Lenox, Pittsfield hotel proposals spur skepticism about possible glut of available rooms


LENOX -- A proposal for a new, major resort in town, combined with four other nearby projects, has some hospitality industry veterans wondering if a glut of rooms might be developing.

Just announced last week is the planned transformation of the historic Spring Lawn property adjoining Shakespeare & Company into a "boutique resort" with up to 95 rooms in two phases, subject to zoning board approval.

Other projected lodging facilities within four miles of downtown Lenox are Courtyard by Marriott and a Hilton Gardens hotels off Routes 7 and 20, just across the city line in Pittsfield, each with close to 100 rooms.

In the same area, the just-renamed Berkshire Mountain Lodge, formerly the Patriot Suites Hotel, is set to reopen early next year with 147 time-share units. The site has been closed for nearly four years.

Just across the town line in Stockbridge is the Elm Court Inn, undergoing renovation and expansion to nearly 100 rooms.

If all goes according to plan, about 540 more rooms would pump up the area's already highly competitive lodging industry. By the Berkshire Visitors Bureau tally, the county now has 4,544 rooms, including 983 in Lenox.

Smith Travel Research, which tracks about two dozen of the larger properties, reported July and August 2013 occupancy rates averaging out to 65 percent, a slight decline from 2012. Year-round occupancy in 2012 was just shy of 45 percent, about the same as the previous year.

Nevertheless, "there's a very upbeat feeling in the lodging industry right now," said Lauri Klefos, president and CEO of the BVB, which represents 99 percent of the county's innkeepers. "Travel demand is certainly growing, and it's especially strong among international visitors."

Emphasizing that each of the new properties caters to different segment of the tourism market, with Hilton and Marriott targeting business as well as leisure travelers, Klefos depicted Elm Court and Spring Lawn as focusing on "high-end luxury travel, where we're seeing demand increasing."

The new projects represent the first substantial increase in rooms during her five-year tenure as head of the visitors bureau, Klefos said.

She acknowledged that all the developers contacted her as part of their "due diligence" market research.

Although "occupancy rates are just one measure of success," Klefos said, "it will be an absolutely more competitive environment for us."

"I'm not overly concerned about the influx of rooms over time," she said. "I don't know an innkeeper who doesn't welcome competition."

Each of the new facilities being developed could target specific types of travelers, said Eiran Gazit, a longtime international, national and regional hospitality manager and consultant who currently co-owns the Gateways Inn in downtown Lenox.

He predicted that the Hilton and Marriott hotels would host organized group tours, since there are only a few sites that can accommodate multiple busloads of more than 50 people each.

As for the Elm Court Inn -- being developed by the international Travaasa Experiential Resorts corporation that purchased the historic estate for $9.8 million in July 2012 -- Gazit foresees it as a long-term investment and high-end competition for top-of-the-line destination resorts such as Canyon Ranch, Blantyre and Wheatleigh.

But he questioned the potential market for Spring Lawn, voicing doubt on whether there's a demand for more rooms in the less-stratospheric price range currently occupied by the Cranwell Resort, the Kemble Inn and a roster of smaller properties in Lenox.

A retired real estate investment analyst and property manager expressed skepticism about the upsurge in hotel projects.

"How many more hotels and B&B's can this small area support?" asked Julia Kaplan of Pittsfield. "What will it do to the existing B&B's whose average size is about 20 rooms? What will it do to the excellent, established Cranwell Resort and Red Lion Inn?"

Kaplan questioned the impact of two more chain hotels and two significant historic-estate expansions on the area's overall occupancy rate. She also cited potential traffic and parking problems in downtown Lenox and Stockbridge.

"Places like Blanytre and Wheatleigh probably won't be affected because of their "5 star" designation and special niche they have in the market," Kaplan predicted in an e-mail message.

But she foresees negative consequences for the smaller motels along the Route 7 & 20 corridor, as well as on the "beautifully maintained" Gateways, Garden Gable, Kemble and Rookwood inns "which struggle to maintain occupancy rates in order to stay open."

While Kaplan praised the historic preservation of the Elm Court and Spring Lawn properties, she questioned the planned number of rooms.

"I'm wondering if anyone is looking at the big picture of the region, if anyone has done a regional marketability analysis or feasibility study," she stated. "What will it do to the existing hospitality businesses? Can the area absorb the inventory? What will become of our downtown village areas?"

But Klefos, of the Berkshire Visitors Bureau, pointed to an investment surge in the county. "I'm not surprised to see hospitality developers looking at us as a place to invest."

Or, as Paul Sacco, president of the Massachusetts Lodging Association put it at a conference of tourism officials in Boston on Monday: "There's no better time to be an innkeeper in Massachusetts than right now."

By the numbers ...

Total Berkshire lodging rooms: 4,544

Total Lenox lodging rooms: 983

Room occupancy rate, July 2013: 62.7%

Room occupancy rate, Aug. 2013: 68.5%

Year-round occupancy rate, 2012: 44.9%

Direct spending by travelers: $355 million (2012), $346 million (2011)

Sources: Berkshire Visitors Bureau, Smith Travel Research.

Note: Room occupancy rates are based
on 23 major Berkshire County sites.

To contact Clarence Fanto:
or (413) 637-2551.
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto


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