Con­fer­ence cen­ter could be much more

New own­ers plan ex­panded uses on sprawl­ing prop­erty

Connecticut Post (Sunday) - - Business - By Alexan­der Soule

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.

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