Sunday May 29, 2011

The hills are alive with the sights and sounds of summer this holiday weekend, the unofficial kickoff of the high season for the Berkshire hospitality industry, the county's third largest with 11,000 local jobs and $309 million a year in visitor spending.

"It's more like a soft opening," said Eva Amuso, owner of the Harbour House Inn in Cheshire. "Memorial Day is mostly a family holiday." Amuso and other proprietors surveyed on Saturday agreed that major entertainment attractions and special events in June promise to jump-start tourism.

The Wilco Total Sound Festival, moved to June 24-26 for the rock group's return engagement at Mass MoCA in North Adams, has made rooms scarce.

"I was booked within a week after Wilco was announced," said Amuso. "This is fabulous for the lodging industry and it has put heads in beds." The shortage of rooms in North Berkshire has diverted some festival-goers to inns in Northampton and southern Vermont.

However, larger establishments such as the Williams Inn still have several rooms available.

"We're one of the last to fill up," said owner Carl Faulkner of his 125-room Williamstown landmark. A large group of antique auto buffs has reserved his establishment for most of the third week of June.

"We're still struggling like everyone," Faulkner said, referring to the slow economic recovery. "But this summer should be stronger than the last two or three years." He cited The Clark's "Pissarro's People" special exhibition beginning June 12, the reopening of the renovated Williams College Museum of Art and programming by the Williamstown Theatre Festival's new director, Jenny Gersten.

"Wilco definitely helps the area, it creates a lot of buzz," said Faulkner.

Special events in Pittsfield surrounding the city's 250th anniversary celebrations this summer, the "Lift Ev'ry Voice" salute to the county's African-American cultural heritage June 19-July 23, active schedules at Barrington Stage and the Colonial Theatre, and the monthly Third Thursday street festival are expected to bring in especially large crowds.

Great Barrington is also staging festive events to mark its own 250th birthday.

The upcoming Tanglewood British Motor Car Festival (June 17-19) and an earlier start to the music season there are arousing cheers from local hoteliers.

"We appreciate the terrific gesture on Tanglewood's part," said Stan Rosen, owner of the Hampton Terrace Inn. His downtown Lenox B & B is seeing a 20 percent surge in advance bookings, he added, on top of similar increases during recent summers.

"The Berkshires are recession-proof," Rosen contended. "When times are good, people come here; when times are bad, they come here instead of vacationing in the Caribbean." He said visitors from nearby metropolitan areas prefer to drive several hours for more frequent extended weekends in the country, a boon to the local economy.

He also credited longer theater seasons and a dramatic expansion of farm-to-table "culinary tourism" for a more robust hospitality industry.

At the nearby Garden Gables B & B, innkeeper Peggy Roethel agreed that her customer base is growing because of Tanglewood's "expanded repertoire." The greater number of Popular Artists offerings this summer has yielded a major increase in reservations, she said.

Lodging establishments are averaging a 10 percent gain for this summer, said Lauri Klefos, president and CEO of the Berkshire Visitors Bureau in Adams. Factors include strong local programming and stepped-up promotion, including large posters bearing the legend "Imagine Yourself in the Berkshires!" at 100 mass-transit stations surrounding Boston.

While acknowledging that the economy is recovering "more slowly than any of us would like," Klefos maintained that discretionary spending for travel is gaining because of reduced consumer debt and a more stable labor market.

"We're also projecting more foreign visitors, especially from the United Kingdom and Germany, because the dollar is weaker, making it attractive for them to vacation here while fewer Americans travel to Europe," Klefos added.