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Peaking Interest

The Berkshire Region Builds on its Economic Strength – Tourism

Berkshire County Museum

Berkshire County has historically recorded the best tourism statistics in Western Mass., and recent years have been no exception. To capitalize on that strength for the greater good of the region, the Berkshires are taking tourism efforts a step further, maintaining a knack for welcoming affluent, urban visitors, but paying more attention to young up-and-comers, families, and perhaps most importantly, the people in the neighborhood.

Bill Wilson, president and CEO of the Berkshire County Tourism and Visitors Bureau, says there’s something in the air in the region that sparks creativity, peace, and tranquility.

“Things move a little slower here,” he said. Except reservations. Those are made at breakneck speed.

In terms of visitation, Berkshire County has recorded its best numbers this year since 2001 and several businesses and attractions across the region are also reporting positive year-end numbers. Tanglewood, for instance, the concert venue in Lenox that Wilson has dubbed ‘the granddaddy of them all,’ welcomed about 400,000 visitors this past season and projects another strong season next year.

The Williamsville Inn in West Stockbridge, voted ‘Best of the Berkshires’ by Boston Magazine after only three years under the current ownership, logged its best season in terms of revenue in its entire 54- year run.

Even one of the region’s more unassuming attractions, Pittsfield’s Berkshire Museum, was pleased to announce that its recent reptile exhibit welcomed a record number of visitors to its halls – about 40,000. Its current fairy-tale inspired Christmas tree exhibit is on its way to similar success.

As Wilson explained, tourism has always been strong in the Berkshires. But it’s showing some considerable momentum of late, and that’s enabling the region to take a hard look at its marketing and branding initiatives, and to add some new numbers to its tourism repertoire.

“Tourism is increasingly important to the Berkshire economy,” said Wilson, a 20- year veteran to his post. “Our economic development council has recently identified it as one the fastest areas of growth for the region; last year we logged $263 million spent by visitors, and that’s not counting international visitors or day-trippers. If we factor everything in, I think we are looking at a figure of around a half-billion.”

And while many tourism-centered regions took a hit after 9/11, the blow to the Berkshires was less severe than most, he added. That was due in part to consistently strong drive-in business, which balanced a decline in long-distance travel. A regionwide branding initiative that began in 1997 and took a two-pronged approach to luring guests from urban areas also deserved some credit.

Using the tag line nature sets the stage and culture steals the show, the Berkshire Tourism Bureau became the first in the state to successfully brand an entire region and note the effect thereof.

There’s also that peaceful vibe the Berkshires possesses, too, that Wilson said can’t go unmentioned.

“We had what people were looking for,” he said of the tourism climate shortly after 9/11. “We felt some effects of the attacks, but not as much as many, and the market held steady for us. Now, we’re coming back strong.”

Tour of Duty

Wilson told BusinessWest that roughly one-fifth (12,000) of the Berkshire region’s 60,000-person workforce is employed by businesses that are either directly related to tourism – hotels, inns, attractions, etc. – or indirectly related, such as shops and restaurants that would not survive without the heavy traffic the summer months and fall foliage weeks bring, or that brought by the winter skiing crowd. What’s more, those visitors come ready to spend.

“Our typical visitors come from household with incomes of $100,000 or more, are typically urban, and affluent,” said Wilson, adding that Berkshire County has long served as a weekend get-away for the wellto- do who hail from New York, Boston and its North Shore, and New Jersey, as well a vacation spot for the rich and/or famous. He continued that the trend is showing no signs of slowing.

But that doesn’t mean he and others involved in the tourism industry – and in Berkshire County, that’s practically everyone– plan to rest on their laurels and enjoythe brisk business. Rather, Wilson said theregion is making a concerted effort to takeadvantage of existing strengths by usingthem as a platform to expand into new territories,targeting new groups of potentialvisitors, promoting up-and-coming areasand attractions in the Berkshires, andcatering to the growing number of yearroundresidents, as well.

“Tourism is one of our top industries here in the Berkshires, but we’re excited because we haven’t even reached our potential,” said Wilson. “Now, we’re trying to expand our market to appeal to new audiences – we’re reaching out to younger people and beefing up our marketing of recreation and outdoor adventure options.

“We’re also targeting families,” he noted. “We want to create a group of kids that will grow up in the Berkshires.”

That new tactic has been put in place to further diversify the types of visitors to the area, Wilson said, but he admitted that serving as a draw to affluent, out-of-state, and often international populations is a luxury the Berkshires as a whole should never ignore.

