that, among other things, a recently added weekend brunch at Cal Mare restaurant has helped grow that side of the equation.

“Our hotel and restaurant business has been extremely strong, and we thought that would be the case, because there’s good, local lodging and F&B in the market, but perhaps not to a Vegas standard, and we believe we’ve brought a Vegas standard to this market. We’ve exceeded occupancy, and we’ve exceeded our average daily rate.”

• But despite this success, there has been some spillover to other area businesses in this sector, and this is by design, said Mathis, noting that the hotel, with 252 rooms, is not particularly large, and the dining options, while growing (groundbreaking on a Wahlburgers is slated for later this year), leave plenty of opportunities for other eateries in the downtown.

“One of the reasons we sized the hotel the way we did was that we wanted to make sure that developments like ours have a spillover effect to other businesses,” he said. “And we wanted to make sure that came true. Some restaurant owners, including the Caputo family at Red Rose, have been quoted as saying that their business is up 20%, and people are expanding and extending hours.”

• Likewise, the numbers regarding the workforce have been generally positive, said Mathis. He estimated a 35% churn rate since the facility opened its doors, and noted that, while this might sound high to business owners and managers in other sectors, it’s in line with industry norms and actually lower than in many other areas.

Meanwhile, the targets for hiring Springfield residents, veterans, women, and minorities have all been met or exceeded, and many employees have already moved up the ladder since the casino opened its doors.

“I got the stat the other day … I think we’ve had 200 or so promotions since day one, and 30% of those are Springfield residents,” he noted. “Nothing makes me prouder than to see a line-level employee on day one who’s now wearing a suit in a supervisory management role. And it’s happening.”

As examples, he cited three employees who joined him for photos later in the day: Bill Blake, formerly graphic supervisor and now creative manager; Nickolaos Panteleakis, formerly Front Services manager (where he handled many front desk duties) and now director of Front Services; and Marissa Dombkowski, who has been promoted twice already — she started as an HR communications specialist, moved up to Entertainment Marketing coordinator, and is now Marketing manager for the MassMutual Center.

Overall, and to recap, Mathis reiterated that ramping up is, indeed, a three-year process, one that involves a serious learning curve on many different levels.

“I tell my team all the time, ‘if it were easy, everyone would do it,’” he said of casino operations in general. “That’s why we’re here — to manage through, collect data, and be smarter every day as we collect data and finetune the business.”

Driving Force

Mathis was one of those people caught in that traffic jam on the Saturday of Presidents Day weekend.

He told BusinessWest that it took him more than 45 minutes to get to an event downtown from his home in Longmeadow, normally a 15-minute drive. But unlike most others, he certainly wasn’t complaining.

“I’ve never been happer to be in stand-still traffic,” he said, adding that, while it has always been MGM’s goal to minimize such disruption, he’ll gladly take more nights like that in the weeks and months to come.

And he predicts he’ll be getting more as that ramping process continues.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Tourism & Hospitality

Rolling Out the Welcome Mat

Mary Kay Wydra (left) and Alicia Szenda

Mary Kay Wydra (left) and Alicia Szenda say the GSCVB works closely with area hotels as part of efforts to draw conventions and other events to Greater Springfield.

There’s more than one way to look at a number. That’s especially true when it comes to hotel occupancy rates.

Take Greater Springfield’s occupancy rates through the last six months of 2018. At almost 67%, they’re 5% higher than they were over the same period in 2017.

That’s good news on its own, but especially positive when considering the capacity added over the past 18 months, from Holiday Inn Express on State Street in Springfield to Fairfield Inn & Suites in Holyoke; from Tru by Hilton in Chicopee to, of course, the hotel at MGM Springfield, the resort casino which is perhaps the region’s top tourism development in decades.

“We’ve definitely seen growth,” said Wydra, president of the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau (GSCVB), adding that the average daily room rate also rose by $3 over that time frame.

