Tour de Force

’Mary Kay Wydra calls herself the Valley’s biggest cheerleader. That’s an oversimplification of her duties as President of the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, but still, the title fits. And while she works to sell the region to travelers, she’s also recruiting residents to root for the home team.

H For Mary Kay Wydra, the Pioneer Valley is home. But it is also her workplace, her passion — and her product.

She’s been selling that product for more than 15 years as part of the team at the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau (GSCVB), which she now directs.

Wydra has dubbed herself the definitive cheerleader for Western Mass., though that may be an oversimplification of her day-to-day duties. Responsible for promoting the Pioneer Valley as a year-round destination for everyone from large-scale corporate groups seeking convention and meeting spots to tour groups in search of new sites to visit, not to mention the casual day-tripper, Wydra and her staff must constantly find new ways to market the region as fun, exciting, historic, educational, accessible, and affordable, all on a shoe-string budget.

There are many challenges that come with that assignment, some that are relative to the broad tourism industry, such as seasonal slowdowns and intense competition for tourism and convention dollars.

Others, though, are hurdles specific to Greater Springfield. For starters, there’s the perception that the region is primarily an ëideal pit stop’ for refueling, grabbing a quick bite, and moving on. There’s also the perception that the Valley is too far away (from anywhere) and has little to offer.

Those elements, coupled with the present need to triumph over negative headlines regarding crime, poverty, and fiscal duress, would complicate any cheerleader’s job. To overcome those obstacles, Wydra and her staff are composing a multi-faceted strategy for not only selling the region, but building momentum within it.

BusinessWest looks this month at the components in that strategy, which includes recruiting new players and inspiring the home team.

The Laws of Attraction

Wydra, a Westfield native, has worn many hats at the bureau. She started there in 1988 as a secretary after graduating from Springfield College with a degree in business and a minor in psychology. She later left to pursue a job in public affairs with Big Y.

Soon, though, Wydra came to the realization that tourism was her calling.

"I really missed my industry," she said. So, after 15 months away from the convention and visitors bureau, she returned, this time to stay, rising up the ranks to assume her current position in January, 2001.

The date is notable — just eight months later, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 brought the nation to a standstill and the travel industry into a prolonged tailspin. Tourist destinations of all kinds suffered, she said, but major metropolitan areas were especially hard hit.

"People were fearful of traveling to large cities for a long time," she said. "Because of that, more people took notice of our major attractions, and they began to realize that we were a varied, interesting, and accessible place to visit."

So in some ways, 9/11 actually created opportunities for the Pioneer Valley, she said, a situation augmented by the addition of several new attractions; the fact that hotel occupancy rates in the Pioneer Valley have exceeded the state-wide numbers for the past several years are proof of that.

Wydra said steady, improving tourism numbers are the result of a set of marketing and community-based initiatives, designed specifically to keep the Pioneer Valley on the map.

Her approach takes into account both those people unfamiliar with the region and those who live and work here, and is heavily weighted toward positive public relations — an important facet of the bureau’s operations and a key component to putting Greater Springfield’s best face forward.

It’s also one of Wydra’s professional strengths. She handled much of the bureau’s marketing efforts prior to accepting the president’s post, and displays many successful print campaigns of years past in her Main Street, Springfield office.

The current campaign uses materials that showcase the Pioneer Valley to outsiders, including businesses and organizations that may want to hold conventions and meetings in the area, tour groups, and individual travelers, all with a family feel and all underscoring the expansive nature of the region, Wydra explained.

Of course, there is a strong emphasis on major attractions — Six Flags in Agawam, Springfield’s new Basketball Hall of Fame, and the Yankee Candle flagship store in South Deerfield among them. The rise in leisure travelers that began in 2002 can also be attributed to the simultaneous addition of four new attractions — the new Hall, the Dr. Seuss Memorial Sculpture Garden at Springfield Quadrangle, the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, and the Superman — Ride of Steel roller coaster at Six Flags.

"We really pushed the fact that we had four new attractions being added all at the same time, " she said, "and that helped us get the word out about the Pioneer Valley in general."

It also added to the progress being made in the cross-promotion of events and attractions within the three counties that make up the Pioneer Valley, one of the aspects of her job that Wydra finds most gratifying.

Weekend Warriors

"The great progress we’re seeing among people identifying themselves as part of the entire region and not a specific county or town is wonderful," she told BusinessWest. "We are united by a highway and a river, and can offer so many different types of experiences. You can start a trip in a city and experience the urban flavor of the region. Then, you can go a little further west and visit some of the more funky, artsy places like Northampton; go a little further still and you’re in the heart of a beautiful, bucolic area … I think people realize the value of that."

