By Stephen DravisWilliamstown Correspondent Print | Email
A Chinese face dancer entertains at the Clark Art in 2012 as part of an exhibition of Sterling Clark's Asian travels. Local businesses and marketers are hoping the museum's opening of its new visitors' center and galleries will be a major boon to the region.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Carl Faulkner is as patriotic as the next guy.
But do not be surprised if he is especially happy this July Fourth.
"My gut reaction is things are going to pick up," the owner of the Williams Inn said this week.
For a variety of reasons, it has been a rough few years for hoteliers in this part of the county, Faulkner said. But there is cause for optimism as the summer of 2014 looms on the horizon.
The main reason: That horizon features the dawn of a new Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute.
The multimillion dollar expansion and renovation of the Clark is scheduled to open to the public on Independence Day, and tourism marketers throughout the Berkshires and particularly in Williamstown expect an increase in the number of visitors to the region.
"The biggest news for the summer is the Clark and the opening," Berkshire Visitors Bureau President Lauri Klefos said. "We're super excited about that.
"That is a major investment in the area and also major news in international markets and our key market where we attract visitors, which is New York."
The Clark previously has reported a price tag for the entire redesign — including the completed Stone Hill Center and the new Visitor Center — at about $145 million. Now the local economy stands to reap long-term benefits of that long-term investment.
"I think this is going to give us a big increase this summer," Klefos said.
How big an increase is anyone's guess at this point.
In December 2012, Clark Director Michael Conforti told iBerkshires.com that the museum conservatively estimated a 10 to 20 percent bump in the 200,000 visitors it sees in a typical summer.
Faulkner said he has not seen a tremendous increase in the number of advance reservations for early July, but he doesn't expect to.
"People don't make reservations as far ahead as they used to," he said.
That said, "I'm sure we have more bookings for this summer right now than we had at this time last year," Faulkner said.
Faulkner easily ticks off the reasons why bookings have been down the last few summers: Tropical Storm Irene and "Superstorm Sandy" in back-to-back years impacted residents of New Jersey and Long Island who traditionally make their way to the Berkshires each summer; droughts and floods in the Midwest affected farmers who historically participate in bus tours to New England; tighter security at the Canadian border has made bus travel between Montreal and New York City less convenient, affecting Williamstown, a natural stop on such tours; the renovation of Williamstown's Field Park rotary made the inn's neighborhood less attractive for a time; and the Clark's construction project itself kept a certain percentage of visitors away.
"We were really hit hard when they closed for two weeks in September," Faulkner said. "We saw a real drop in our lunch business during that time."
The hope now is that the temporary pain is going to pay off when tourists come flocking to see what is marketed as "The Clark Next."
The Clark's own marketing efforts for the expansion and renovation started before shovels hit the ground in fall 2011.
The director of communications was in New York City this week helping put the finishing touches on the spring marketing push but took time to talk about what the museum has been doing to sell itself.
"The Clark generally does some national advertising every summer," Vicki Saltzman said in a telephone interview. "We are always promoting summer exhibits in The New York Times, for example. From year to year, we've used other major national publications as well. We're looking at all of them. We'll have a healthy mix of print and online advertising."
In December, the Clark hosted a public relations event in New York City with the architect responsible for the Stone Hill Center and Visitors Center, Tadao Ando. The event was "very well attended" by architecture and travel writers, Saltzman said.
And the Clark strategically used the closure of its 1955 museum building as an opportunity to send items from its permanent collection on a world tour, where millions of patrons were exposed to the Clark and informed about its home in the Berkshires.
"We want to use [the grand opening] as a great opportunity to promote tourism in the Berkshires," Saltzman said. "While the Clark has lots to offer and lots to see and we hope people will want to spend a lot of time here ... it's a real cultural playground people want to discover.
An overview of the massive construction project in 2012.
"We will be working closely with everyone from the Norman Rockwell Museum to Mass MoCA to the Berkshire Visitors Bureau to take advantage of what we hope will be an exciting opportunity."
Collaboration among cultural venues is one of the goals of the Williamstown Chamber of Commerce, which is planning a spring press event to bring together the Clark, Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, the Williams College Museum of Art and the Williamstown Theatre Festival to talk about their summer offerings, Chamber Executive Director Jennifer Civello said.
Although the Williamstown Chamber itself has a limited marketing budget, it is purchasing ad space in the Mohawk Trail Association guide that is direct mailed to 100,000 people and it is stepping up its own Internet presence with more Facebook marketing and a mobile-ready website, Civello said.
And for town residents and visitors on the Clark's opening day itself, expect a stepped up Clark presence at the annual Fourth of July parade, Civello said.
Like Klefos, Civello was not making any guesses on how many more visitors will come to the area this summer. There is anecdotal evidence of more interest in Williamstown for summer '14.
"I have had calls from people asking about alternative sites, like bed and and breakfasts," Civello said. "A lot of our visitors are looking for out-of-the-box opportunities."
And a lot of those visitors — and residents — will be clamoring to be first among the visitors to the new-look Clark.
The museum has a plan for that.
"We will be launching a new website in the spring of this year, probably in early May," Saltzman said. "At the time we launch the new site, we will begin advanced ticketing. We hope that helps people to come in and begin enjoying the Clark immediately."
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