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Dolce Finds Niche with Norwalk, Conn. Conference
 Center; Acquired Two Years Ago from Prudential

By Richard Lee, The Stamford Advocate, Conn.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Mar. 24 2005 - Sometimes you just can't phone it in.

That's the opinion of Christopher Dolce, general manager of Dolce Norwalk Center for Leadership and Innovation, a conference center with on-site accommodations on a bucolic 66-acre tract on Weed Avenue.

Videoconferencing has its place in industry as companies use new technology to reduce expenses, Dolce feels, but it can't replace a management team exchanging ideas eyeball-to-eyeball.

Technology-based conferences had grown after the terrorist attacks of 2001, when companies and employees had heightened fears of traveling. That hurt the conference facility industry, as did an ensuing dip in the economy. But that didn't stop Dolce from recommending that his company take a look when the 120-room former Prudential conference center in Norwalk came on the market two years ago.

Dolce was confident that the economy would rebound and businesses return to their traditional use of conference centers.

As an officer of Dolce International in Montvale, N.J., a conference center operator, he had visited the Weed Avenue complex, which insurance giant Prudential had just bought from GTE, in 1998 as part of an International Association of Conference Centers tour.

Dolce was impressed by its construction, architecture and state-of-the-art technology, and remembered his tour five years later when Prudential put the property, with its 28 meeting rooms, up for sale. Dolce International acquired the facility in September 2003 for a reported $19.7 million. It was added to a portfolio of 22 facilities Dolce owns, co-owns or manages in North America and Europe.

The Dolce Norwalk Center, along with meeting rooms of various sizes wired for modern audio, video and communications equipment, boasts an expansive common room, formal dining room, a bar and game room, an exercise room, pool, indoor basketball courts and outdoor lighted tennis courts. "A major investment was done by Prudential. We were pleasantly surprised to see the technology," Dolce said.

Business in the past few months has buoyed Dolce's belief that the company made the right decision in buying the property. "From 2001 through 2004, the industry was soft, and travel was off, but there's been a sharp increase," Dolce said. "People are becoming more comfortable with travel and the economy is improving."

Dolce International, led by Christopher's father, Andrew Dolce, targets senior executives for the facility and is marketing it throughout southwestern Connecticut and the New York metropolitan region. "Our core business is Manhattan," Dolce said, adding that it has been a challenge to lure clients to Norwalk, whose reputation as a business center has yet to spread "There's a perception factor. Everyone knows Stamford and Greenwich."

Corporate clients include Diageo, Pitney Bowes, General Electric, UBS, Merrill Lynch, Towers Perrin and Sikorsky Aircraft. While GE has a conference facility in Crotonville, N.Y., it occasionally uses Dolce's Norwalk facility as a supplemental location, said GE spokeswoman Marissa Moretti.

"At GE, we spend a great deal of time on employee training, development and best practice sharing. Dolce is close to our GE facilities, and this makes sense for us," she said.

"We feel if potential customers come see us, they'll be interested. We're projecting 2005 to be profitable," said Dolce, who came to Norwalk from Dolce's Tarrytown House, where he was general manager. "2004 was a ramp-up period. Our bookings for 2005 are at 85 percent of our budget now. We're here for the long-haul."

Mid-week occupancy for 2005 is projected to be 80 percent, based on current bookings, but Dolce said weekend bookings have been sparse. His sales staff is targeting law firms and universities to boost weekend occupancy.

Dolce, with its fully equipped facilities, has a reputation for catering to major corporations, said Sandy Graves, regional director for HelmsBriscoe, a conference and meeting planning company.

"For someone who needs a conference center like that, it's perfect," said

Graves, who has matched corporate clients with Dolce. "I think they have a niche."


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Copyright (c) 2005, The Stamford Advocate, Conn.

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