Sandy Dunn – an anchor of the downtown
By Bernard Whitmore
A third of a century. That’s how long the DCU Center, born as “The Centrum,” has anchored downtown Worcester. That exceeds what I consider to be the shelf life for contemporary urban architecture. Yet, even a simple drive-by provides evidence that the DCU is a strong civic center and managed with pride. In appearance, it remains fresh and dynamic; its electronic marquee scrolls through a roster of upcoming events.
Pride in one’s work. That’s a subject that fascinates nearly as much as the lack thereof bewilders. This is why it was a thrill to talk with Sandra Dunn, general manager of the DCU Center for the past couple decades. Her team has kept the DCU vibrant and growing.
Vitality: First some background. Did you grow up in Worcester? Where did you go to school?
Sandra Dunn: I did not. I was born and raised in Punxsutawney, Penn., home of the famous groundhog. My city of choice was Pittsburgh, but Punxsutawney is an hour-and-a-half from Pittsburgh in the rolling hills of Pennsylvania. Likely I was born to be a marketer, since Punxsy, with a population of less than 6,000 people, is one of the best marketing stories I know, centered around an adorable rodent. My father was an optometrist, but I grew up on a 100-acre farm. We had a few animals – ponies, bunnies, dogs and cats – and we cut hay, but other than that, it wasn’t a working farm. That being said, my friends and the life that I grew up in was definitely rural.
I attended college in western Pennsylvania at Allegheny College in Meadville. [It’s a] small liberal arts school, where I majored in communications, media management and had a minor in theater – the technical side of theater rather than acting.
V: What brought you to Worcester?
SD: When in college, I worked at Chautauqua Institution in western New York. This is a very unique 750-acre gated community on the shores of Chautauqua, N.Y., that is dedicated to the arts, education, religion and recreation. Over 7,500 individuals reside there for a nine-week summer season that results in over 100,000 attendees to a variety of programming, including a resident opera company, theater company and symphony. In addition, each day is programmed with a multitude of guest speakers on topics ranging from politics, religion, environment, education, the arts, etc. I have never encountered any place quite like it. While working there, I managed the amphitheater, constructed in 1893 to seat over 5,000; it was likely one of the first of its kind in the United States. Later, I also oversaw the opera house, the theater and several smaller venues. I met my husband, Joe, at Chautauqua, and after college, we married and I became the full-time production manager for all the performance venues for two years.
At that point, my husband was given the opportunity to pursue his master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling at Assumption, so we relocated here in the 1983. The Centrum was just a year young at that point and one of the hottest buildings in the country. It was the only place that I applied for a position, and I was hired as the receptionist. I quickly rose through the ranks as executive assistant to the [general manager], events manager and then to the director of events and administration. In 1990, I transferred with SMG, the private management firm which oversees the DCU Center [then, Centrum], to Niagara Falls, N.Y., as the general manager of an arena/convention center facility. This transfer brought us back to the Chautauqua region for four years. It also allowed me to learn the convention center side of our business. There are specific differences in managing and operating an arena vs. a convention center. Having learned this side of the business, I was in a great position to return as the general manager of the DCU Center [then, Centrum] in 1995, when the convention center was just starting construction.
V: When you were in school, was this the career you anticipated? If not, what did you expect in professional life?
SD: No, it wasn’t something that had crossed my mind. When I was in school, I was very active in the theater department as a technical person. What drew me to that activity was the camaraderie. We certainly have that in our industry. I’ve stayed in this business because it is ever-changing. No day is the same – events change, artists evolve, technology has and continues to significantly impact us – there is not a day that passes that there is not another challenge or something new to be learned. In addition to the ever-changing event landscape, I’ve also been intimately involved with the construction of two facilities and the recent renovations of the DCU Center. I’ve also assisted with a variety of projects in venue and event development. All of this keeps the work very interesting and keeps me on top of my game. I’ve developed tremendous relationships in the industry over my career, many of whom are close friends.
V: Are there many women arena managers out there?
SD: There have been great changes during my career with the influx of women in the industry. In 1990, I was the first woman to become a general manager for SMG. Certainly through the 1980s and early ’90s, it was clearly an industry where men dominated the locker rooms. Arenas and stadiums, in particular, were – and continue to be – managed by mostly men. In convention centers and theaters, this is less prevalent. Overall, we’ve come a long way since I began my career, but there are still some strides to be taken.
