Conference center could be much more
New owners plan expanded uses on sprawling property
On a sunny afternoon last week at Norwalk’s only dedicated conference center, workers took in the rays while collaborating in small groups as they reclined in Adirondack chairs on the sprawling grounds. Poolside indoors, a young girl splashed around with her father.
As Sam Haigh gazed out on the scene alongside Danny Dolce, he promised there will be plenty more of the first scene to come, and he hopes more of the latter as well — particularly if the city allows broader use of the new LaKota Oaks the partners believe is required to help the hospitality venue thrive.
Last week, the California firm that bought the Dolce Norwalk conference center in 2007 sold it to New York investor Hafeez Choudhary in a $ 16 million deal put together by hospitality turnaround company LaKota Hotels & Resorts, led by CEO Sam Haigh and Danny Dolce, with his father, Andy Dolce, an adviser.
As quickly as Choudhary got the keys, Haigh and Dolce had signage up for the new LaKota Oaks at 32 Weed Ave., where a winding drive passes a picturesque barn and pond to arrive at the stately buildings that form the 120- room conference center on 66 acres of parkland.
LaKota Oaks is the firm’s second property after taking over management of the The National Conference Center and West Belmont Place in northern Virginia, built in 1974 as a corporate training center for Xerox, among the largest meeting venues in the Washington, D. C., area.
In Norwalk, Dolce and Haigh promise the new signage is only the first change in store, with plans to refresh both interior guest rooms and common areas as well as exterior landscaping; and in time if the city permits it, opening up the facility to dining for local residents and possibly sojourns for leisure travelers.
‘ You have to bring people together’
It was Andy Dolce who created Dolce Norwalk in West Norwalk in 2003, creating the conference center on the former Ferndale seminary grounds that had been converted in 1979 to a corporate conference by GTE, at the time based in Stamford, which then sold it to Prudential.
Broadreach Capital Partners bought Dolce Norwalk in 2007, underwriting the transaction with a $ 23.5 million loan from the Stamford office of UBS Real Estate, but falling behind on payments last year to put that debt into foreclosure, despite bringing in the Parsippany, N. J.based hospitality giant Wyndham Worldwide to run it as part of a Dolce Hotels portfolio spanning more than 20 properties.
If the Dolce family was the first connected to the Norwalk conference center, two more parent- child teams are now involved. Haigh’s son, Sam, leads operations and Choudhary’s daughter, Fariah, is participating in the redesign of LaKota Oaks.
Dolce Norwalk is not the lone dedicated conference center regionally, with Haigh saying the concept has appeal in part for escaping the timelines in which hotels flip meeting space throughout the day.
The Tarrytown House Estate on the Hudson in Westchester County bills itself as the nation’s first such facility, created in 1964 by a Life Magazine bureau chief. Arrowwood Doral in Rye Brook would follow, with Haigh serving as general manager for several years prior to becoming president of Doral Hotels & Resorts and then Benchmark, which bought Doral Arrowwood in 2015.
Besides the new LaKota Oaks, the only other Connecticut member of the International Association of Conference Centers is the Heritage Hotel and Conference Center in Southbury, whose amenities include golf and a spa. Other IACC members in the area include the Edith Macy Conference Center and IBM Learning Center in Westchester County; and the Glen Cove Mansion and Fox Hollow on Long Island.
“There’s really pent- up demand for this now,” Haigh said. “Companies realize that if you are trying to create a culture and you try to do it online or remotely, it’s pretty tough to do. You can reinforce it, but at some point you have to bring the people together, face to face. It’s that kind of interchange where people … form a bond.”
Reimagining a jewel
Dolce said the Norwalk conference center typically books meetings of between 30 and 50 people for up to four days. About six months in any given year, the center is booked near capacity, but that leaves another six months comparatively free.
In 2009, Broadreach won approval from the city of Norwalk to allow it to host weddings and other events at Dolce Norwalk. Haigh and Dolce would like to build on that, saying celebratory functions constitute only about 20 percent of the center’s revenue today.
“Would a bride want to get married at the Dolce Norwalk executive conference center?” Danny Dolce said. “They want to get married at LaKota Oaks.”
Further out, they are considering seeking permission to open up the dining room as an upscale restaurant; and did not rule out approaching the city about allowing LaKota Oaks to operate as a traditional hotel, rather than limiting overnight stays to those attending events, while acknowledging the potential for opposition from neighbors. In addition to the grounds and lounges, LaKota Oaks has tennis courts, an indoor gym and the pool, making it a desirable destination whatever the occasion.
The word “LaKota” can be translated as “ally” from the language of the native American people of the Dakotas. Dolce said the founders chose it to signal how they hope to be perceived not just by corporate and leisure guests, but the larger neighborhood and city as well. Haigh, aNorwalk resident the past 30 years, hopes the city will embrace the jewel in its midst.
“For a Sunday brunch, can you imagine what this could be?” Haigh said.