Clarence Fanto: Some question wisdom of building new hotels


LENOX -- Is there really a demand for nearly 200 more hotel rooms on the already-crowded stretch of Routes 7 and 20 straddling the Lenox-Pittsfield border?

Pittsfield leaders obviously think so, since two new projects would enhance the commercial tax base and help propel more visitors to the city's many attractions and restaurants.

Veteran lodging proprietors Joseph Toole and Vijay Mahida obviously think so. Mahida, owner of the Great Barrington Comfort Inn, plans a 95-room Hilton Garden hotel behind Guido's Marketplace on the 2.4-acre site of the now-demolished Dr. Lahey's Garden at a cost of $10 million. Opening date is targeted for next summer.

The Toole Lodging Group, whose holdings include the Yankee Inn and the Hampton Inn just a stone's throw away, is developing a 91-room Courtyard by Marriott on a 12.5 acre site just west of the Stop and Shop plaza on Dan Fox Drive -- cost unreported so far. Permitting is underway; opening is likely to be in 2015. Despite a mysterious legal challenge, the project seems to be on track.

Access and traffic-impact concerns have bubbled up for the Hilton Garden plan, since it has a relatively narrow access driveway and the commercial strip of the heavily traveled state highway already is accident-prone. Meanwhile, an appeal from a rival lodging owner seeking to reverse the already-granted building permit may go to the state since it was denied locally.

It stands to reason that Marriott and Hilton did the usual due diligence and market research before awarding two franchises for major new hotels in Pittsfield.

But the question of whether the existing tourism pie will be sliced too thin has been raised privately by several Lenox lodging owners. While there's great demand for rooms in July and August, especially on weekends and holidays, it's a short and swift high season.

According to Lauri Klefos, president and CEO of the Berkshire Visitors Bureau as well as vice-president and chief marketing officer of 1Berkshire, there are 4,700 rooms available in the Berkshires -- 21 percent of them in Lenox.

STR Global (Smith Travel Research) tracks lodging industry occupancy rates worldwide. In Berkshire County, where it monitors about two dozen of the larger properties, occupancy last July and August ranged from 66 to nearly 68 percent, a slight increase of about 4 percent from the previous summer. But year-round occupancy has averaged around 45 to 50 percent because off-season vacancy rates are high.

Klefos pointed out that the hospitality industry in the Berkshires has been recovering from the Great Recession slump. Although 2012 statistics on direct spending by travelers aren't out yet, the total for 2011 was $346 million, up almost 6 percent from the previous year.

She has also cited research showing that some travelers are brand-loyal because they prefer familiar amenities or benefit from frequent-guest "miles" entitling them to upgrades. Toole, whose Hampton Inn franchise is a Hilton subsidiary, must be counting on the appeal of the Marriott brand for his project. And Mahida has long wanted to expand into Pittsfield.

"When people come to a destination, they usually look for proximity to what they're doing, or they're brand-conscious," Klefos has said. "They're looking for a Marriott or a Hilton. A lot of people travel that way."

It's noteworthy that Patriot Resorts Corp. is pursuing a $1 million renovation of its Patriot Suites Hotel on Dan Fox Drive, which opened in 2005 and closed in 2010, in order to convert the facility to a timeshare with 142 units.

The Elm Court Inn, a boutique resort planned in Stockbridge, will add another 96 rooms to the mix when it opens next year.

At the same time, at least a half-dozen bed-and-breakfasts are on the market in the Lenox, Lee and Stockbridge vicinity. Whether this reflects an impending boom in the Berkshire travel industry or simply a desire by longtime owners to retire is unclear.

What is clear from industry research is that younger generations of travelers gravitate toward full-service hotels and resorts with technological amenities (flat screens, free Wi-Fi) and pools (preferably indoor for bad weather). Ideally, there are also enough visitors seeking a more traditional, intimate New England-style inn or B & B to keep all the owners prospering on the playing field.

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