On my particular path and with SMG, I have never encountered a time where I was not encouraged to take on additional responsibilities and move to the next level of management. I’m fortunate to have this experience, as I know it was quite different for many of my peers during the same time.
V: When you started at the DCU, did you have goals you wanted to accomplish?
SD: Of course, but I’m sure my goals have shifted over the years. I knew at the time that I wanted to change from a nonprofit theater model to a profit model but remain in entertainment. My season was busiest in the summer, and I knew that I wanted a shift in that. When I was at Chautauqua, I was never able to enjoy the beautiful summers. Arenas tend to be slower in the summer. And, of course, I wanted to grow my career. I did not realize that I would stay with the same company for 32 years.
SMG was a young private management firm for public assembly facilities. When I joined the company, SMG was one of the first private management firms and we managed three venues. Today, we manage over 230 facilities worldwide. Growing with this industry in a rapidly changing environment has allowed me to continue to learn and feel challenged. I’ve been fortunate to be with a tremendous company that has seen incredible growth in the past three decades.
As I began my family, my goal was to find balance between work and family. Though we tend to work long hours and seven days a week, this industry actually helped me find that balance – particularly here in Worcester. The DCU Center is one of the few arenas that we operate that provides quality living options in the immediate area. While I was 10 minutes away for a parent/teacher conference to take place on my lunch hour, my peers had to drive 45 minutes or more to return to their home during the day, so it likely didn’t happen. If I wasn’t able to have found the balance that I did, I might have looked to a different opportunity. I believe that Worcester uniquely helped me in accomplishing that.
Now that my children are building careers of their own, I’m able to continue to focus on my career while committing time to other areas of interest. This includes many of the boards that I serve on, mentoring young professionals in our industry and having enough time to do some traveling.
V: Which of your accomplishments do you take special pride in?
SD: Of course, I am most proud of my sons and what my husband and I accomplished as parents. For those that are in the thick of balancing two working parents, school, kids with active schedules and all that family life entails, I’ll affirm that it is the hardest and most rewarding work there is.
Relative to my work with SMG, I’m always most proud of the performance of our team every day. We operate 24/7/365. When you are working in that environment, it’s natural to become like family. To watch a concert move in at 6 a.m., the performance at 8 p.m. and the load out of all the equipment by 2 a.m. continues to amaze me. It’s not unusual for me to leave the building after a circus performance, only to arrive the next morning to see WWE rehearsing in the ring in preparation for that night’s performance. Our crews do some amazing work. On any given event, we have between 150-300 people working. All of them are committed to the guests having a great experience.
V: Can you speak of one experience that frustrated you?
SD: With all the moving parts, there is always something that may become a challenge. When you have 10,000 people come together for an evening of fun, there are always going to be some issues. The goal is to have the right people in the right place who are trained to respond to it, but there is always something new in the live entertainment environment.
V: You’ve hosted all manner of events at the DCU. Could you recount of one of the most challenging?
SD: I’m often asked to speak about the most impactful event of my career. There is none that can come close to the memorial service for the six Worcester firefighters. I have no doubt that this would be true for all of the staff working here at the time. There, of course, was little advance planning and an incredible amount of assistance from the local, state and national fire divisions; the city; our neighbors; our vendors; our clients; and our staff. With both President Clinton and Vice President Gore attending, the added coordination was unprecedented. We also prepared a post-ceremony meal for all of the attending firefighters, which took place in our Exhibit Hall. Over 6,000 attended the meal function, with all of the product being donated by our purveyors and businesses in the Worcester area. But with all of that, our hearts and minds were on the familes, friends and co-workers of the six firefighters.
V: What is the DCU’s relationship to the community? Has it changed during your tenure?
SD: When I became general manager, the convention center was just breaking ground. The arena and the convention center business models are very different. The primary client base for the arena is mostly national promoters, and the planning is very short term. We often book arena events just 12-15 weeks before they occur. Because of this, the management staff may not have been as integrated into the local and regional business community.
For the convention center, there are a handful of national events, but most of the business is regional and local. Our sales staff is much more connected to the local and regional business and association community because that is where the bookings occur. We have many examples of individuals who live and work here in the Worcester community who have been key to identifying potential events and assisting with bringing them here to Worcester. Also, the planning process is much longer. We’ll meet with the clients many times over the course of six to 18 months, assisting with event details. We are also able to connect them with more local resources – vendors, unique social event sites, restaurants and places to experience while they are in the Central Massachusetts area.
V: You serve on many advisories, councils and boards. Which do you feel passionate about?
