Franklin County lodging managers say a lack of rooms is impacting tourist trade

Innkeeper Laurie McDonald, pictured inside the Deerfield Inn in Old Deerfield, says the number of rooms available in the area could easily increase. “There is so much demand coming out this way,” she says. “I could have 500 rooms and they would still sell out in May.”

Innkeeper Laurie McDonald, pictured inside the Deerfield Inn in Old Deerfield, says the number of rooms available in the area could easily increase. “There is so much demand coming out this way,” she says. “I could have 500 rooms and they would still sell out in May.” STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Jon Schaefer, whose family has owned Berkshire East Mountain Resort in Charlemont since 1976, is concerned about the lack of lodging in the area hurting the growth of the tourism economy.

Jon Schaefer, whose family has owned Berkshire East Mountain Resort in Charlemont since 1976, is concerned about the lack of lodging in the area hurting the growth of the tourism economy. STAFF PHOTO/BELLA LEVAVI

Innkeeper Laurie McDonald, pictured inside the Deerfield Inn in Old Deerfield, says the number of rooms available in the area could easily increase. “There is so much demand coming out this way,” she says. “I could have 500 rooms, and they would still sell out in May.”

Innkeeper Laurie McDonald, pictured inside the Deerfield Inn in Old Deerfield, says the number of rooms available in the area could easily increase. “There is so much demand coming out this way,” she says. “I could have 500 rooms, and they would still sell out in May.” STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

The Deerfield Inn in Old Deerfield has 24 rooms, and they are already sold out for most of May, September, October and November.

The Deerfield Inn in Old Deerfield has 24 rooms, and they are already sold out for most of May, September, October and November. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

By BELLA LEVAVI

Staff Writer

Published: 03-31-2024 5:00 PM

When Brolin Winning owned Smokey Bro’s BBQ on the Mohawk Trail several years ago, tons of tourists who stopped at his Shelburne establishment for a bite to eat had the same question for him.

“Every single weekend, people would ask us if there was a nice place to stay out here,” Winning said.

So when Winning was asked to make a business plan for a friend, it felt like a no-brainer to develop a resort hotel, Shelburne Springs. Although it took several years to complete — running into the pandemic along the way — as soon as it was done, the business was an instant success.

“Everyone loves it,” said Winning, who is Shelburne Springs’ general manager. “We have been open not even a year and we already have returning guests and bookings out for multiple years.”

Part of the reason for that success may be due to the fact that there is a lack of lodging available in Franklin County.

“The number of rooms in the area could easily increase. There is so much demand coming out this way,” said Laurie McDonald, innkeeper at the Deerfield Inn. “I could have 500 rooms and they would still sell out in May.”

McDonald explained that the 24 rooms at the Deerfield Inn are already sold out for most of May, September, October and November. Similarly, Winning said he wishes he had double the space of his seven rooms in the summer and fall due to the abundance of inquiries he receives.

Co-owner and Chef Mark Ellis of the Clamber Hill Inn & Restaurant in Petersham said that May 1 to Dec. 31 is considered his business’ busy season, particularly with graduations. He said their six rooms book well in advance during those months, and for graduations as far away as the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Due to the demand for events like these, the inn doesn’t take reservations more than six months in advance. Ellis added that during the busy season, he could easily book more than four times the number of rooms.

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“For the private schools (graduations), people want to stay here,” he said. “They know the situation with lodging.”

Ellis said that overall, they’re satisfied with the level of business. According to the inn’s website, Mark and Deni Ellis established Clamber Hill Inn in May 1998 and the restaurant opened in January of 2003. He said that when they came to the area, they were surprised with the “dearth of places” at the time.

Both McDonald and Jon Schaefer, whose family has owned Berkshire East Mountain Resort in Charlemont since 1976, said when a wedding comes to their respective towns, guests have trouble finding lodging within a 20-mile radius.

“When we do weddings, it blows up the lodging around here,” Schaefer said. “You have 100 guests; they book 30 rooms. Charlemont can barely support that, let alone all the kayakers, bikers and fishers.”

Schaefer said Franklin County has about 384 rooms, which he hand-counted a couple of years ago. This figure excludes short-term rentals such as Airbnbs.

There are about 71,000 residents of Franklin County according to census data, which leaves the region having far fewer than 100 lodging rooms per 10,000 residents. According to Schaefer, by comparison, Vermont has about 300 rooms per 10,000 residents.

“The density of rooms availability is way higher,” Schaefer said. “They are able to absorb more tourism.”