“We want to give those kids great experiences in the Berkshires,” he said, “but when they grow up and have their own turbo-charged Saabs, we also want them to come back.”

A Family Affair

Families and younger visitors are constituencies that several businesses and attractions are poised to welcome, especially in areas of the Berkshires that are breaking new ground in the cultural and artistic arena.

Kandy Wendt, co-owner of the Williamsville Inn with her husband, executive chef Erhard Wendt, has watched her business grow and flourish since taking the helm at the inn three years ago, thanks to the incorporation of several new ventures. “We’ve found two niches,” she said.

“One is our cooking school, which no one else in the area offers. The other is our family- friendly concept. As many as 80% of the other inns in the area don’t accept guests with babies or young children, but we have found ways to welcome those guests that work very well.”

Wendt added that catering to families also helps Berkshire businesses strengthen their year-round presence among the permanent population, not just boost their numbers during peak tourism seasons. It has created a word-of-mouth effect that the inn is one of few that will welcome families of all sizes, and that in turn has spread the word about the Williamsville Inn culinary school – which offers classes to individuals at all levels of expertise in the kitchen, under the direction of Erhard Wendt. And that, further, has called greater attention to the inn’s German-inspired restaurant, which is open year-round by reservation only.

Now, the inn is introducing classes in Nia, a hybrid of yoga and dance, to continue that trend of constantly refreshing the business.

“The whole concept has really worked for us,” said Wendt. “Our diversity makes people who live here feel welcome, and attracts new visitors too.”

That, she said, is important because those busy seasons are consistently strong – it’s the off-seasons that need the greatest attention.

“In the summer, everyone is busy,” she said. “If you’re not, something is really, really wrong. But the banks still need their payments throughout the year, not just during the busiest months. We need the locals to keep going through the winter, and stay where we want to be in terms of business.

“And business is very good,” she noted.“Before we had call-forwarding to our cell phones, if we stepped out for two hours we missed 13 calls.”

The Accidental Tourist

Sherrill Ingalls, director of marketing and public relations for the Berkshire Museum, agreed that attracting families and continuing to regard the region’s nontourist population as a valuable resource for tourism-related business is the key to sparking some new life into Berkshire County’s already robust tourism industry.

She said that currently, about 60% of the museum’s visitors are families, many of whom are year-round residents. Greater attention to bringing in more families during strong tourism months, she said, would undoubtedly have a positive impact on the museum’s bottom-line.

“We’re perfectly poised to take advantage of that,” she said. “The museum itself is very family-friendly, and lately we’re on a roll in terms of successful activities and exhibitions geared toward that market.”

Regardless of the strength of the region, museums nationwide face a common set of challenges, ranging from finding new ways to bring people in to see permanent exhibits, defining which rotating exhibits will have the greatest impact, and most importantly, operating on increasingly lean budgets.

But Ingalls added that Berkshire Museum isn’t the only attraction in Pittsfield that is on board with the tourism bureau’s new initiatives. As a city often seen as the blue collar blip on Berkshire tourism’s radar screen, new cultural endeavors including the formal creation of the Downtown Arts District by Mayor James Ruberto, are in keeping with the region’s push to promote its many cultural assets to a wider audience.

Pittsfield is currently home to more than 50 working artist studios and several restaurants and shops, for example, as well as five of the Berkshire’s most prominent cultural attractions; in addition to the Berkshire Museum, there is the soon-to-be restored Colonial Theatre, the Berkshire Music School, the Berkshire Atheneaum, the Berkshire Opera Company, and the City of Pittsfield’s Lichtenstein Center for the Arts.

All are receiving a shot in the arm from both the city’s renewed focus on the arts and the region’s push to include Pittsfield in its new marketing campaigns.

“We have a great amount of family-oriented activities here, and the new attention is really beneficial for us,” said Ingalls.

“Often, people visit and they do Williamstown, or they do South County. A lot of times, Pittsfield gets lost in their travels, but there is a lot happening now and that is slowly bringing people in.”

Winning the Race

And even in a positive climate, that’s something Wilson said he and his office have recognized as integral to maintaining that Berkshire pull – keeping the draw fresh, while still cultivating its traditional attributes.

“There is no other place like this in the world,” he said. “We have world-class venues in a country environment. We have quality and quantity, so naturally we want to open that experience up to as many people as possible.

“I’m confident that the influx of people to our area is only going to become even more substantial,” he concluded.

Slowly, but surely. Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]