View to the Future
Pioneer Valley Hospitality Group Adds Springfield Landmark to Its Portfolio
Shardool Parmar calls it a “fixer-upper — of sorts.”
That’s how he described what is now known as the City Place Inn & Suites — formerly named the Inn Place, and known throughout most of its existence as a Holiday Inn — on Dwight Street in Springfield. That qualifier “of sorts” was used to convey his opinion that the 12-story, 242-room landmark needs some work, “but the fixes are small ones.”
And many of them don’t involve a hammer, nails, paint, or wallpaper, he continued, noting that, overall, the building is in solid shape. Instead, they fall into the category of image repair and awareness-building.
“Many people don’t know this place still exists,” said Parmar, president of the Pioneer Valley Hospitality Group, the family-owned entity started by his father, Laxman, that now owns and manages four hotels in the region. He noted that, when the Dwight Street facility lost its Holiday Inn nameplate a year or so ago and became the Inn Place, it remained open, but lost a good deal of its presence within the market as an attractive, lower-cost alternative to the downtown Springfield hotels and others in the region.
The PVHG, as it’s called, is committed to gaining that standing back.
And Parmar says that process starts by simply going back to the basics of good service, something lost under previous ownership as its fiscal challenges mounted.
“Springfield has some great hotels that are on the higher end,” he explained. “Our goal is to provide quality service that won’t break the bank. This hotel has always had a lot going for it, but in recent years, it was simply not managed well.”
City Place Inn and Suites, which became part of the PVHG in late June, is now the largest property in the group’s portfolio — actually, it has more rooms than the other three, the Hampton Inn and Comfort Inn in Hadley and a Comfort Inn and Suites in Ludlow, combined — and represents a valuable addition, said Parmar.
It gives the group a presence in Springfield, something it hasn’t had since it sold the Howard Johnson’s on Boston Road, which it operated for nearly 20 years, he explained, adding that its location near the Turnpike, I-91, and I-291 makes it both accessible and visible. Meanwhile, the combination of location and lower price point has historically made the hotel a popular alternative for overflow from the downtown Springfield hotels and Hampshire County as well.
“Historically, this hotel has always done well,” said Parmar, noting that, until very recently, it enjoyed occupancy rates at or above 50%. “This is a great location; it’s situated so that you can quickly get north or south. The access is very good.”
Room for Improvement
As he talked about his family’s latest acquisition and what happens next for the PVHG, Parmar first went back in time. He opened his desk drawer and took out a brochure for the Holiday Inn that was about 40 years old.
Back then, and for several years thereafter, the facility’s main claim to fame was a revolving restaurant on the top floor, which offered stunning views of a downtown that had but one real office tower (Baystate West, as it was called then), as well as a North Blocks neighborhood just coming together after the building of Route 291.
The restaurant, now aptly named Panorama, remains a permanent fixture — literally and figuratively (it no longer spins) — but its look, and most other aspects of the hotel, have changed over four decades.
Over the past few years, the facility faded into near-obscurity as it lost the Holiday Inn flag and ownership let some aspects of service and infrastructure slide. Eventually, the hotel was lost to mortgage foreclosure. A broker was hired to sell the property, and the PVHG was among the many parties asked to give it a look.
But initially, the group had little interest in the hotel, said Parmar, adding that it was focusing most of its time and energy on plans to build a $15 million Hilton Garden Inn near Pulaski Park in Northampton. However, when that project was scuttled after PVHG failed to secure a needed $12 million bond, the group turned its attention to the landmark on Dwight Street.
What it saw was a hotel that was somewhat tired and had seen much better days, said Parmar, but one the family believed could make a full recovery from what was ailing it. In other words, the property represented the kind of challenge that the PVHG likes to take on.
“We’re always looking to find new opportunities that represent challenges,” he said, noting that both he and his father are engineers by trade and enjoy problem solving. “We figure that, if something’s easy, someone else is already doing it. We like taking on challenges and creating value.”
In the case of the former Holiday Inn, acquired by the PVHG for $2.5 million, the main challenges are bringing a higher level of quality to the service and building awareness of the facility and the fact that it is under new and better management.
“This business is fairly simple,” said Parmar, addressing the service issue first. “People’s expectations are very clear — they want a certain level of cleanliness, they expect all the lights to go on and the air conditioning and television to work properly. Our job is simply to make sure these expectations are met.”
As for awareness-building, some of it will come through word-of-mouth referrals from satisfied customers, he said, adding that he plans to do a lot of “face-to-face” work himself and get in front of the various constituencies he serves, especially the business community.
Meanwhile, there has been some infrastructure work undertaken, and more is planned, said Parmar. He noted that, in addition to considerable painting, wallpapering, and deep cleaning, hundreds of lightbulbs have been replaced with more energy-efficient units, and a poor chemical mix in the large indoor pool has been rectified.
“When we first started here, you couldn’t even see the bottom — now you can,” he said, adding that this new-found clarity has revealed a clear need to repaint the facility, a project to be undertaken down the road.
Overall, the hotel and its guest rooms are in generally good condition, he told BusinessWest, noting that significant renovations were undertaken three years ago, and that such initiatives usually have a shelf life of about a decade.
The challenge ahead, then, is to convince potential customers that the hotel that all but dropped from sight is still a viable player in the market, and to get that message out soon, with the Big E arriving in a month, ushering in the region’s busiest season for tourism.
Looking ahead, Parmar said he’s not sure when or if the PVHG will try to gain a prominent brand, like Holiday Inn, for the hotel, or remain independent.
There are significant costs attached to becoming part of one of the major chains, he explained, adding that one can certainly debate whether the resulting benefits justify those costs.
Meanwhile, he’s focused on the name currently on the property — City Place Inn and Suites — and making it a prominent part of the local hospitality sector. Meeting that goal will be a challenge, but, as he said, this family likes challenges.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]