Heading into the high season for tourism in Lenox, Jennifer Nacht didn’t believe this community, home to Tanglewood and dozens of other popular cultural institutions, could do much better than it did last year when it came to filling up rooms at its large portfolio of hotels and inns.
Turns out, she was wrong.
Indeed, a seemingly insatiable appetite on the part of the public for some fun time off away from home, coupled with the relaxing of three-day minimums at many of those lodging facilities, has pushed the numbers even higher, said Nacht, executive director of the Lenox Chamber of Commerce, adding that, in many respects, Lenox started turning the clock back to 2019 last year.
“Last year was so busy,” she said, to the point where she wasn’t sure if 2023 could surpass it, but things are trending that way. “In talking with the inns, everyone is booked; they’re finding that people are waiting a little longer to book, but by Wednesday of the weekend ahead, the inns are getting completely booked up.”
Still, while the inns and hotels, many of the restaurants, and nearly all of the numerous outdoor attractions staged a full recovery in 2022, many of the theaters and galleries continue to make their way back, said Jaclyn Stevenson, director of Marketing and Communications for Shakespeare & Company, which operates on 33 acres in Lenox.
“In talking with the inns, everyone is booked; they’re finding that people are waiting a little longer to book, but by Wednesday of the weekend ahead, the inns are getting completely booked up.”
She told BusinessWest that most theaters struggled somewhat last year, with few if any sellouts, as the public was still wary about COVID-19, especially early in the summer.
“We didn’t have terminally light crowds, but the people just weren’t here — it was still a building year for theater,” said Stevenson, who also sits on the Lenox Cultural District Steering Committee. “Visitors were coming back to the Berkshires — outdoor recreation had a banner year — but a lot of the theaters and music venues still struggled; it didn’t feel like we were fully back to normal and where we wanted to be. It felt like we were at 75%.”
Early indications are that theaters will likely improve on last year’s numbers, she said, adding that ticket sales are climbing higher.
“We had a good year in 2022, but it was a rebuilding year,” she explained. “I’m feeling better about 2023 — our ticket-sale numbers are mirroring 2017, which was a good year for us.”
As summer commences, Lenox will look to build on the momentum it gained from last year, while also leaning on the lessons learned during the pandemic and the opportunities created by it, especially in the broad realm of outdoor dining, which was in many ways new to the community and came of age during that time.
Meanwhile, the chamber will continue to build on its multi-faceted efforts to market the community and bring people to it by spotlighting the myriad things to do and many ways one can fill a day — or several days — while visiting (much more on that later).
For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Lenox and how its economy, dominated by tourism, has made it most of the way back from the depths of the pandemic and is looking to set the bar still higher in the months and years to come.
Nacht knows all about being a business owner in Lenox. She was “one of the gang,” as she put it, the owner of the Scoop, an ice-cream and candy shop on Church Street, which she eventually sold to cryptocurrency tycoon Ryan Salame in 2021; he now owns several businesses in the community.
“I had skin in the game,” she noted, adding that, by then, she was already managing the chamber as well, putting the 40-year-old institution back on a path to better fiscal health and a more effective execution of its mission, which she described this way: “to be a full-service marketing firm for our members.”
And when she says full-service, she means it.
“If a member comes in and needs help with graphic design, we’ll do that, too,” she said, adding that, mostly, this work as a marketing firm involves promoting the community, its events, its cultural institutions, and a whole lot more. It does this in a number of ways, including a weekly email blast sent to a growing list of subscribers now numbering more than 1,700.
A quick look at the most recent missive, under the headline “All the Good Stuff to Know This Week from the Lenox Chamber of Commerce and Its Members,” reveals just how much is going on in this community as summer beckons.
There’s the start to the Lenox Farmer’s Market on Church Street, the Lenox Loves Music Sunday series in Lilac Park, the Lenox Wine Fete, which took place on June 3, the Summer Lenox Art Walk, set for June 10-11, a Community Conversation at the Lenox Library titled “The Impact of the Pandemic on Mental Health and How to Manage Moving Forward,” a performance of Dear Jack, Dear Louise at Shakespeare & Company, the Berkshire Mountain Distillers’ Summer Food Series, and performances of What the Constitution Means to Me, featuring two-time Tony Award-nominated actor Kate Baldwin, at the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Unicorn Theater in Stockbridge.
