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Going All In

Convention & Visitors Bureau Sees Regional Potential in Casino

Mary Kay Wydra

Mary Kay Wydra says a casino will draw people to downtown Springfield, but will also boost tourism across the entire region.

Mary Kay Wydra says she understands how some tourism-based businesses might not like the idea of a major casino company setting up shop in downtown Springfield.

“We have 260 members, and not all of them are for it,” said Wydra, president of the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau (GSCVB). “Big brands like Six Flags and Yankee Candle are very much for it, but among the smaller businesses, many of them remain concerned about what a casino will do to business.”

However, well before MGM Resorts International staked its claim with the only viable, community-supported casino proposal remaining in Western Mass., Wydra and her bureau were enthusiastically on board, choosing to focus on what MGM could do for the region’s tourism, convention, and entertainment industry, not to it.

“The Convention & Visitors Bureau has been looking at the whole gaming issue for years, watching it and seeing how things would unfold, and we were really proactive in making sure that any of the applicants being considered for Western Mass. were willing to work collaboratively with the bureau,” she told BusinessWest. “We’re thrilled that MGM is the last man standing, if you will, because we see the value of their brand coming into our region.”

The two parties recently formalized this sense of optimism by entering into a marketing partnership. Essentially, both the GSCVB and MGM Springfield have hammered out a written agreement aimed at bolstering tourism-related businesses across the Pioneer Valley.

“This is an incredibly exciting time for tourism in the Pioneer Valley,” Wydra said. “A partner with the brand recognition and resources of MGM can really help change the landscape when it comes to tourism promotion in our region. We’re delighted to have them as partners; the MGM team has been extremely professional and clearly dedicated to establishing a working relationship that is mutually beneficial. It’s going to be a powerful, productive partnership, and we’re eager to get started.”

Mike Mathis, president of MGM Springfield, was equally enthusiastic. “This is an organic partnership between entities that understand each other,” he noted. “The GSCVB drives tourism throughout the Pioneer Valley, and MGM Springfield is primed to be an anchor attraction in the region’s urban core.”

While it’s not a done deal — the state Gaming Commission is expected to approve MGM’s license this month, but casino opponents are waging a fight to overturn the state’s casino law in a November referendum — the probability of a Springfield casino has Wydra and her team excited, and MGM’s willingness to establish a partnership with the bureau is just another positive development.

Inside Out

Early in the game, the GSCVB reached out to all four casino developers that proposed detailed projects in Western Mass. However, a proposal by Penn National Gaming for Springfield’s North End died when Mayor Domenic Sarno backed MGM’s South End development, and Hard Rock International’s West Springfield proposal and Mohegan Sun’s plan for a Palmer casino were both killed in voter referendums last fall.

Wydra said she was delighted that MGM was the sole remaining player, due partly to its basic concept, which has been referred to as an ‘inside-out’ or ‘outward-facing’ casino.

Mike Mathis

Mike Mathis says MGM’s marketing partnership with the GSCVB makes sense because they share a goal of drawing visitors to the region.

As Mathis has described it countless times, a traditional casino has a couple of points of entry, and the operation is heavily driven by gaming, with other amenities, like entertainment, dining, and retail, typically buried within the facility, forcing the traffic through the casinos to get to those amenities.

The Springfield model — a smaller version of MGM’s successful City Center flagship property in Las Vegas, which is especially popular with families — puts the amenities around the gaming floor, with multiple points of entry, and will tie in neighboring venues like Symphony Hall and the MassMutual Center, so that casino visitors can enjoy the restaurants and entertainment without having to enter the actual gaming hall.

“What we like about the MGM product is that inside-out casino, and we like their brand,” Wydra said, even though she needed to learn about it first. “When I first heard MGM was coming into the market, I didn’t know they were a casino company. I thought they were an entertainment company.”

The more she learned, the more intrigued she was, and she preferred a Springfield location to a casino in Palmer. “The fact that it’s right in the heart of our service area is very appealing,” she said. “Palmer is a bit more removed and more of a trek to get there.”