SD: Many of them are business related. I’m certainly interested in the continued economic growth of Worcester. It is amazing to reflect back and recognize the amazing growth that has occurred in this city. I think we sometimes forget to celebrate these successes instead of always focusing on what more needs to be done. That is important, of course, but so much has happened in Worcester – it is not the same city as 20 years ago.
I am certainly passionate about Destination Worcester and the newly formed Worcester Regional Tourist and Visitor’s Council. Housed in the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce offices, Destination Worcester has done a lot of great work for the city of Worcester over the last several years. Now with the expanded regional vision, the Worcester Regional Tourist and Visitor’s Council and the five area Chambers will be working cooperatively to market the entire region.
Over my career, I’ve had many options for relocating to other cities – even other countries – with my employer. I have chosen to live here in Central Massachusetts. As I’ve traveled to other cities, I have never identified one that provides the same quality of life – access to the best education and health care, both city and rural amenities within a 10-minute drive, world-class cities like Boston and New York City both easily accessible, skiing in 20 minutes and beaches in 30 minutes. Often, I think we are one of the best-kept secrets, and it is time we tell our story about everything we have to offer in this region.
V: What led to your recent appointment to the Massachusetts Cultural Council?
SD: There were several colleagues who recommended me to the governor and lieutenant governor for the appointment. I certainly thank them for their endorsement, and I am looking forward to contributing where I can. In the short time that I have been on the council, I have been very impressed with Anita Walker, executive director, as well as the other staff and board members. They are doing a lot across the state to provide greater access to the arts and supporting creative endeavors to improve our citizens’ quality of life.
My goal [on the council] would be to ensure that funding continues and grows in the future and to help educate residents, teachers, programmers and venues in the greater Central Massachusetts area that there is potential assistance for them through the programs at MCC. We are fortunate to have Erin Williams as the city of Worcester’s cultural development officer and the Worcester Cultural Coalition doing a terrific job in elevating the arts in Worcester and the region. They have made a notable difference in the last decade for this city and region. I’m happy to be part of that voice, as well.
V: What’s your next big challenge?
SD: Certainly continuing to evaluate the options regarding a hockey tenant for the facility or other potential sports tenants that may make sense is at the top of the list. In the short term, we are working to infill the available dates with other entertainment options. The DCU Center is now home to Worcester Wares, a clothing and gift shop located on Commercial Street. Having a visitor/local destination store focused on all things Worcester has been a goal for some time, so we are proud to welcome owner Jessica Walsh to the family. If you haven’t stopped by, it is well worth the trip. While the theme is Worcester, and many of the items specifically reference Worcester, others are just dreamed of and created by Worcester-area artists. It’s a wonderful mix of items, and I’m sure both residents and visitors alike will find something unique to take home with them.
In the next month, we will also be opening a new eatery on the corner of Commercial and Foster streets. This is a prime location, and we are very happy to be more engaged in the day-to-day street life of downtown Worcester with the opening of these two locations. The eatery is intended as an incubator for a potential up-and-coming restaurateur. The selected individual will operate as they would in an owner/operator setting but be provided with guidance in the finance and marketing aspects of the operation by our team. Our goal would be to graduate the manager of this operation every couple of years into their own local restaurant and begin the process again.
V: Can you tell me a bit about your family?
SD: My husband, Joe, and I have been married 34 years and have two terrific sons, Charlie and Peter. Each of them has returned to live and work in Worcester after graduating from college. I love hearing their perspective of living in the area as young professionals. We try to travel as often as our schedules will permit. We’ve had many fabulous journeys and hope for many more. This year is Costa Rica.
V: Do you ever relax? What is “relaxation” for you?
SD: Not attending an event would be one. If you operate a venue, it is difficult not to be checking out all the details when at another venue, rather than just enjoying a show. I never tire of day-tripping in Massachusetts and New England. It always surprises me when you meet people that have lived here all their lives and they haven’t had the opportunity to go to the hundreds of great places – Purgatory Chasm, Worcester Art Museum, Old Sturbridge Village, Southwick Zoo, The Big E, Wachusett Mountain Festivals, Moore State Park, and the list goes on and on.
Growing up in a rural area, I’m happy getting lost on the back roads of Oakham and Barre, as well – discovering antique stores, gift shops and roadside stands. Each year, I certainly try to do a couple of side trips in New England – [for] Labor Day, it [was] the Mohawk Trail along the Route 2 corridor to North Adams for a two-night stay with a lot of