Then there are reminders about some of the region’s attractions, many opening for the summer, including the Mount, Edith Wharton’s home; the Wit Gallery; and ‘ghost tours’ of Ventfort Hall in Lenox, home to the Gilded Age Museum, as well as looks ahead to the Jackson Browne concert on Aug. 31 at Tanglewood (tickets went on sale June 1) and other events.
“We had a good year in 2022, but it was a rebuilding year. I’m feeling better about 2023 — our ticket-sale numbers are mirroring 2017, which was a good year for us.”
The list goes on and on. There’s even a reminder about wellness clinics offered by the Berkshire Humane Society.
The email blasts are part of just part of the chamber’s work to bring people to the region, said Nacht, adding that, while there are some service businesses and representatives of other sectors, the vast majority of the chamber’s 136 members are focused, on one level or another, on tourism and hospitality. They include hotels and inns, restaurants and taverns, theaters, art galleries, bookstores, summer camps, and more.
And while most of the chamber’s work on behalf of these members falls into the category of marketing, there are other initiatives as well, said Nacht, including work with town officials on business-related issues, such as a WiFi bylaw, quarterly meet-and-greets held in conjunction with the chambers in Lee and Stockbridge, and a recently staged job fair designed to help businesses navigate a still-difficult workforce environment.
Lenox at a glance
Year Incorporated: 1767
Area: 21.7 square miles
Residential Tax Rate: $9.16
Commercial Tax Rate: $13.03
Median Household Income: $85,581
Median Family Income: $111,413
Type of Government: Board of Selectmen, Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Canyon Ranch, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Kimball Farms
* Latest information available
“We had 20 tables of members who were looking for summer help, temporary help, permanent help,” she recalled. “And we had more than 100 people show up; it was really successful event — many of our members actually hired people from the job fair.”
Overall, though, most members are successfully “staffed up,” as she put it, thanks to returning college students and other applicants. And they will need to be as a summer that promises to be even better, from a business standpoint, is poised to begin.
Staging a Comeback
For the theaters and music venues, there is still some rebuilding to do from the pandemic, Stevenson told BusinessWest, adding that, while 2022 provided some steps in the right direction, there is certainly room for improvement in the upcoming season.
“Last year was tough,” she said, “and there was a lot of guesswork throughout the season: ‘who are we talking to?’ ‘Who’s here?’ Who wants to come?’”
Elaborating, she said COVID was still on the public’s mind, especially earlier in the summer, when the numbers of cases were still running high. Meanwhile, and as noted earlier in that rundown of all that is happening in Lenox and surrounding towns, there is a lot to do there, and individual venues and attractions are competing with one another for the time and interest of residents and visitors. And in 2002, “it felt like the crowds we were competing for were small and finite.”
There were other issues last summer, including weather — a windstorm cost Shakespeare & Company two performances, Stevenson said, adding quickly that the outlook for 2023 is positive, not just for theaters and other performance venues, but the region in general, as visitation continues to rebound from the COVID years.
Shakespeare & Company recently launched its new season with the two-person show Dear Jack, Dear Louise, she noted, adding that there is a full and intriguing slate of performances slated for this year. The first Shakespearian offering is a rendition of Henry VI Part 2, billed as The Contention. “Henry VI is said to be the inspiration for Game of Thrones, so we’ve been leaning on that a lot.”
Coming later in the summer are August Wilson’s Fences, featuring horror-movie icon (think Candyman) Tony Todd; Golda’s Balcony, a play about Golda Mier; a stage reading of Hamlet featuring Christopher Lloyd; and, in the outdoor theater, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with a “late-’70s music spin,” she added.
Overall, there is a little something for everyone, a well-worn phrase that could also be applied to Lenox itself, said both Stevenson and Nacht, noting many new restaurants downtown and, overall, a calendar full of events and things to do.
In short, a community that took some huge strides toward making a full recovery from COVID is looking to take even more in the year to come.