Another phenomenon Wydra has noticed is the evolution of the region’s tourism sector, from what was largely an afterthought in an area dominated by manufacturing, to one of the fastest growing segments of the area’s economy.

She said the tourism industry has created a number of jobs locally, and has spawned the creation or expansion of hospitality management programs at UMass, American International College, and Holyoke Community College.

"Years ago, people found travel and tourism information in the leisure section of the daily newspaper," she said. "That is no longer true. Now, the things we are doing are on the front of the business section. We need to continue to cultivate that to benefit the Valley."

At the same time, area residents need to take a measure of ownership in the region’s tourism sector by becoming part of cheerleading squad, Wydra added. This includes providing recommendations, directions, or travel advice to visitors, while encouraging families and groups exploring convention sites to consider the Pioneer Valley.

In short, Wydra wants to create a greater sense of pride in the region.

She’s doing so through several initiatives, including the Pioneer Valley Pride program, which in part will enlist local individuals to promote Greater Springfield as a possible convention location for regional or national associations they may belong to. Meanwhile, the GSCVB continues to promote the decade-old Howdy Awards, given to residents who work in the hospitality industry annually, to recognize exemplary service.

"These individuals are often overlooked, but they are the people who are giving directions, checking people into hotels, and serving their food," she said.

This year, to augment the program, she has added a wrinkle to the Howdy tradition — ëHowdy U’ — that will take shape in June. The program, designed to give those in the hospitality business a crash course in Pioneer Valley tourism, was developed in part to create career ladder opportunities for people in the service industry, as well as to decrease the high turnover levels that are common to hospitality and tourism-related jobs nationwide.

The two-day course, to be held at Western New England College, will first provide its students with information regarding broad skills such as dealing with angry customers, and later, region-specific information.

"We want people to be knowledgeable about the region — to know about attractions like our museums, live theater, and symphony, and how to direct people to them," she said.

The second day, Howdy U participants will be loaded onto a bus and shuttled around the Pioneer Valley on a guided tour of both visible and hidden gems, in order to develop a working knowledge of their proximity to one another.

"That will allow them to tell people how close different attractions are to one another and help them suggest possible itineraries," she explained.

Howdy U graduates will also be able to illustrate the variety of attractions that exists in the region, which Wydra sees as one of its best assets.

"It’s a big selling point," she said, pointing out that in addition to specific attractions such as the Yankee Candle flagship store or seasonal events like Bright Nights and the Big E, the bureau frequently promotes ëhub and spoke trips’ that allow tourists to stay overnight in one location, but branch out on any number of day trips in surrounding towns and cities.

"We like to point out that there are so many attractions within minutes of each other, that it’s very easy to pick a hotel or a bed and breakfast in one city or town, but experience the entire Valley in a matter of days," she explained. "Overall, we try to pitch the Pioneer Valley as a package. All of these partnerships enhance the work we do, and help us expose what the Valley has to offer."

In addition, Wydra is focusing on attracting new populations to the area, including an increased number of bus tour groups and student travelers, of both high school and college age. The bureau also continues to market heavily to potential convention customers, and is poised to capitalize on the opening of the new MassMutual Convention Center, being built on the Springfield Civic Center site, slated to open in September of this year.

Its very construction is adding to the Pioneer Valley Pride Program, Wydra noted. "People are watching it go up and they’re starting to get excited about what it means for Springfield."

With or without major projects like the new convention center aiding the marketing efforts of the bureau, though, it always maintains a strong concentration on its three major customers — meeting planners, tour operators, and leisure visitors — and has stepped up its collaborative efforts with business partners across the Valley, including some unconventional partners such as area hospitals and banks. The partnerships reflect both the unique and close-knit nature of the region, Wydra said, as well as the growing importance of tourism initiatives to the region’s fiscal picture.

"There needs to be a concerted effort to bring commerce into the region," she said. "It’s important to everyone, and as more people are exposed to what the Valley has to offer, more people will ultimately take advantage of all of our services."

A-list Possibilities

With so many different variables to monitor, Wydra said measuring success has become a detailed process. The occupancy rates at area hotels are constantly monitored, as are the number of bus tours arriving in the Valley and what types of people are aboard. Attendance at major events and attractions is also compared to the previous year’s, down to the last child to pass through the Big E gates, or the last car to exit the Bright Nights tour.

All that data is proof of what Greater Springfield’s improving allure to travelers, Wydra said, thanks to home team hustle.

"The Pioneer Valley has become a destination due to a lot of hard work by a lot of people. My job is to be enthusiastic for the region — which in and of itself is not hard, because I believe in it, I love it, and it is home to me."

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]