March 4, 2019
WBJ Hall of Fame

Dunn has become a legend in the arena industry

Photo | Matt Wright
Sandy Dunn

Sandy Dunn graduated college as a communications major, starting her career in western New York near where she grew up as a stagehand at an amphitheater.

So began a career she couldn't have expected would take her to running an arena — and doing so in Worcester, where she and her husband had no connections before he enrolled at Assumption College for graduate school.

Dunn came along and began working at what was then the Worcester Centrum, starting as a receptionist in 1983, just a year after the arena opened with a Frank Sinatra concert.

"There was no place to get a better job than the brand new Centrum," Dunn said.

Dunn worked her way up quickly, becoming the arena's executive secretary, then director of events and administration, and assistant general manager. Her first stint at what would later become the DCU Center lasted seven years, until she and her husband, Joe Dunn, moved back to New York.

Dunn was general manager for four years at the Niagara Falls Civic Center, a facility introducing her for the first time to running a convention center. That experience would be critical for when she returned to the DCU Center in 1994. The general manager's position opened up as Worcester was building its own convention center attached to the northern end of the arena.

The DCU Center's 100,000-plus square feet of exhibit space opened in 1997. The facility draws state and regional conventions.

"We've been incredibly successful at it," said Dunn, the DCU Center general manager for what is now a quarter century. "We all kind of have our niche. Worcester's perfectly situated by being centrally located in the state, so we play to that."

The legend

Those who've worked closely with Dunn say her determination and leadership abilities have kept DCU Center and Worcester competitive with so many other arenas and meeting spaces in the state and across Southern New England.

"She's a legend in her industry," said Troy Siebels, president & CEO of Hanover Theatre, who serves with Dunn on the board of Discover Central Massachusetts tourism organization.

"We know her as a community leader in Worcester but in her world, she's known nationally," he said.

Dunn is a sought-after sounding board for others in the industry in Worcester, including Stephanie Ramey, the executive director of Discover Central Massachusetts since April.

"She's been an amazing mentor for me, and I look up to her immensely," Ramey said. "She's someone who, any time I need to throw someone an idea, she's one of the first I think of. I think she's given me the courage to try new campaigns or things that otherwise I'd have some more caution about."

In particular, Ramey said, Dunn has been supportive of Discover Central Massachusetts' new cellphone widget to help visitors get around and the expansion of its events calendar.

Stay competitive

Dunn's typical day includes a focus on booking events for the arena on days when its main tenants, the Worcester Railers and Massachusetts Pirates hockey and football teams, aren't playing. She spends much of her time working with SMG, the international arena and convention center operator she works for, and any of the DCU Center's five unions.

The job is entirely different than when she started. Back then, Dunn said, the facility could handle trade shows only on the arena floor. Convention centers in Hartford and Providence, not to mention the 2.1 million square-foot Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, had yet to open. The old Boston Garden didn't have air conditioning, Dunn said, so top acts naturally wanted to play in the new arena out in Worcester.

Boston has since added several new venues, and Mohegan Sun's arena opened in Connecticut. Competition is far tougher.

"The artists have definitely not increased in those numbers," Dunn said.

Dunn and the 46 full-time and 780 part-time staffers at the DCU Center keep Worcester's facility competitive thanks in large part to her leadership, Siebels said.

"We're in the shadow of Boston, and they deal with the same thing we do. We continue to fight that," Siebels said. "It's thanks to her ability to cut through red tape. She just doesn't let any politics or competing goals get in the way."

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