Clarence Fanto | With more rooms, the hope for more guests in the Berkshires

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LENOX — With the opening of the new Courtyard by Marriott in Lenox last Monday, another 92 rooms have been added to the town's high-power lodging industry, bringing the total to just over 1,000.

That's nearly half of the estimated 2,300 rooms available countywide. Leaders of the all-in-the-family Toole Lodging Group, owner of the new Courtyard, now say they agree with what many residents have questioned — is it enough already? Have we reached the saturation point, especially with developers of several hundred more rooms proposed, in development, or awaiting a Massachusetts Land Court ruling?

Following last Sunday's launch party celebrating the end of boot-camp training for the 50-plus employees of the $10 million hotel, General Manager Mayur Desai pointed out that the "latest, greatest" Courtyard design is aimed at millennial leisure and business travelers. The concept assumes that guests will use their rooms primarily for sleeping — not that the rooms aren't comfortably appointed. Other major chains, including Hilton, have adopted a similar approach.

"Guests will spend less time in the room, more time here in the public area," said Desai, son-in-law of family patriarch and company founder Joseph Toole.

Instead, the hotel has a spacious, open-plan lobby and cafe where hotel patrons can socialize, have a morning Starbucks with a made-to-order breakfast, or linger over drinks and supper at the Marriott's branded Bistro or the outdoor fire pit. Since both vacationers as well as business travelers are often tethered to online chores these days, the hotel's lobby has plenty of computer work stations and charging connections.

Average year-round occupancy should range from 60 to 65 percent, Colin Toole, CEO of the family business, predicted, considering the "power of the Courtyard Marriott brand," and the location on Routes 7 and 20 as the closest branded hotel to downtown Lenox. That would be well over the 52 percent reported by STR Global (formerly Smith Travel Research) in its latest survey of occupancy in the county's two-dozen major lodging facilities.

In a followup interview as the Courtyard began checking in its first guests on Monday, Joe Toole, chairman of the Toole Cos., acknowledged his five-year struggle to get the hotel permitted and built: "A long battle, but it was worth it," he told me.

When asked if he has any other hotel projects in mind for this area, Toole — whose holdings include the nearby Yankee Inn and Hampton Inn (affiliated with Hilton) as well as Yankee Suites Extended Stay in Pittsfield — said "we're already beyond the saturation point — we have to bring in latent demand, so our work is cut out for us."

"With the Courtyard, we're topping off the high end of our portfolio with an upscale product," Colin Toole said as he acknowledged the new hotel is in competition with the family's other properties.

"A lot of people see Marriott or Hampton or Hilton and think there's a faceless, corporate setting, but we're very different from a lot of our competition in the area because we are a family," said Mollie Desai, Joe Toole's daughter and director of marketing and culture for the Toole Cos. "All of our properties are headed up by one of our family members, one of our brothers. Yes, we are a Marriott but we're really the Toole family."

"We're local, we are going out of our way and not afraid to roll our sleeves up and dive in, whether it's housekeeping, front desk, the kitchen, the Bistro, we're 100 percent committed to go above and beyond what our guests expect, want and need, and the same thing for our employees," Mayur Desai said.

Echoing his father's viewpoint expressed in an earlier one-on-one interview, Colin Toole supported the notion that the hotel market is saturated "to a point where we don't see the feasibility of adding more rooms at this point given that there haven't been any new demand-generators that have come to the Berkshires in quite some time. We know we're going to have to work hard for every guest to come in this door. The pie is only so big, and we're going to have to work to get as much of it as we can."

Nevertheless, he pointed out that the long-term outlook for the Berkshires, given the $30 million Tanglewood expansion project but even in the small-business sector, is "really encouraging, so we have an optimistic view."

Still, he conceded, "we're not fooling ourselves that we can sit back on our laurels and expect the guests to just come through the doors."

Of course, other hotel developers would take issue with the view that guest demand isn't there for more rooms.

Vijay Mahida and his family have close to 200 rooms planned at their Westin Element extended-stay and events center at Lenox Manor (the former Magnuson Hotel) and at their downtown Great Barrington hotel, the Berkshire.

Travaasa Experiential Resorts awaits a court decision on the locally permitted hotel for the Elm Court property on the Lenox-Stockbridge line.

Miraval, now owned by Hyatt, is set to add more than 40 rooms to its re-imagined, re-invigorated Cranwell resort property.

Patrick Sheehan and Tony Guthrie have proposed an extensive development at the former DeSisto property in the Interlaken section of Stockbridge — a complex of just over 200 hotel, condo units and single-family homes.

At some point, the hospitality industry in South Berkshire will hit a ceiling on the demand for rooms. Whether that point has been reached is a matter of conjecture, and there's obviously no consensus.

Since tourism is among the top three drivers of the county's less-than-robust economy, hope persists that there's space for all players through a larger pie, rather than smaller slices.

Reach correspondent Clarence Fanto at cfanto@yahoo.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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