In Berkshire County, Tourists Needed And Expected This Summer
People are dreaming of a less sequestered summer, and with COVID-19 restrictions easing, the Berkshires will be a destination for many.
Business owners count on tourists coming to this relatively small region, rich in live music, theater and museums. For them, last summer was brutal. This year, it could almost feel like the old days.
Earlier this spring, in preparation for a promising but limited summer of live concerts, officials at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts, produced several videos and web pages chock-full of safety information.
That was before Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker announced this week he would lift almost all COVID-19 regulations by the end of May.
Tanglewood is now re-evaluating its plans for the season, with a possible increase in the number of tickets sold for the historic Koussevitzky Music Shed and for seats on the venue’s famous well-manicured lawn.
Anthony Fogg, the director of Tanglewood, said he can't wait to hear the Boston Symphony Orchestra live — along with the audience’s live applause.
As for the area's economy, Fogg said Tanglewood is “sort of the engine"for the Berkshires.
“We play an extremely important role in the economy of the Berkshires,” Fogg said. “I think we view that responsibility very heavily, and we’re pleased we found a way to come back.”
'By no means a regular economy yet'
About a 15-minute car ride from Tanglewood is the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge. The Rockwell museum's director/CEO, Laurie Norton Moffatt, anticipates a great summer. But like almost everywhere, it's been a tough year.
“Our revenues were reduced by about $2 million last year,” Norton Moffatt said. “We're grateful we've been able to be open, but it's by no means a regular economy yet.”
About a one-third of the museum's staff were laid off and Norton Moffatt said they’re not able to rehire anyone anytime soon.
As for visitors, on summer weekends before the pandemic, thousands of people a day came to the Berkshires — including on those large tour buses, Norton Moffatt said.
“Forty-five to 50 people on a bus,” she said, though not likely this year. "All of these businesses are still working their way back, just like the airlines.”
Since last year, when the Rockwell museum reopened in July 2020, it has operated at 20% the usual visitor capacity. That was the plan until the announcement this week that Massachusetts will end capacity restrictions. A spokesperson said the museum is evaluating the new guidelines before it makes any changes.
Regardless, Norton Moffatt has been looking forward to a fantasy art exhibit this summer, along with the opening party that had to be canceled last year.
'Really hard time getting all the staff mobilized'
As art centers reopen and bring people to the region, businesses will do well too. About three miles away from the Rockwell Museum is the historic Red Lion Inn on Main Street in Stockbridge.
Even on a cool, gray day earlier this month, a few people were sitting on the inn’s famous porch. Inside, the lunch crowd was still lingering at a few tables in the restaurant just off the lobby.
Red Lion Inn owner Sarah Eustis' family has owned the inn for the past 50 years. She’s also the CEO of Main Street Hospitality. In the Berkshires, the company owns a hotel in North Adams and another in Great Barrington.
Even in the pandemic, Main Street has moved forward, building a new hotel in Providence.
“Oh goodness,” Eustis said. “It's been, you know, the most remarkable year — good and bad — in my professional career.”
There were months of financial uncertainty and staff was furloughed. But the inn, like other businesses, made it through with federal support and private investments. Eustis is optimistic about the coming summer.
“By no means are we fully booked, but for certain months — the August, September, October window — we are more booked for those months now than we were in 2019,” Eustis said.
One big hurdle for the inn and businesses everywhere is staffing. People are just not applying for open jobs, Eustis said, and in part she blamed expanded federal unemployment benefits.
“We are having a really hard time getting all the staff mobilized that we need to, which could actually undermine our potential to maximize the demand that's coming,” Eustis said.
She’s hoping the inn's clientele will be patient if they have to wait a few minutes longer than usual for their meal or turndown service.
The world of high-end hospitality is based on a certain experience, not unlike the rest of the hotel and restaurant industry.
Locals are the base, but tourists are vital
“Eating out — it's not a right,” said North Adams, Mass., restaurant owner Colleen Taylor. “It's a privilege.”
Taylor co-owns three restaurants in North Adams, including the Freight Yard, open for almost 30 years.
For businesses in the area, it's critical that travelers come through this summer, Taylor said. It is every summer.
“To every restaurant in Berkshire County, the tourism that we do here is significant in its ability to maintain the small businesses at 100%,” Taylor said.
Her local customers are a base, but tourists are how she and other businesses survive.
The same could be said for the Berkshire’s many theaters.
'Interruption in our cultural ecosystem'
Notably, last summer, the Berkshire Theatre Group pioneered the first COVID-era musical in the country performed with union actors, “Godspell.” The show took place outside under a tent at the Colonial Theatre, the group's Pittsfield space.
The New York Times theater reporter Michael Paulson was there. This summer, as he keeps one eye on the reopening of Broadway, he said he plans to be in western Massachusetts theaters as much as possible.
“From Barrington Stage to the Berkshire Theatre Group to Williamstown to Shakespeare & Company, you know, that's a lot for a relatively small rural area,” Paulson said.
Paulson said the current high demand for cultural events in New York and London is an indication the Berkshires should see solid audiences this summer.
“I think everybody recognizes that we've just been through this interruption in our cultural ecosystem that's unlike anything anyone currently alive has been through before,” Paulson said. “It won't be the same as a normal summer in the Berkshires, but it will be vastly richer than it was last summer.”
Vastly busier too — and not just for the arts, according to Jonathan Butler, executive director of 1Berkshire, the area business and visitors’ bureau.
“I think the one thing in 2020 that was a bit of a revelation was while the cultural institutions obviously were operating in a limited footprint, and we didn't even really have performing arts, the recreational economy exploded,” Butler said.
In the past year, he said, more people than ever came to the Berkshires for its hiking trails, to cycle and boat, stay overnight and have a meal or two.
The outdoor recreation business is like an “additional backbone” to the county's summer economy, Butler said, one to build on. And, he said, it's bringing a younger crowd to the Berkshires.