The Music Will Play Again
A call for cautious optimism in the visitor economy
By Jonathan Butler, President & CEO
Clockwise: Tanglewood (photo: Marco Borggreve), Shakespeare & Company, Berkshire Theatre Group, Jacob’s Pillow, and Barrington Stage Company (Mark H. Dold in “Harry Clarke”; photo: Daniel Rader).
It’s no mystery that 2020 presented the most challenging of years, not only for all of us individually, but certainly for the businesses and organizations that make up the fabric of our community. Quite literally, 2020 became the year the music stopped in the Berkshires.
Fortunately for the region, we all did what we do best—innovated, pivoted, persevered. While the healthcare, manufacturing, and higher education sectors adapted to meet the needs and demands of responding to COVID-19, our visitor economy had to temporarily rethink its identity. Economic restrictions and public health concerns forced the region to approach the summer differently. Outdoor recreation and our natural resources took center stage as urban dwellers escaped the cities to breathe fresh air in the Berkshires. Despite restrictions on performing arts and limitations at many cultural and historical institutions, our communities found creative ways to assist restaurants and small businesses to allow for more outdoor seating and activity. Many lodging properties changed their models to adapt to different demands, while some businesses made the hard but practical decision to hibernate for the season.
While 2020 provided us with some small glimpses of those Berkshire scenes we all know and love, the year was ultimately a test of adversity from which we’re all probably ready to move on. Fast forwarding to 2021, the early signs give us some cause for optimism, and the potential for a summer that feels very different.
For starters, a year ago at this time we were headed into 2-3 months of lockdown where nearly all economic activity ceased. A year later, we’re mostly headed in the other direction. Vaccinations are finally beginning to add up, public health metrics have improved, and statewide capacity and operating restrictions continue to be eased on an almost-weekly basis. Out-of-state travelers from neighboring states are now only subject to travel advisories, and within the next couple weeks, even those should continue to be relaxed.
Tanglewood and Jacob’s Pillow both recently announced a return to live performances for the upcoming season, and will be joined by other institutions like Barrington Stage Company, Berkshire Theatre Group, and Shakespeare and Company in bringing the performing arts back to the region. When you combine this exciting news with the continued momentum of the outdoor recreation economy, and our other major cultural properties operating closer to full capacity—now having a year under their belt in learning how to best operate during this pandemic—2021 starts to feel far more exciting than a year ago. These entities drive a tremendous amount of economic activity in our region, and their being open is a boon to other businesses that also serve the same population.
Any optimism must be footnoted with the reality that a public health setback could again limit the scale of economic activity permitted, and also that any increase in business needs to be done with public health and safety as the foremost consideration. But all of the larger-picture conditions that have fueled growing visitor and economic activity throughout the past two decades are aligning well.
So what does this mean for the upcoming summer of 2021? Ideally, it means that the long-awaited resurgence of business for retailers, restaurants, and lodging properties could be on the way. These businesses, many of them small and locally owned, depend on the influx of economic activity that the summer months provide.
The pandemic has tempted us all to lean on pessimism when thinking about the future, but the progressing conditions around us truly call for more cautious optimism. We shouldn’t be so naïve as to think that the summer of 2021 will mark a return to pre-pandemic activity, but we should absolutely be preparing ourselves for a far more robust season than a year ago. Our region leans on the combination of natural beauty and cultural offerings that serve as anchors to drive economic activity; right now, those anchors are preparing for big things in the summer of 2021. It’s due time for the music to be heard again.