Following a loss of revenue caused by COVID-19, FSU is proposing new initiatives to expand the use of the Warren Conference Center and Inn.
The University acquired the 100-acre plus waterfront property five years ago. Situated on the shore of the Ashland Reservoir, the Warren Center offers an inn and cabins for overnight lodging, as well as meeting rooms for corporate events.
According to General Manager Kim Sternick, before COVID-19, the Center generated $5 million in annual revenue.
According to Dale Hamel, executive vice president of FSU, the University grossed $300,000 per year from the Warren Center – which was used to host departmental meetings, alumni dinners, and science labs. Plans were also in place to begin providing an in-person learning experience for hospitality and tourism management majors.
But then – COVID-19 happened.
Although the Center was able to remain open by following strict CDC guidelines, Hamel said conferencing services declined and only “very specific accommodations” were offered.
“We’ve definitely seen a significant drop off, really for about a year now,” Hamel said.
Before the pandemic, Sternick said the Warren Center was “doing some really neat, cool things” and was “in a good place.
“We actually had our best year ever last year right before COVID,” Sternick said, referencing how the Center itself had generated more than $5 million in annual revenue.
This year, the Warren Center is projected to generate only $700,000 in annual revenue – a “huge, huge” drop off, according to Sternick.
With an 86% decrease in revenue expected for this year, Sternick said she’s “definitely thinking outside the box” about other possible uses for the property.
“We’re trying to shift our business model as much as we can to try to make up that revenue loss,” Sternick said. This includes a shift from hosting large company events – which once accounted for 75% of the Center’s revenue – to smaller social events, such as weddings or bar mitzvahs.
Additionally, Sternick said the Center is working to accommodate all inquiries from clients and “trying to get creative” with activities that can be offered.
Hamel agreed. He said the University has “certainly had to change expectations on operations” of the Warren Center because of the pandemic.
While Hamel hopes the Center will continue enhancing “supplemental services to the University and support the hospitality program,” he also hopes it can offer “social and cultural programming” for FSU faculty, staff, and alumni in the future.
In order for this to happen, the development of a “University community club” is currently under consideration.
“What’s interesting about the Center is it’s heavily utilized during the summer months … but has capacity during the academic year,” Hamel said. “The idea is to leverage existing facilities and programming and offer something that would be attractive … through participating in a club.”
Members of the club would be able to book the Warren Center for musical performances, dinners, and other activities, as well as schedule times to use the tennis and pickleball courts, according to Hamel. All members would pay a fee, which has not yet been decided.
“I think that’s actually a pretty exciting opportunity that we’re exploring,” he said.
Moving forward, Sternick hopes the Center will be able to offer events open to the general public – a first during her nine years as general manager.
“We just started a supper club,” she said, explaining how members of the public can sign up to attend a series of different dinners. “We’re open to just about anything.”
Although the property was originally purchased in 2016 with the intent of growing FSU’s Hospitality and Tourism program, as well as providing students with hands-on experience operating a hotel, the University has yet to use the Center for this purpose.
Since the Hospitality and Tourism program began in fall 2019, only “theory classes” have been offered. John Umit Palabiyik, Hospitality and Tourism Management program coordinator at FSU, said during the program’s second year – which began in fall 2020 – students were slated to start using the Warren Center.
“That is the time the COVID-19 pandemic started, so that’s why we never used it,” Palabiyik said. “Right now, we’re waiting for things to get better.”
But in addition to the pandemic, Palabiyik said there are “other issues” with the Warren Center – the main one being its size.
He explained that because it’s a “small inn with 50 rooms,” the Center may not provide students with the proper hotel management experience. There are currently 25 students in FSU’s Hospitality and Tourism Management program, but only “around 10 students” will be participating in the hotel and lodging management course next semester – which would use an off-campus hotel for experience.
“I was looking for something a bit busier than the Warren Conference Center,” Palabiyik said. “If our program grows and we have like 50 or 60 students, the Center is not enough to hold all those students.
“The reason it’s not enough is because of its business level,” he added. “We actually want a busy place to bring our students. If there are no customers over there, there’s no reason to go there.”
During the winter, when the Center would be used by students, Palabiyik said business is typically slow. “It really doesn’t fit our schedule.”
For this reason, Palabiyik has been in talks with the Sheraton Hotel and Conference Center on Route 9 in Framingham to “help” conduct hospitality and tourism management courses.
The Sheraton, which boasts 375 rooms, was just purchased by a new management company and is currently undergoing renovations. Palabiyik said he hopes to use the Sheraton in conjunction with the Warren Center because operating the hotel during renovations would be helpful for students.
