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Destination: Amherst

Recent Tourism Initiatives Beckon
Amherst

Amherst

In the summer months, the streets of Amherst are bustling. And in the fall, spring, and winter, the foot traffic isn’t too shabby, either.

In recent years, this college town has stepped-up its tourism efforts in order to attract a broader range of people from all over the world. Those initiatives have been capitalizing on the town’s strong hospitality infrastructure, which includes several restaurants, unique businesses, and historical and cultural attractions, not to mention the constant draw of the Five Colleges, three of which are located in Amherst ‚ UMass, Amherst College, and Hampshire College ‚ for prospective students, current students, and their families.

And according to some of the people who keep their fingers on the pulse of Amherst’s tourism industry, the town’s new lease on leisure is working.

John Coull, president of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, said many smaller communities struggle with how, when, and to what extent to market their tourist attractions in order to create the best outcomes and address the appropriate audiences.

Larger or more well known communities can use one major attraction ‚ Cooperstown, N.Y., and the Baseball Hall of Fame are an apt example ‚ as the base for more expansive tourism initiatives. And Amherst’s reputation as a college town could be viewed as a similar advantage over regions without such a draw.

But as the chamber moved to increase its focus on tourism within Amherst, the search for one main selling point soon ended. Rather, the idea of selling a collection of attractions that would act in collaboration with one another came up again and again ‚ between local businesses, other towns, museums, and of course, the local colleges and universities.

"Amherst has a number of small but important attractions," said Coull. "Right now, we are learning how to best group them to create a certain magnetism and attract more visitors. Collaboration is the key to it all."

Strength in Numbers

Coull explained that Amherst’s issues regarding tourism are somewhat unique. For many years, the town has had little trouble attracting visitors; the college community alone beckons thousands of people each year to tour the three institutions, visit current students, or attend commencement ceremonies.

The problem was, he said, that after people arrived in Western Mass., Amherst didn’t do enough to show them everything it, and the entirety of the region, had to offer.

"Parents were coming here for visits and had no idea what else was here to see," he said. "As a town, we really don’t have to find people and say ’hey, why don’t you come here?’ What we do have to do is say ’hey, while you’re here, why don’t you take a look around? Here’s what there is to see.’"

Over the past three years, Coull said the Amherst chamber has worked toward cultivating stronger relationships with area businesses and organizations, as well as Five Colleges Inc., in order to best market Amherst as a destination for many different types of individuals, from students to professionals to retirees. Those relationships, he said, are beginning to yield coveted results: catering to an already strong faction of college-related visitors, but also reminding travelers and day-trippers alike that ’college town’ often equates to ’cultural mecca.’

Several groups have contributed to the development of collaborations in tourism efforts, Coull added, among them PDA (Promoting Amherst Downtown), an affiliate of the chamber comprised of several downtown business owners, that has created a Web site and brochure, while also developing a sample walking tour of downtown Amherst. UMass has also stepped forward; it invited the chamber to become a partner in its ’First Week’ activities, developed to acclimate new students to the area.

Further, the town’s fledgling series of juried art shows has played a key role. ArtShow Amherst, entering its second year this month, has been expanded to include five dates in Amherst and six in Pittsfield, allowing for cross-promotion within the two towns.

There is also Museums 10. This is a recently formed partnership consisting of seven college museums, all located on Five College campuses in Amherst and at nearby Smith College in Northampton and Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, as well as two independent Amherst museums ‚ the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art and the National Yiddish Book Center ‚ and Historic Deerfield. The group has completed a suite of materials promoting the museums as one cohesive group of attractions.

Carol Angus, director of information and publications for Five Colleges Inc., said Museums 10 was created out of a mutual understanding among the directors and staff of the various museums, as well as Five Colleges at large, that marketing the museums as a whole rather than separately would effectively increase their visibility.

"We’re learning a lot of lessons about the value of collaboration," she said, noting that one such effort has been ongoing with the Amherst chamber. "These college museums have really come of age over the past 10 to 20 years, and while they continue to serve the overall missions of their respective institutions, they are also very valuable collections, and worthy of public view. And the Eric Carle Museum and the Yiddish Book Center are attracting international visitors ‚ joining with them shows us how much potential we have."

Angus said often, the very nature of a museum located on a college campus discourages public visitation, and joining forces with independent museums ‚ has helped to define Amherst as a prime destination for cultural tourism.

"We realized that this collaboration was an opportunity to do something for our museums, but also to bring tourists into the area," she said, noting that similar partnerships between area museums and organizations have had success in the neighboring Berkshires. "It becomes a benefit for us as well as the community to market the fact that we have something here for everyone ‚ art, history, books Ö we are able to appeal to a wide range of audiences."

Efforts to marketing Amherst’s attractions as one package have also included some of the most successful projects the chamber has taken on recently, Coull said.

Just last year, the chamber produced its first professionally designed and printed brochure, listing the many sights to see within the Amherst area. The brochure details all of the area’s historic sites, art museums and galleries, family attractions, entertainment options, educational resources, shopping destinations, parks, nature trails, restaurants, accommodations, and maps, but bundles them all as smaller parts of one destination, not unlike more notable towns and cities that lean heavily on tourism dollars, like Orlando, Fla., and Hershey, Penn.

"The numbers of those brochures significantly diminished very quickly around town," said Coull. "People were happy to see them."

Crowding the Streets

In coming years, Coull and Angus agreed, plans to continue forging relationships with businesses and organizations across Western Mass., and to continue to promote Amherst as a diverse destination for cultural and historical tourism, as well as an eclectic vacation destination for international travelers, will intensify.

"I see Amherst as a mini-city that offers a great combination," said Angus. "We have wonderful places to eat and to stay, we offer an amazing cultural and aesthetic experience, and we have the safety and variety that attracts people to visit and to stay a while. It’s something for everyone."

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]

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