But a Springfield-based casino, even one that actively tries to connect with its downtown community, isn’t an end in itself, she told BusinessWest, which is why the bureau forged a marketing agreement with MGM, in an effort to raise all boats in the local tourism industry. Included in that agreement are:

• Cross-promotion. MGM has committed to marketing efforts coordinated through the GSCVB that will identify and promote other Pioneer Valley tourism entities via on-site signage, exposure on social media, newsletter mentions, reciprocal home-page web links, and more.

“Honestly, we see a casino coming here as a way to extend people’s stay,” Wydra said. “If they’re coming for two or three days, maybe they can stay three or four, and see other things the area has to offer.”

• Additional circulation of a visitor guide. MGM will undertake the costs of printing thousands of additional copies of the bureau-produced Guide to the Pioneer Valley for placement in its hotel rooms, concierge desks, and other key locations.

“It’s a 110-page publication that lists other attractions, hotels, restaurants, and a calendar of events,” she said. “So we’ll be working with them to let their visitors know what else there is to do.”

• Enhanced marketing efforts. MGM has agreed to provide resources dedicated to promoting Springfield and the overall region through active participation on ‘TEAM Springfield,’ a cooperative convention-sales effort with the MassMutual Center.

“We meet every two to three weeks, trying to get meetings and conventions to come into the region,” Wydra explained. “I really see a tremendous benefit to bringing MGM into that equation. They dominate the convention market in Vegas; they’re attracting national conventions there based on the infrastructure they have.” Ideally, she added, TEAM Springfield could tap into that database and connect with the New England or northeast affiliates of those organizations.

Just the Start

In short, Wydra said, “we see great opportunity to co-promote and leverage their brand and marketing assets to benefit the Pioneer Valley’s entire hospitality industry, especially our many small businesses.”

Handled correctly, she added, the region should see an influx of new visitors, who will come here to do more than just gamble. And all four of the bureau’s areas of emphasis — leisure, conventions, tour operators, and sports — could share that benefit.

Take tour groups, for example. “Casinos are ideal for the group tour market, so we’re very confident we can sell MGM to that market.” As for sports, casinos often host billiards and darts tournaments, boxing matches, and other competitions.

The partnership agreement — which was hatched out in a series of meetings between MGM Springfield officials and the GSCVB’s gaming subcommittee — will take effect one year prior to the casino’s formal opening, and lays out only the bare bones of marketing possibilities, said Wydra, who said the parties will also consider some kind of regional shuttle service between attractions if they see potential in such an effort.

“Really, the agreement we put in place is the minimum,” she told BusinessWest. “As we start working together and determine the demand and demographics coming in, new opportunities will unfold.”

Some of those opportunities may be difficult to predict now; dropping an $800 million development onto 14.5 acres in downtown Springfield will certainly open some unexpected doors. And Wydra is confident that the entire Pioneer Valley will benefit from opening them.

“From the meetings I’ve had with them, I know they’re savvy professionals and dedicated people, and we’re looking forward to having the opportunity to work closely with them,” she said.

While it’s natural for some tourism businesses to be anxious about the project, she said, the bureau has long looked at it simply as a new attraction — albeit a significant one. She sees MGM as much more than that now, thanks to its cross-promotion potential and national convention clout.

“A lot of people, when this thing didn’t move through the Statehouse quickly, got negative about it,” she added. “But I think the legislators did a great job creating the legislation, and this will work for all businesses in the region, encouraging the casinos to have deals with other entertainment venues.”

Those connections are critical, Wydra said, if a region wants a casino to be a regional tourism engine, and not just a gaming island to itself.

“I presented at a Mass. Gaming Commission meeting when there were still three applicants in the Western Mass. area,” she said. “While all that was getting figured out — the host community agreements, the referendum questions — we were also talking to the Gaming Commission make sure tourism was a priority when they were evaluating all the proposals.”

Even then, she liked what she was hearing from MGM. “We know tourism is important to this developer. And we really do believe they’re going to reach into the community and the whole region.”

Joseph Bednar may be reached at bednar@businesswest.com

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