Berkshire Business Outlook: How one room becomes a business Airbnb takes root in the Berkshires

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Molly Guest of Clarksburg has student loans to pay that both she and her children owe. She and her husband, Lee, also have a room in their home with a beautiful view of Mount Greylock that was used only by her parents when they visited in the summer.

So, Guest saw an economic opportunity.

Despite some initial reluctance from her husband, Molly decided to list the spare room — which comes with a queen-sized bed and a private stand-up shower — through the online hospitality marketplace, Airbnb. The family's warmth, willingness to welcome tourists and their farmhouse's proximity to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in nearby North Adams have paid off in additional revenue.

"For me financially, it made sense," she said. "I have hosted a total of 41 guests since September of 2017."

Visitors who have used the Guests' vacant room have mostly been couples traveling to the Berkshires for weekend getaways. The couple has earned an average of $62 per night. Airbnb provides a "smart pricing" tool that adjusts the nightly price based on the demand for similar listings and a minimum that is controlled by the host.

"I'm so glad people are actually coming to Mass MoCA; it's a huge draw," Guest said. "I don't think people realize the investments there are in the area and how people are interested in visiting them. I send people to restaurants and museums all the time."

Last year, Mass MoCA completed a 130,000-square-foot, $65.4 million expansion project, known as Building 6. This new venue has helped double the museum's economic impact on the region over the past decade, according to estimates prepared by Williams College economics professor Stephen Sheppard. Mass MoCA generates about $50.8 million annually in local economic activity and sustains 586 full and part-time jobs while drawing roughly 245,000 visitors yearly.

Due to the market for lodging venues like hers, Guest said it was worth investing time and energy to upgrade the seldom-used room in her house with items like high-quality bed linens and guest towels.

A former waitress and hospitality worker, Guest also emphasized the small details — like having fresh coffee ready, or welcoming her guests with a personal note and area travel brochures.

Those personal touches have paid off. The Guests' room has received five-star reviews from guests 25 times since it became available to the public during Mass MoCA's FreshGrass Festival last fall. The venue has received the coveted distinction of being labeled a verified "Superhost" by AirBnb.

"You can't go and stay at a hotel for 70 bucks and have someone make you fresh pumpkin muffins," Guest said.

Guest has met new people, and made new friends since opening her home.

"The experience has been fabulous. I love it," she said.

MARKETING THE COUNTY

At 1Berkshire, the county's designated economic development agency, executive vice president Lauri Klefos, director of marketing Lindsey Schmid, and newly appointed director of member services Erika Allison and their colleagues constantly tout the Berkshires "brand." That marketing strategy includes the county's designation as "America's Premier Cultural Resort."

"Culture is our bedrock," said Klefos, who headed the Berkshire Visitors Bureau before it was absorbed into 1Berkshire. She touts legacy attractions like Tanglewood, Jacob's Pillow and the Clark Art Institute, and destination retreats like Blantyre, Cranwell Spa & Golf Resort, and Wheatleigh as Berkshire points of interest. These sites also provide jobs for county residents and generate revenue for local governments through their use as dining, shopping or lodging establishments.

Direct visitor spending in the Berkshires was $462.1 million in 2016, a slight increase from the $412.1 million spent the year before, but a sizeable gain over the $327.25 million tourists spent in the county in 2010, according to figures from the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism.

The number of people employed in the county's leisure and hospitality sector increased by almost a thousand to 4,008 between 2010 and 2016. The payrolls for Berkshire tourism-related venues have risen from $85 million to $121.7 million over that same time span.

Developers and entrepreneurs have capitalized on this trend. Ski resorts like Bousquet in Pittsfield, Catamount in Egremont, Jiminy Peak in Hancock and Ski Butternut in Great Barrington have added aerial parks and are now booking events year-round.

From Barrington Stage to Berkshire Theatre Group, the county's various performing arts companies have also expanded their seasons to hold year-round shows and social events.

Investments in the leisure and hospitality sector have increased in outdoor recreation, food and agricultural tourism and in health and wellness service during the past decade, Klefos said.

1Berkshire has responded to these events by launching marketing campaigns like "Taste Berkshires," "Breathe Deep in the Berkshires" and "Life is Calling" that have been organized by Schmid.

She's currently working on initiatives to boost mid-week stays and promote budget-friendly options for both domestic and international travelers.

"This great investment in product has spurred investment in lodging," Klefos said.

In Northern Berkshire, lodging projects currently underway include the Tourists hotel project on Route 2 in North Adams, a commercial hotel project on Main Street in Williamstown, and the construction of a new Williams Inn on Spring Street in Williamstown.

The Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism doesn't keep data on occupancy rates for private rentals and non-hotel resorts, and the Berkshires can't compete for guests with major metropolitan areas or places served by convention centers. For these reasons, Klefos doesn't compare Berkshire County's room occupancy rates with either state or national averages. She uses the total visitor spending figures as a guide.

In the Berkshires, "tourism is alive and well," Klefos said.


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