“The fact that we added inventory and we’re still able to grow rate and grow occupancy is a really good thing,” she noted. “In analyzing that, a lot of it is the MGM factor, and it’s conservative because MGM didn’t open until the end of August. We don’t even have a full year’s picture of them being fully operational, but in just those four months, it’s helped.

“And by charging a higher rate for their rooms,” she added, “it allows everyone else in the marketplace to go up a little bit, which from our perspective is really good because, before they got here, we weren’t moving that needle.”

“The fact that we added inventory and we’re still able to grow rate and grow occupancy is a really good thing. In analyzing that, a lot of it is the MGM factor, and it’s conservative because MGM didn’t open until the end of August. We don’t even have a full year’s picture of them being fully operational, but in just those four months, it’s helped.”

But MGM is just one factor in drawing visitors to the region and increasing demand for hotel rooms. In fact, the relationship between hotels, tourist attractions, convention business, leisure travel, and a host of economic benefits that follow in wake of all that is the result of a coordinated dance between the various players — a dance that has continues to pick up the tempo.

Go for the Juggler

Greater Springfield still runs slightly below the national average in hotel occupancy rate — 63.6%, to be exact, compared to 66.2% nationally. And it doesn’t compare to a city like Boston, which hovers around 79% occupancy.

“Remember, hotels serve the leisure traveler, conventions, bus tours, corporate travel, and also having businesses surrounding you. Boston has growth from the companies being built. It’s not all tourism. It’s business travel as well,” Wydra said. “There’s clearly corporate travel in our area too, probably not to the extent that a major city like Boston has. We’re more focused on other things: the conventions, the leisure, the bus tours, sports.”

The GSCVB has, indeed, seen an uptick in conventions in recent years, and believes MGM is just one more perk to draw in convention groups looking for a vibrant scene, which Western Mass. offers, especially during the summer.

The new Tru by Hilton in Chicopee

The new Tru by Hilton in Chicopee is one of several hotels that have recently opened in the region.

“You’ll see that with some of the national conventions we work with,” said Alicia Szenda, director of Sales for the GSVCB. “We’ve hosted the National Square Dance Convention, the International Jugglers Association … those events take place in the summer, and people participate in them not for their job, but for their leisure activities, their hobbies, so they look forward to that week every summer, and that’s their family vacation.

“So they’re here,” she went on, “and they’re participating in educational seminars and shows and the dancing or whatever it is, but they’re also going to Six Flags, they’re going to Yankee Candle, they’re going to the museums, and doing some sightseeing while they’re here. A lot of the conventions we work with build that social component into their event schedules, so people get to experience the area they’re in. So the more attractions we have, the more variety of hotels, the more attractive we are to different groups.”

And a dynamic hotel scene is, indeed, a key element, which is Wydra is happy to see new names on the scene and planned renovations as well, such as Tower Square Hotel’s plan to return the Marriott name to its complex.

“I think one of the good things about new properties coming into the market is it keeps everybody in a position of having to keep up,” she said. “You’ve got to be reinvesting in your property and making changes; it’s survival of the fittest.”

As part of her role in recruiting conventions to the region and guiding them through the process (more on that later), Szenda also works directly with hotels, asking them to quote rates and block off a certain inventory of rooms, sometimes three years out.

“What the hotels give back depends on where they’re located, what other business they have, and whether they want to roll the dice and let other hotels get the group business,” Wydra said. “They might say, ‘I don’t want that. I’m going to roll the dice and see if I get the leisure visitor.’ They can charge leisure travelers a higher rate — because Alicia’s going to beat them up and say, ‘I want the best rate I can get for my group.’”

Besides attractive hotel rates, the GSCVB might find local ties to entice a convention group, Wydra said, giving the hypothetical example of bringing in a convention of railroad hobby enthusiasts and trying to set up a tour of the CRRC rail-car manufacturing plant in Springfield. “We try to tie in local business with the groups that we have.”

Holding Hands

But there’s far more to the equation, Szenda noted.

