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BUSINESS PERSPECTIVES: Resilience in our Region

Summer tourism numbers in the Berkshires post 2020 suggest a bright future.

Editor’s note: This article was authored in collaboration with 1Berkshire’s Marketing team.

As we continue to navigate the uncharted waters of COVID-19, it is important to track the progress of the visitor economy, both its challenging downturns and its promising rebounds. In 2020, US Travel research predicted that drivable destinations with access to outdoors and open space would dominate travel for the foreseeable future. This appears to be true for the Berkshires, as evidenced by the many visitors who have flocked to our beautiful natural resources and rich, expansive cultural venues.

To ensure our ongoing success and understand more about these travelers, 1Berkshire conducted a visitor perception and demographic research project this past summer. In addition to understanding who is traveling to the Berkshires, our goal, as we move forward in this new world, is to sustain new and retain return visitorship. To this end, it was valuable to confirm through this project that new visitors are trending younger (between the ages of 25 and 45), and that they are still primarily arriving from New York City and Boston metro areas. Interestingly, we are also drawing a bit from farther afield, such as Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Awareness of our region has grown in our primary feeder markets since our last survey in 2013, and perception continues to be exceptionally positive. Four out of five visitors are likely to recommend travel to the Berkshires. Lastly, as a tie into the travel trend noted above by US Travel, outdoor recreation is the number one attraction listed for visiting the Berkshires.

Birders enjoy an afternoon at Mass Audubon Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary. Photo courtesy Mass Audobon

Conclusions drawn from this research can be witnessed in real time throughout the tourism industry. Hospitality, one of the hardest-hit sectors during last year’s lockdown, is now struggling to meet demand. The Red Lion Inn was booked at nearly 100 percent capacity for all summer weekends with this trend continuing until November. TOURISTS, which opened its doors in 2018, had experienced only a single summer of operation before closing March through June of 2020. Nina Zacek Konsa, TOURISTS’ General Manager noted, “We reopened in July 2020 with a safety-forward operational model, which meant we were open for long weekends—only a single party occupied each room—and we required a vacancy of at least 72 hours between stays. Even with these restrictions in place, comparing 2021 to 2020, our occupancy increased by 92.5 percent for the months of July and August. We’re hopeful for a fruitful 2022 and that this wonderful Berkshire growth we’ve been seeing and have deeply invested in continues.”

Hilton Garden Inn Pittsfield Lenox is also beginning to see their numbers trend upward. “The biggest change we see is the stay pattern this year,” said Rebecca Brien, Director of Sales at Hilton Garden Inn. “In the past, we had a fairly set Monday-Friday corporate business and Friday-Sunday transient. This year, stays are much shorter. Bookings are also coming much later—we have days where we will pick up to 20 rooms for same-day arrival, and we’ve never seen as many walk-ins as we have this year.”

Edith Wharton's home at The Mount
Picnicking on the grounds of The Mount. Photo by Sarah Kenyon

Berkshire cultural institutions have experienced an increase in admissions. A late summer press release from Tanglewood stated that the acclaimed festival, which only operated at 50 percent capacity this season, sold a higher percentage of tickets compared to 2019 at full capacity. Saturday evening concerts fared especially well with a 22 percent increase in tickets sold over 2019.

Despite overall sales that have performed more modestly than pre-pandemic numbers, Barrington Stage Company (BSC) has still done very well. Nuri Héd, Director of Marketing & Communications at BSC, said, “We found that audiences were eager to return to live performances. We surpassed most of our season goals very early on.”

At the time of writing this article, The Mount’s visitation was up 58 percent from 2019, and The Berkshire Botanical Garden had experienced a more than 71 percent increase in admissions from 2019. Because Norman Rockwell Museum (NRM) chose to continue capacity limits and remain closed for one to two days a week, versus being open seven days, in-gallery attendance was 15 percent lower than in 2019. However, NRM reported an increase of visitation to the museum’s grounds and outdoor exhibition, as well as robust attendance to outdoor events. Additionally, online engagement in NRM’s virtual offerings has grown exponentially—to more than 1.4 million annually. Bookings for group tours are starting to rebound for Fall of 2021. While 2021 visitation is rebounding over 2020, The Clark Art Institute‘s 2021 gallery attendance is still below 2019 levels, due in part to capacity limits the Clark maintained throughout the first part of this year. With the advent of its first outdoor exhibition (which opened in mid 2020), the Clark’s grounds attendance (which is admission-free and open at all times) has more than doubled over 2019 levels.

A visitor strolls the grounds of The Clark Art Institute. Photo by Kara Thornton

Not surprisingly, outdoor recreation has encountered an enormous influx of visitors as people seek the safety of fresh air and open space. Jiminy Peak, Catamount Mountain Resort, Berkshire East, Bousquet Mountain, and Ramblewild have all fared well with skiers and thrill seekers. This past Labor Day, Mass Audubon Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary saw a spike in membership—one of the biggest in the past 5 years—evidence of the increase in demand for outdoor excursions. Impressively, Pleasant Valley reported that 90 percent of last year’s visitors were exploring the sanctuary for the first time. The Trustees of Reservations and Berkshire Natural Resources Council have reported similar findings and are actively working to help visitors discover some of their lesser-known trails to mitigate overuse.

Berkshire Botanical Garden has seen a huge spike in admissions this year. Photo by Ogden Gigli

It is also important to note that when our tourism businesses do well, others in the hospitality realm and beyond also succeed. Restaurants, boutiques, antique shops, cannabis providers, and outdoor sports stores, just to name a few, are seeing returns at or above 2019, despite the labor shortage so many of these businesses face. Phil Coleman, co-owner of Heirlooms Jewelry, said, “We were very pleased with the overall numbers and traffic this summer. 2021 was a very good year for us with revenues about equal to 2019 and double 2020. It’s been very steady, and we are looking forward to an even stronger 2022 with more of a return to normal.”

These figures offer only a snapshot of the Berkshire tourism and hospitality industry, but they inspire a positive outlook for the future. The uncertainty of ongoing COVID spikes looms, yet we are confident that our region will remain an increasingly desirable destination for both first-time and repeat visitors. The Berkshires has much to offer. The metrics of visitation may change from season to season and challenge to challenge, but our value proposition is strong and steady. Our visitors can count on that, and we can, too.

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