Lenox sees a strong year in tourism earnings

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LENOX — The unofficial end of the summer and fall tourism season was one of the strongest on record, according to data released by Town Hall and the Chamber of Commerce.

The state Department of Revenue's report for June through August shows that the town's 6 percent slice of the 11.7 percent lodging tax brought in $603,888, a slight increase from $601,704 during the same period last year and a small decline from the 2014 record of $605,782.

The town's meals tax, three-quarters of 1 percent added on to diners' checks, brought in $83,183 for the June-through-August period, down slightly from the two previous years.

The combined annual total of hospitality taxes continues to ring up just over $2 million for Lenox, helping to minimize tax rate increases while maintaining a high level of town services for residents.

But the rooms and meals tax figures for June through August don't reflect total collections for the prime summer months, Lee-Lenox Chief Administrative Officer Christopher Ketchen said, since some proprietors file their information with the state after the Sept. 30 reporting deadline.

That means that the fall season results, for September through November, are higher than the summer haul, he said in a recent interview.

From the Chamber of Commerce's perspective, the summer season yielded strong results. From June through August, hotels and inns reported $10,064,000 in total bookings, up from last year and $30,000 below the all-time high in 2014.

Perhaps surprisingly, Lenox restaurants outdid the hotels and inns, racking up $11,091,000 in business, according to the June-through-August report, the second highest for that three-month period. Restaurants started consistently surpassing lodging in revenue two years ago, said chamber Executive Director Kameron Spaulding, citing several prominent downtown eateries that have become "destinations in their own right, 'attraction restaurants' featured in The Boston Globe and The New York Times."

"There's a national trend that more and more people eat out more often," he said, citing industry studies.

The "tourist tax" figures for lodging tend to run two months behind, Spaulding noted, so the "summer season" totals represent April through June, and perhaps through the July 4 weekend.

"It's more of a spring, early summer report," he said. "I'm expecting the next report will be a very strong one."

That July-through-September tally will include the new Courtyard by Marriott in Lenox, which opened near the end of June. "We know that they had a strong summer," Spaulding said.

He cited widespread anecdotal reports that September-October tourism, aided by mostly fine, warm weather and an elongated foliage season, has been especially robust.

"In early October, we were seeing August-type numbers, especially on the weekends," according to Spaulding, citing the chamber's new booking software that closely tracks local lodging industry revenues. With the exception of one small bed-and-breakfast, the organization represents all Lenox hotels, motels and inns.

He pointed out that the surge in home rentals through Airbnb and other online booking services means that level results are more significant than 10 years ago. National studies show that Airbnb, Expedia/HomeAway and other online competitors have taken a 12 percent slice of the total hospitality pie this year.

The goal of making Lenox a four-season destination is in sight, Spaulding and Ketchen agreed, noting that more in-town restaurants and retailers are staying open through the winter.

Despite the upbeat results for hospitality and dining, the downtown retail sector, tracked by anecdotal reports and information-gathering, is a mixed picture — one store owner reported a 35 percent gain so far this year, while another is down 12 percent, Spaulding said. But the majority of retailers reported a sales increase, with a stable number of customers who opened their wallets for bigger purchases this summer.

With leases pending, there are only two vacant storefronts downtown, he added. A new arrival on Walker Street will be Richard and Joanna Rothbard's An American Craftsman Gallery, relocating from Stockbridge.

"Overall, the numbers show that Lenox tourism remains strong," Spaulding said, "but that new customers must continue to be found, the chamber's No. 1 goal as we head through fall and into winter."

"We have to continue to create and improve offseason events," he said — for example, the upcoming "Making Spirits Bright" pre-Christmas festivities the weekend of Dec. 1-3.

Other strategies include media "familiarization" visits to Lenox, with an emphasis on "social media influencers." The chamber is running a "You Deserve It" online fall and winter campaign in New York and Boston aimed at "high-income working people who deserve a weekend in the Berkshires."

The business group is also promoting the town to day-trippers from the Albany, N.Y., Hartford, Conn., and Worcester areas.

Ketchen voiced particular gratitude to Cafe Lucia's longtime proprietors, Jim Lucie and Nadine Atalla, for their decision last November to keep the doors open with a lower-priced "winterlude" menu aimed at locals and visitors. Lucie opened the restaurant 34 years ago, but had closed it during the quieter season starting in 2008. Several other eateries offer wallet-friendly deals to entice patrons during the colder months.

But, Spaulding noted, most local restaurants face a growing hiring challenge.

"Almost all of our restaurant partners never reached full staffing this year," he said. "They were always hiring; in midsummer it got to the point that they were hiring on the spot."

Visa barriers for overseas hospitality industry workers are a factor, Spaulding noted. Also, he asserted, "high school and college kids don't seem to carry jobs as much as they did five or 10 years ago. It isn't a priority."

Acknowledging the high-stakes competition for tourism dollars, the chamber is gathering data from a cross-section of destinations locally and statewide — Great Barrington, Williamstown, Sandwich and Provincetown on Cape Cod, Salem and Gloucester — to track how Lenox is faring compared with those communities.

"In meals and rooms taxes, Provincetown is within dollars of us," Spaulding pointed out. But he noted that the Cape Cod town reinvests 35 percent of its hospitality tax revenues on marketing to visitors, compared with 3 percent in Lenox.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com or 413-637-2551.


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