“Some groups come to me and say, ‘this is everything I need.’ But a lot of groups I work with don’t have that. It might be their turn to host, and they’ve never planned a national convention before. I sit with them and go through everything they need. Then I send those leads out to our members. Depending on what they need for space, the lead could go to Eastern States, or the Mullins Center, or the MassMutual Center, all three.”

Then she gets to work finding the aforementioned local connections, setting up reasonably priced hotel options, and assembling tourism information about the region.

“Really, it’s the destination a lot of times that’s going to sell that piece of business,” Szenda said, “because you’re trying to convince that one person to bring thousands of people here. They have to make sure each person has something to do that interests them. And, once we win that piece of business, we continue to hold their hand through the process.”

“I think one of the good things about new properties coming into the market is it keeps everybody in a position of having to keep up.”

Part of that is a hospitality program that many similar-sized cities don’t offer, she said, which includes everything from airport pickups and hotel greeters to downtown maps and goodie bags.

“A lot of the business we get is repeat business because we’ve done a good job from the very beginning — meeting them, listening to what they need, giving them what they need, and holding their hand until the event occurs,” Wydra said. “And while the event occurs, we don’t disappear. Even with groups we’ve hosted for years, we never want to rest on our laurels and say, ‘well, we’ve got them.’ It’s a very competitive business, so we want them to know how much we appreciate they’ve selected Western Mass.”

And it’s not just repeat business from that convention group at stake, she added. Oftentimes family members tag along, extending the trip with some family time.

“You never know which of those participants might want to come back,” Szenda said. “They might belong to another association and want to bring a group here or come back with the family. A lot of people to do that.”

It’s always interesting to see what impresses event planners, Wydra said. Once, Springfield was competing with a city in New Hampshire, and when the group heard that welcome signs would be hung downtown, it was a game changer. The planner had previously walked the streets of unfamiliar downtowns, getting permission as she went to tape up handmade signs.

“She didn’t want to do that; she had a day job,” Wydra said. “The minute we take that out of their hands, make it easy, the results are often good for us.

“We work hard to get the groups, so at the very least we want to keep them,” she went on. “We want repeat business. Alicia loves when someone signs a multi-year contract, and we can count on them for years to come.”

What’s in a Name?

If Tower Square does bring back the Marriott name — and makes the upgrades required to do so — that will be another note of progress for the region’s expanding hotel scene, Wydra said.

“Brands are important,” she noted. “I think a brand kind of promises something, if the property does it right. People know what they’re going to get. They know they’re going to get a certain style room, they’re going to get a free breakfast, affinity programs, whatever it is they want.”

Greater Springfield is a brand of sorts, too, even though it can be a tough sell during the winter, which is why events like the recent AHL All-Star weekend are so desirable, driving room nights during a challenging time of the year for the hospitality industry.

But there’s still plenty of room for hotels to flourish, Szenda said, as evidenced by the challenge of cobbling together enough rooms when multiple conventions and event planners want to swoop in during the same weekend — typically between spring and fall.

“During the summer months, we do quite well on weekends, with Six Flags and other activities,” Wydra said. “It’s always midweek that we’re trying to find business, and especially in the winter.”

But a rising tourism brand, buoyed most recently by MGM Springfield — and increased convention volume, much of which promises to become repeat business — is certainly changing the demand picture for the better.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Economic Outlook

Right Place, Right Time

John Doleva shows off the Basketball Hall of Fame’s renovated theater, one of many improvements at the hall.

John Doleva shows off the Basketball Hall of Fame’s renovated theater, one of many improvements at the hall.

They call it the ‘need period.’

There are probably other names for it, but that’s how those at the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau (GSCVB) refer to the post-holiday winter stretch in this region.

And that phrase pretty much sums it up. Area tourist attractions and hospitality-related businesses are indeed needy at that time — far more than at any other season in this region. Traditionally, it’s a time to hold on and, if you’re a ski-related business, hope for snow or enough cold weather to make some.