Schaefer explained that $2 billion of tourism drives up to Vermont and New Hampshire annually.

“A lot of it drives right past us,” he said. “You don’t need to pull in everyone, but as many that can stop and buy a coffee and visit Shelburne Falls or Old Deerfield and stay here — we win, the state wins, the town wins.”

The problem is even worse in western Franklin County, with most of the lodging being in Deerfield and Greenfield. This creates a problem, Schaefer argued, because this brings people closer to the highway, meaning they can easily get on the highway and go home, leaving them lingering in the region for a shorter period of time.

“We need 20 Shelburne Springs,” Schaefer said. “There is so much excess demand. We have capacity [at Berkshire East] to have really big, fun events, but on the lodging side, we have no capacity.”

Franklin County Chamber of Commerce and Regional Tourism Council Executive Director Jessye Deane explained that the lack of lodging is most certainly a problem, but it’s a good one to have.

Total trips to Franklin County and total days spent by visitors both saw a more than 30% increase in fiscal year 2023, and 1.6 million unique visitors came to the region from July 2022 to June 2023, which represented a 75% increase over previous years, according to Deane. She explained that tourism is rapidly growing in the region, which is great for the economy, but difficult when it comes to meeting the lodging needs.

Finding an investor

Traditionally, hoteliers subscribe to a data service called Smith Travel Research (STR). This service shows the analytics for hotels in a given region, which can give hard data to investors who are interested in new markets. Tourism councils can retrieve numbers on how well their hotels perform. The problem, however, is the hotels in this region are too small for the service.

“Our challenge is we have to overcompensate to show analytics,” Deane said.

For Shelburne Springs, Winning’s investor was his friend. He was able to use his own insights and understood that most of the lodging in the area are campgrounds or legacy inns, and luxury accommodations are lacking. McDonald noted that the hotel data can show the times the inn is sold out, but what it doesn’t show is the 200 other requests received for a given night in May. This shows that the severe need is difficult to represent, with analytic data made by large companies not specifically looking at the area.

Entry-level costs for hotel rooms run about $80,000 to $100,000, according to Schaefer, meaning that if a 60-room hotel in Charlemont were to open, it would cost investors upwards of $5 million.

“People like to invest in something that someone else has invested in,” Schaefer said, adding that he struggles to respond to investors when they ask, “If the area is so great, why hasn’t anyone else done it?”

Market studies done by Berkshire East always come back positive, but investors are still curious as to why no other lodging investors have tried.

Schaefer said Berkshire East has invested in its assets. In the past 10 years, the resort has completely upgraded almost all its infrastructure, including the septic system and detachable chairlifts. However, the resort still struggles to find investing partners to make new lodging.

“The set of natural assets here are off the charts,” Schaefer said. “The more we stitch them together and keep up the great quality of the communities we live in and love, the more that will attract the right investor who wants to build something alongside what we have.”

Many of the experts interviewed said that the lack of lodging comes with a necessity to balance the needs of residents with the needs of tourists. They said that the growing short-term rental market continues to hurt the already deprived housing shortage. With the lack of lodging comes a need to build tourism infrastructure, they said, not take from the current housing market.

A growing market

Deane explained that traditionally, Franklin County is a day trip market.

“As a tourism council, we want to help people fall in love with the area and stay longer and spend more money,” Deane explained.

She said this moment is the perfect opportunity for that to happen, as people have stopped relying on travel agents and are instead using social media and digital marketing for their travel plans.

“We have an opportunity because agro-tourism and niche travel are extremely popular,” Deane said. “We want to make sure we are staying ahead of these trends and making as many people fall in love with Franklin County as possible.”

The Franklin County Chamber of Commerce invites influencers and writers from the Boston Globe and Yankee Magazine to come and make content about tourism, spreading the word about what Franklin County has to offer.

Much of the data shows that this is working. McDonald reported that the Deerfield Inn saw a 5% increase in room occupancy this year.

Schaefer said what is amazing about the region is it’s “very subtle but very accessible.” He said in the past, businesses have had a difficult time telling this story to tourists, but with the chamber’s help, it is becoming more obvious beyond the borders of Franklin County. He said if people can have multi-day experiences they will fall in love with the area and return for vacations. He is optimistic a big shift will happen in the next five or six years.

“We need to continue doing what we do well and make it not only appealing to guests, but to people who want to support that energy with a capital investment,” Schaefer said, mentioning the need to “find a true believer” in the region.

   Reach Bella Levavi at 413-930-4579 or blevavi@recorder.com. Athol Daily News Editor Max Bowen contributed to this article.