“We also want to schedule students at different hotels at different hours. That way, we don’t have 20 students in one hotel,” he added.
“My vision is to completely move the hospitality program … to Warren Conference Center,” Palabiyik said. “Even if there is only one customer” staying there, he said the experience is still helpful for students.
Additionally, Palabiyik supported the idea of using the Center as a community club, and suggested the University try to integrate the property with the FSU campus.
“If we have new students coming to visit, we should take them to the Warren Conference Center to show them it’s part of our school,” he said.
However, Hamel said, “One of the things that we decided [the Center] was not going to be … is another campus of FSU.”
Due to its location, Hamel explained the Center is not a practical place to hold courses or house students. “We would use it to support or supplement on-campus operations,” he added.
Hamel said in a survey, many faculty, staff, and alumni voiced interest in accessing the beach to rent kayaks or paddle boards – which is something FSU is attempting to coordinate. The main problem is figuring out a viable parking option.
With the only existing parking at the Center closed off to the general public during operation, Hamel said the University has been looking to open the parking lot during “certain periods” of time.
“When the lot is needed for Warren Conference Center operations, we would make parking available over by the soccer courts,” he said.
Hamel said the University is working with the Department of Conservation & Recreation (DCR) to “reclaim the beach” – which is “not in great shape.” The DCR plans to clean up the area and “bring in additional beach,” as well as add new sand and upgrade the surrounding walking trails.
Although the Center usually undergoes multiple renovations each year, Hamel said most capital projects planned this year were delayed because income and expenditures were “significantly reduced.”
According to Hamel, all revenue generated from the Warren Center is either used to fund “capital adaptation and renewal projects” or FSU events – such as alumni dinners or meetings for faculty and staff members.
“This is what we call an enterprise fund,” he said. “It is not subsidized at all by campus operations. It completely stands on its own in terms of revenue generated.”
Despite a slow year, Hamel is hopeful the Center will rebound from the impact of the pandemic.
“We’re opening as the guidance changes, and the guidance has changed to the point that certain events can be held at this point,” Hamel said. This includes outdoor gatherings of up to 150 people and indoor gatherings of up to 100 people.
Sternick said, “Those guidelines were announced March 22nd, so our phones have been ringing off the hook since then because people are anxious to get together.”
During the past year, Sternick said the Center was able to hold company conferences and social events in accordance with COVID-19 guidelines. At one point, she said they could host up to 10 people and even set up a tent outside, which allowed for larger gatherings.
But despite efforts to continue business as usual, Sternick said gatherings this past year were “nothing compared to the magnitude of the groups” the Center used to host.
“We hosted quite a few weddings over the summer and the fall,” she said. “But based on the group sizes, sometimes it really just didn’t make sense to open up.”
Now, Sternick is looking forward to the summer, as it seems social events will be making a return.
“We’re quite busy from May 1st, right through the middle of November,” she said. “We’re hoping to see incremental business volume growth so we can start to bring back some of our staff that had to be furloughed and laid off due to the shut down.”
Prior to the pandemic, the Warren Center employed 12 business managers and five sales managers. Now, there are only five business managers and two sales managers.
“We’re all wearing many hats just to make it through the day,” Sternick said.
At the height of the pandemic, Sternick said the Warren Center was still operating and prepared to house FSU students if necessary.
“We actually had a group in-house when … we went into lockdown,” she said.
These guests were participating in a residential food study in conjunction with FSU and Boston Children’s Hospital, and Sternick said they were able to stay until their program was over in April.
In addition to that group, the Center also housed members of the North American Hockey Academy – a junior elite women’s hockey team – this past winter.
The team had just relocated their practice facility from Stowe, Vermont to Wellesley and needed somewhere for its 34 high school-aged members to stay. Since the Center’s inn was closed, the women stayed in “dorm style” cabins, Sternick said.
“It’s very intense hockey training and games, and it’s a very competitive, elite program,” she said. “And this year, they had some challenges.”
Following a tournament in Michigan, Sternick said a few women tested positive for COVID-19, resulting in a “burst of COVID” at the cabins.
“We had to work very closely with the local department of public health and the COVID taskforce here in Ashland to keep them all safe,” she added. “Since then, we’ve been pretty quiet.”
The Warren Conference Center is currently accepting event bookings and lodging reservations in adherence with occupancy and safety guidelines for the coming months. But with the property quiet as of now, Hamel emphasized the importance of developing the University community club.
“I think the idea of this club is going to utilize the facilities and the outdoor spaces more significantly – or expand [the Center] beyond the conferencing support,” Hamel said. “With us all having been in our houses for a year, I think everybody is looking for social and cultural opportunities – especially outside. It’s just a beautiful setting to support those types of things.”