But as the calendar prepares to change over to 2019 — and, yes, the needy season for many tourism-related businesses in the 413 — there is hope and optimism, at least much more than is the norm.

This needy season, MGM Springfield will be open, and five months into its work to refine and continuously improve its mix of products and services. And there will also be the American Hockey League (AHL) All-Star Game, coming to Springfield for the first time in a long time on Jan. 28 (actually, there is a whole weekend’s worth of activities). There will be a revamped Basketball Hall of Fame, a few new hotels, and some targeted marketing on the part of the GSCVB to let everyone know about everything going on in this area.

“The last half of 2018 has been great, and we’re very optimistic — our outlook for tourism is really positive for 2019. Certainly, MGM is a factor — it’s a huge factor, it’s a game changer — but it’s just part of the story.”

So maybe the need period won’t be quite as needy as it has been.

And if the outlook for the traditionally slow winter months is brighter, the same — and more — can be said for the year ahead, said Mary Kay Wydra, president of the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau, noting that expectations, based in large part on the last few quarters of 2018 and especially the results after MGM opened on Aug. 24, are quite high for the year ahead.

“The last half of 2018 has been great, and we’re very optimistic — our outlook for tourism is really positive for 2019,” she told BusinessWest. “Certainly, MGM is a factor — it’s a huge factor, it’s a game changer — but it’s just part of the story.”

Elaborating, she said MGM is helping to spur new development in this sector — one new hotel, a Holiday Inn Express, opened in downtown Springfield in 2018, and another, a Courtyard by Marriott, is set to open on Riverdale Street in West Springfield — while also filling more existing rooms and driving rates higher.

Indeed, occupancy rates in area hotels rose to 68.5% in October (the latest data available), up nearly 2% from that same month in 2017, and in August, they were up 5% (to 72.6%) over the year prior.

Meanwhile, room revenue was up 4.6% in October, from $113 a night on average in this region to $119 a night, and in August, it went up 7.2%.

And, as noted, MGM is just one of the reasons for optimism and a bright outlook in this sector, Wydra said. Others include the renovated hoop hall, yearly new additions at Six Flags, and the awesome drawing power of the Dr. Seuss museum on the Quadrangle.

An architect’s rendering of the renovated third-floor mezzanine at the Basketball Hall of Fame, which includes the tributes to the inductees.

An architect’s rendering of the renovated third-floor mezzanine at the Basketball Hall of Fame, which includes the tributes to the inductees.

For 2019, the outlook is for the needle to keep moving in the right direction, she said, noting that some new meetings and conventions have been booked (more on that later); Eastec, the massive manufacturing trade show, will be making its biennial pilgrimage to this region (specifically the Big E); the Babe Ruth World Series will again return to Westfield; and the AHL All-Star weekend will get things off to a solid start.

John Doleva, president of the Basketball Hall of Fame and a member of the executive board of the GSCVB, agreed.

“With MGM now in the marketplace and being active, there does appear to be a lift, much more of an excited spirit by those that are in the business,” he noted. “Everybody is saying that, at some level, their business is up, their interest in visitation is up — there is a general feeling of optimism.”

Getting a Bounce

Doleva told BusinessWest that MGM opened its doors toward the tail end of peak season for the hoop hall — the summer vacation months. Therefore, it’s too early to quantify the impact of the casino on attendance there.

But the expectations for the next peak season are quite high, he went on, adding that many MGM customers return several times, and the hope — and expectation — is that, on one or several of those return trips, guests will extend their visit far beyond the casino’s grounds.

“Once people return a few times, they’re going to be looking for other things to do,” he said. “I definitely feel a sense of excitement and anticipation, and I’m definitely looking forward to next summer when it’s the high-travel season, and really get a gauge for what the potential MGM crossover customer is.

“Conversely, there are probably individuals that would probably have the Hall of Fame on their list of things to do,” he went on, “and now that there’s more of a critical mass, with MGM right across the street, I think we rise up on their to-do list.”

