Red Lion preps for $300K renovation

Project marks 50th year of ownership by Fitzpatrick family

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STOCKBRIDGE — Steeped in tradition but keen on enhancing the Red Lion Inn's appeal to contemporary travelers, the Fitzpatrick family is marking its 50th anniversary of saving the 1773 landmark from demolition by restoring the main lobby and revamping the expansive, 108-seat dining room.

Main Street Hospitality Group, the family-led company with a growing portfolio of properties in Berkshire County and beyond, also has reopened the former Shaker Mill Tavern in West Stockbridge, remembered by longtime locals as the Square Rigger, as a headquarters for its culinary division and a welcoming watering hole for area residents and visitors.

Reconfiguring the front of the Red Lion is "an idea that has been percolating for some time," said Sarah Eustis, CEO of Main Street Hospitality and step-daughter of Nancy Fitzpatrick. With the fall 2017 decision by shareholders to liquidate Country Curtains, the home decor company that her parents, the late Berkshire benefactors Jack and Jane Fitzpatrick, founded in 1957, its retail space in the south wing of the Red Lion's main floor became available for new purposes.

"When that chapter came to a close, we did a lot of deep thinking about how we should use that space," Eustis said. Options included a new retail partner, creation of a Berkshire Marketplace concept, a yoga studio or a conference room.

After careful consideration, the corporate team focused on honoring its mission of preservation with a close eye on financial goals.

At its monthly meetings, the family's corporate board of directors and shareholders had often heard Nancy Fitzpatrick voice a desire to restore the front lobby to its more spacious origins when her parents purchased the hotel in 1958.

"If we were going to do this, now's the time," Eustis said, since the economics of a restoration promised to be highly favorable.

The upshot: Refashioning about 1,500 square feet formerly occupied by the Country Curtains retail store for dining, larger gatherings and special events, and using the remaining 500 square feet to relocate and expand the inn's current retail gift shop.

There will be more space for dining, including a flexible space to be named the Fitzpatrick Room for various events "since there are nights here where we only need part of the dining room," Eustis said. The redesign is by Stockbridge architect Pamela Sandler, with technological support by local structural engineer Jeff Bak.

The two- to three-month project, costing up to $300,000, is slated for this fall, with anticipated completion by the end of this year, or soon thereafter. Business as usual will be maintained in the front dining room until that space is reimagined as an expansion of the lobby with living room-type furnishings.

"Not only can we maintain our current food and beverage business by moving the same number of tables, and maybe more, into the back room," Eustis said, "but we can also enhance our ability to meet the needs of larger groups and banquet-type events, which will enhance our economics."

The reconfigured "lobby living room" will serve as "the winter front porch" for relaxed beverage service and late-afternoon snacks, such as cheese and crackers.

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"It will be a very gracious experience but will also drive revenue," she said. "It upholds our commitment to preservation and to helping people build connections, allowing us to present something that will feel very traditional Red Lion, but will also have some more modern underpinnings to make people spend more time, to work on their computers or have a conversation or play cards with people."

The new project at the 125-room inn follows a $1.2 million kitchen renovation completed two years ago. It also heralds the gift shop relocation and repurposing of its current front-corner site as an informal morning breakfast cafe and a casual wine bar in the afternoon and evening, anticipated next year.

"We love that people get to come here, slow down and relax," Eustis said. "But we also want to provide an experience that matches up with our guests' lifestyles, whether they are staying here or are in the community."

Projections for Red Lion occupancy this summer look encouraging, she said, with strong programming at the area's cultural attractions and the opening of the $33 million Tanglewood Learning Institute late next month. With the arrival of additional hospitality enterprises and increased competition, "it's our job to be better at what we're doing and to make sure the Red Lion Inn provides a really unique experience," Eustis said.

The short-term rental phenomenon through Airbnb, Home Away and other online sites continues to be "a total market disrupter," she said. "Understanding it is important for all hoteliers. They've now become important in the overall exposure and offerings of a region."

Main Street Hospitality is listing accommodations on Airbnb at the Red Lion, its adjacent 17-room Maple Glen guest house and at the company-owned Briarcliff motel in Great Barrington as part of a "if you can't fight `em, join `em" strategy.

The company's Berkshires portfolio also includes The Porches Inn in North Adams, Hotel on North in Pittsfield and the affiliated Race Brook Lodge in Sheffield. As its first venture outside the county, Main Street Hospitality Group will manage the new 84-room Hammetts Hotel at the $29 million Hammetts Wharf complex on the Newport, R.I., waterfront, opening next spring.

With overall Berkshire hotel occupancy steady at a 53 percent year-round average, according to reports compiled by Smith Travel Research, "any new rooms going forward need to have a strong reason for being here," Eustis said. The Red Lion's occupancy is in the 55 to 60 percent range, she said, with Hotel on North and The Porches even higher.

"We feel lucky to be leaders in the market," Eustis said, "but it's true ultimately, when supply reaches a certain point, it will be diluted. We're not there yet, but we're getting there and have to be mindful of that."

Main Street continues to scope out opportunities within and outside the Berkshires, specifically to upgrade or repurpose existing rooms. "We want to focus on the effective operation of our current properties," she said, with a "robust but thoughtful" growth plan.

The company's culinary division, Main Street Catering and Events run by Brian Alberg, a master chef and vice president of culinary development, is expanding. Its latest project, the Tap House at Shaker Mill in West Stockbridge, serves as a catering hub and features a restored, 80-seat seasonal tavern plus outdoor dining, with a bar menu and beer selection. Current dinner hours are Thursday through Sunday, with lunch on weekends planned this summer.

"It speaks to our role as preservationists for places that are important to their community, like the Shaker Mill," Eustis said. "If we have a concept, the talent and the resources to bring something like that back to life and have it be economically sound, that's intriguing to us."

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


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