Beyond convention

Beyond convention

The countdown is on.

There are about 10 months, or 300 days, until the opening of the new MassMutual Center in Springfield, a long-awaited convention and meeting facility that will usher in a new era in the Pioneer Valley’s tourism industry.

Area tourism officials will make the most of the time between now and then to promote the facility and make meeting and event planners fully aware of its many benefits. They face stiff competition from their counterparts in Boston, Worcester, and especially Hartford, but they believe the combination of the convention center and the Valley that surrounds it will present an attractive package.

“We’re not just selling a building; we’re selling a region,” said Mary Kay Wydra, director of the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau (GSCVB). She told BusinessWest that the planned September opening of the MassMutual center will be the main event for the tourism sector in 2005, during which the local hospitality industry will look to improve on a year that was solid but not spectacular.

Indeed, while the region’s hospitality sector was certainly helped by the U.S. Women’s Open last June – which drew record crowds to the Orchards in South Hadley and introduced thousands of people to the Pioneer Valley – and occupancy rates for area hotels remain above the state average, there is room for improvement, said Wydra.

She told BusinessWest that business travel, especially, has not returned to pre9/11 levels – and may never do so – and that many forms of travel remain sluggish.

The MassMutual Center is an important addition, she said, because it allows the region to tap into new audiences while providing more opportunities for existing ones.

Several dates have been tentatively booked already, said MassMutual Center General Manager Stuart Hurwitz, who noted, as Wydra did, that the facility will be much easier to sell when meeting planners can actually tour the center rather than merely look at images on a brochure or Web site.

“Right now, we’re still very much a construction site,” he said, adding that he will be able to offer full tours of the facilities starting in mid-January. “When people see this building, they’re going to get excited; already, people coming to Falcons games and other events are looking around and saying, ‘wow!”‘

Staying Power

‘Objects are definitely larger than they appear.’

That’s the tag line attached to one marketing piece – a post card that features an artist’s rendering of the MassMutual Center in a car’s rear-view mirror – that has been sent to meeting and event planners. But in addition to the facility’s size, promoters will also he stressing its versatility.

The MMC, as it’s called, will feature a 40,000-square-foot exhibition hall, a 15,000-square-foot ballroom, and 9,000 square feet of meeting rooms. Under the same roof is a completely renovated 6,677-seat arena, an amenity that should give the center and the region an edge in the competition against other convention facilities.

“The arena gives us something that most other cities don’t have,” said Wydra. “It enables us to attract some events that other venues can’t.”

That kind of versatility will help the region in what will be spirited competition for meeting and convention dollars, said Wydra, noting that Boston recently completed its massive new convention center, Worcester and Lowell are certainly in the mix, and Hartford will be opening a 150,000-square-foot facility a few months before the MMC is christened.

“Hartford is being very aggressive, and it has more to sell than we do,” she said, referring to the size of the convention facility and number of meeting rooms. “But between the MassMutual Center and all this region has to offer, we have an attractive package.”

To promote that package, the GSCVB will employ a number of strategies, from print media to the Internet and so-called ‘electronic post cards’ to tours of the MMC and other regional facilities.

The GCSVB and member organizations will be hosting an event for meeting planners next June, for example, said Wydra, noting that the MMC will be nearing completion by that date and attendees can get a hard-hat tour.

“What I like about events like this is that gets our members working together,” she explained. “And I think that sets us apart from other regions; theres a lot of synergy – these people understand that if they work together, they all stand to gain more business.”

Hurwitz said there are a number of verbal commitments for dates at the MMC beginning late next September and that formal contracts for many should be inked in the weeks and months ahead. He said there has been a good deal of interest expressed in the arena – which features new seats, a new lounge area, a club room, and other improvements – for events ranging from concerts to circuses to family shows.

As for the banquet facility and meeting rooms, he expects the MMC to become a lead player in the local market for weddings, parties, and other special events. The second-level banquet hall, which can seat 1,000, has a glass front and offers sweeping views of downtown Springfield. “It’s going to be great room … people are going to want to be there.”

While construction of the MMC continues, area tourism officials are working to make it easier for people to find the Pioneer Valley and to book events and hotel rooms here.

One initiative, said Wydra. is to create an online booking system, one that will enable individuals to visit the GSCVBs Web site – valleyvisitor.com – and not only review hotels and get rates, but actually book a room.

Using a system called DOORS (Direct Online Reservation Service), the GSCVB, working in conjunction with participating hotels, can take browsers into those facilities’ reservation systems – in the same way that Orbitz or Expedia.com might but without a charge for the service.

Meanwhile, area attractions are working together to promote the region to a number of constituencies and for a variety of reasons. For example, there will be hard push on for group tours, especially student youth travel.

“We’ve identified youth travel as something this region wants to be known for we welcome student travel,” said Wydra, noting that to attract this audience, a region must offer learning opportunities, not merely fun. “You have to show that there’s an educational component to your itinerary.

“This has made some of our attractions think outside the box,” she continued. “They have some interesting itineraries worked up – they call it the ‘student youth curriculum.’ You can go to the Basketball Hall of Fame and learn about that sport, but you can also get a math lesson; you can go to Six Flags and learn about physics and how the roller coaster stays on the track.”

Another, even more specific target audience will be youth sports leagues and tournaments, she said, noting that this region has both a rich sports history and a variety of venues for events.

“Youth travel has become big business,” she said. “When ‘John’ or ‘Mary’ travel for that big tournament, mom, dad, and grandma usually go with them; there are opportunities there.”

Meeting Expectations

Hurwitz told BusinessWest that as area residents and business owners watch the MMC take shape, there is great anticipation about what the facility will mean for downtown Springfield and the region’s tourism sector as a whole.

He is naturally optimistic that the center will play a key role in the continued growth of that industry and that it will help draw new different constituencies to the Pioneer Valley.

Time will tell if that optimism is warranted, but, for now, the region’s attempts to take its hospitality infrastructure beyond convention look very promising.

Copyright BusinessWest Dec 01, 2004

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