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Rebecca Green | SBJ

A Conversation With ... Mark Hecquet

President/CEO, Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau Inc.

Posted online

A report from the CVB shows Springfield hotel occupancy was 54.9% from January to April, down 4.7% compared with the same time last year. Across the state and overall nationally, those rates are up. But the occupancy rate did go down just over a percent in April nationwide. What do you make of the Springfield numbers seeing a decrease?
It is reflective of what is really going on nationally with travel in sort of a strange time. There’s a lot of things going on in the world that impact travel. There’s uncertainty with the economy. Occupancy rates are a little bit down, but the cost to stay in a hotel continues to rise, average daily rates. That’s why we’re kind of seeing this challenge with occupancy because rates are going up. As far as Springfield as a market, it’s holding its own. Last year was a record year for the hospitality market, and we’re matching revenuewise what it was last year.

Group business is expected to bring in almost $8 million this summer with 50,000 people. Your predecessor, Tracy Kimberlin, had a lot to say about group business opportunities and tough words for University Plaza’s hotel rooms and meeting spaces. What are your thoughts on how we’re managing group business, and what are the conversations and opportunities with convention center owner Atrium and the CVB and the city on the University Plaza facility?
Group business – as far as CVB is concerned, our sales team’s holding our own. Dana [Maugans] and her team are doing what they intend, and that is to put Springfield on the map as a potential meeting destination. Now, that market has changed since the pandemic; things have changed with hybrid meetings. Business travel is not all the way back, and it’s not scheduled to be back fully for another two or three years. [Regarding] Atrium and convention centers, you’re right. Some things were said. But we view University Plaza as a partner, and our team is out there doing as best we can. We want that place to be busy. I haven’t had any conversations with Atrium myself, but I’ve had lots of conversations in the community about what is the feeling on a convention center or a larger meeting space. The general feeling I’ve got is yes. And then in my six months, I have spent a lot of time talking to our sales teams – where are the opportunities? Are we losing more business than if we had a bigger space? And ordinarily the answer is yes. For a city of this size not to have a large convention center, civic center, multiuse venue is something I think needs to be addressed soon. I think it is an opportunity that is missed. I view it more as an economic driver for downtown. It’s a mechanism to bring people to our community at a time when they wouldn’t ordinarily be here that are here to spend money and will frequent our restaurants, our hotels, our attractions, and bolster that. It is definitely gravitating toward the top of my list in terms of wishes. Are we competitive now? No. If you go to a lot of other cities around the world, they have convention centers – not even in the world, in our region – convention centers with hotels attached to them. There’s a huge sense of connectivity between space. I’m more looking at the competitive standpoint, not the who. I think what will come out if this is something that the city wants to embrace, the community wants to embrace and then private industry wants to embrace.

Being new to a community is a great advantage. You get to see us with fresh eyes. What are the other things on your wish list?
We are looking at several things. We’re looking at where visitors connect with us as an organization, such as our welcome centers here and at the airport. We’re really looking at those and how they convey a first impression of visitors to Springfield. One of the things that is of great interest to me is Route 66. I have traveled all the way to Oklahoma. With the centennial coming up in 2026, I think the experience is not where it needs to be. This is no disrespect to what has happened. I think that it is rather underwhelming. If we have a product or we are a location for visitors from around the world, I just don’t think we’re delivering that experience as well as other communities are. And we are the birthplace. I just don’t think we are celebrating it as well as we should.

What are some of the projects you’re working on?
In the first six months here, I’ve really wanted to immerse myself into Springfield, and one of the things that has been most refreshing is how welcomed I felt, which is really important. Because what we do is welcome people. One of the projects we’re going to be looking at is our brand. We’re going to start that process probably in about three weeks to really make sure, first, does it resonate with a visitor? If it does, great. If it doesn’t, do we need to change, and how do we need to change and how do we need to be viewed? The second thing is we have hired a company called MMGY NextFactor, and they’re going to do an assessment of Springfield as a travel destination and really view the strengths of our product and strengths of our community. This company has done this for I think over 300 locations around the world. So, it allows us to benchmark how well our community is doing, identify things we’re doing really well and maybe identify things, maybe convention centers, that perhaps we are not doing so well. That project’s supposed to kick off July 1.

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