Opinion

When It Comes to Conventions, Waiting Is Part of the Game

There’s one overriding positive regarding the role conventions play in the health and well-being of a given city or region: volume.

Tourism and hospitality are relatively robust sectors in Western Mass.; there are several attractions across the region with a national pull, including the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Historic Deerfield, the college towns of Amherst and Northampton, and virtually the entirety of Berkshire County. However, the contributions of convention business to the area’s visibility are often overlooked, or not seen to be as newsworthy as a boost in foot traffic among leisure travelers.

But the proof of the convention industry’s effect, or potential effect, on Western Mass. is in the numbers; convince one tourist to vacation in Western Mass., and they may bring along their family or a few friends. Convince one meeting planner, and they bring along hundreds, maybe thousands, and sometimes return several times.

It’s in this vein that conventions can help restore and strengthen the region’s economy, particularly in Springfield, where the area’s largest convention facility, the MassMutual Center, is located. Put simply, conventions offer a much bigger bang for the buck in terms of tourism and hospitality activity.

And while the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau casts a wide net when wooing possible visitors to the City of Homes, welcoming virtually any type of conference (and there’s a conference for everything), there are also some key formulas it adheres to.

For one, the GSCVB is working to identify events that will offer the greatest return of dollars to Western Mass. — through bookings as well as hotel stays, restaurant visits, and other entertainment options, such as athletic competitions. They also pay attention to some industry rubrics that measure overall success, based on the size and type of an event as well as the size of the venue and its hometown. These are doubly important because the Mass. Convention Center Authority (MCCA), arguably one of the most successful such bodies in the nation and owner of the MassMutual Center, pays close attention to the statistics, too.

And the GSCVB is turning some of its efforts inward, in part through the Pioneer Valley Pride program that charges area residents with identifying potential convention guests through their own professional, civic, and community affiliations. This is an effort not only to increase local confidence in the MassMutual Center’s future, but also to better reflect the needs of the region. For example, health care-related events could indirectly address the ongoing nursing shortage, or life sciences conferences could have an impact on extending the Commonwealth’s so-called life sciences supercluster farther west.

Another overlooked aspect of convention business, though, is the time it takes to get into the loop of national meeting planners and major organizations that routinely hold gatherings. The MassMutual Center reopened its doors as an expanded, renovated MCCA property two and a half years ago, and GSCVB president Mary Kay Wydra estimates that it takes at least three years to truly enter the rotation. That reality, compounded by the fact that the former Springfield Civic Center was effectively offline during construction and a change in ownership, means the center could have a few more quiet months before activity starts to ramp up.

For those who may have seen the new convention center as a panacea for Springfield, or, conversely, those who’ve long been skeptical of the center’s ability to help turn things around for the better, these hallmarks of the industry are important to note and understand. As they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it will take time for this city’s convention business to jell, as well.

Perhaps the Field of Dreams adage, “if you build it, they will come,” should be modified, too, to read, “if you build it, they will come … eventually.”

Just be patient. Wooing one person to the region for a weekend getaway is a success, but attracting thousands a few years out is worth the wait.

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