But MGM’s arrival is only one reason for soaring expectations at the hall, said Doleva, adding that the facility is in the middle of an ambitious renovation project that is already yielding dividends.

Indeed, phase one of the project included an extensive makeover of the lobby area and the hall’s theater, and those steps have helped inspire a significant increase in bookings for meetings and events.

Mary Kay Wydra says 2019 is shaping up as a very solid year for the region’s tourism industry.

Mary Kay Wydra says 2019 is shaping up as a very solid year for the region’s tourism industry.

“Our renovations have led to a great number of facility rentals for events that are happening in our theater, our new lobby, and Center Court,” he said, adding that the hall was averaging 175 rentals a year, and will log close to 240 for 2018. “Before, the theater wasn’t a hidden gem, it was just hidden; it was like a junior-high-school auditorium — it was dark, it was gray, it had no life. Now, it’s a great place to have a meeting or presentation like a product launch.”

Phase 2 of the project, which includes a renovation of the third-floor mezzanine, where the Hall of Fame plaques are, and considerable work on the roof of the sphere, will commence “any minute now,” said Doleva, adding that the work should improve visitation numbers, but, even more importantly, revenue and profitability.

The improved numbers for the hall — and the optimism there concerning the year ahead — are a microcosm of the broader tourism sector, said Wydra, adding that a number of collaborating factors point toward what could be a special year — and a solid long-term outlook.

It starts with the All-Star Game. The game itself is on a Monday night, but there is a whole weekend’s worth of activities planned, including the ‘classic skills competition’ the night before.

“Even with the average daily rate going up and occupancy growing, we still have that need period — which is true for all of Massachusetts,” she noted. “When you have an event like the All-Star Game in January, that really helps the hotels and restaurants.”

Additional momentum is expected in May with the arrival of EASTEC, considered to be New England’s premier manufacturing exposition. The three-day event drew more than 13,000 attendees last year, many of whom patronized area restaurants and clubs, said Wydra, adding that MGM Springfield only adds to the list of entertainment and hospitality options for attendees.

The Babe Ruth World Series is another solid addition to the year’s lineup, she noted, adding that the teams coming into the area, and their parents, frequent a number of area attractions catering to families.

Analysts say MGM Springfield has a far-reaching impact on the region’s tourism sector, including higher occupancy rates at area hotels and higher room rates.

Analysts say MGM Springfield has a far-reaching impact on the region’s tourism sector, including higher occupancy rates at area hotels and higher room rates.

Meanwhile, the region continues to attract a diverse portfolio of meetings and conventions, said Alicia Szenda, director of sales for the GSCVB, adding that MGM Springfield provides another attractive selling point for the 413, which can already boast a host of amenities, accessibility, and affordable hotel rates.

In June, the National Assoc. of Watch and Clock Collectors will stage its 75th annual national convention at the Big E, she said, an event that is expected to bring 2,000 people to the region. And later in the summer, the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts will bring more than 900 people to downtown Springfield.

Those attending these conventions and the many others slated during the year now have a growing list of things to do in this region, said Wydra, who mentioned MGM, obviously, but also the revamped Hall of Fame; Six Flags, which continues to add new attractions yearly (a Cyborg ride is on tap for 2019); and the Dr. Seuss museum, which is drawing people from across the country and around the world.

“The Seuss factor is huge,” said Wydra. “It’s a big reason why visitation is up in this region. Seuss is a recognizable brand, and the museum delivers on the brand, and they keep reinventing that product.”

Staying Power

This ‘Seuss factor’ is just one of a number of powerful forces coming together to bring the outlook for tourism in this region to perhaps the highest plane it’s seen.

Pieces of the puzzle continue to fall into place, and together, they point to Western Mass. becoming a true destination.

As noted, even the ‘need period’ is looking less needy. The rest of the year? The sky’s the limit.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]