By JUDY BERNSTEIN
Neil Humphrey speaks proudly of the stately grounds and 19th century hay barn that make up Barnstead Inn, his bed-and-breakfast in Manchester, Vt.
The 1830s barn features the original roof beams and hayfork. The original farmhouse is also on the property.
This, he says, is the Vermont experience.
“We put a lot of effort into keeping it rural, keeping it Vermont,” Humphrey said.
But his tone changes when discussion turns to the newest proposed lodging establishment in Manchester, a 54-room chain hotel that would be the first of its kind for the resort town in the Green Mountains.
The towns of rural Vermont are known for the folksy charm of their many inns and small motels, getaways that dot the quiet country roads and provide a respite from busy 21st-century city life.
But lately the region's long-established resort areas -- from Vermont to the Berkshires and west to Saratoga Springs, N.Y. -- have been drawing the interest of major brand-name hotels.
The chains see a niche, and they’re bringing with them their familiar, standardized designs and services, along with all the modern amenities -- from computer access and business centers to video arcade rooms and kid-pleasers like indoor swimming pools.
The trend is just getting started in places like Manchester, but it's been under way for several years in the Berkshires and Saratoga Springs, where franchises of major hotel chains like Marriott, Hilton, Comfort Inn and Holiday Inn have been moving in.
“It’s an overall trend across the nation,” said Amy Hauck, the director of marketing communications for Lodging Econometrics, a hotel real estate analyst.
After conducting feasibility studies that show they’ll be successful, the smaller franchise hotels are opting to expand in smaller, rural towns, where they often test out new prototypes with different designs or furnishings, she said.
The chains target a certain area and a find a local developer to take the franchise. That lets the local owner set up his own hotel but get the privileges of a recognizable brand and an international online reservation system. The local franchisee also takes on the responsibilities of fees and measuring up to the chain’s standard, Hauck said.
A threat to local character?
Local inn and motel owners and some townspeople are alarmed by the arrival of the chains. Independents are worried about having to compete with national giants, of course, but many opponents say they fear something worse -- that the chains will homogenize local lodgings and forever change the way visitors experience the region.
In Manchester, Humphrey and a half-dozen other innkeepers have joined together and spoken out against the proposed hotel, the concept of which has been floated in recent weeks before the planning and development review boards in the town of 4,000.
Town officials say they don't know exactly which chain is proposing to come to Manchester; plans simply show the property would be leased to a firm called 66 Manchester LLC. But an official of the company that owns the adjacent shopping plaza told the Rutland Herald that 66 Manchester is a franchisee of Holiday Inns.
Preliminary plans call for a three-story building that would replace a long-vacant bowling alley behind the Manchester Shopping Center.
Humphrey guesses the developers like the location because it's one of the first lodgings people would see after getting off Exit 4 of Route 7. He laments how that could lead people to perceive the town.
“People who come are just going to basically miss Manchester,” Humphrey said. “They’re going to miss what Manchester is about.”
Manchester Planning Director Lee Krohn said he’s heard both sides of the debate.
“It raises a number of interesting questions all around," Krohn said. "Is it good for that location? Is it good for the community?”
Krohn admits Manchester is not just cows and hayfields anymore, though. The proposed hotel site in Manchester Center would be within walking distance of dozens of specialty designer outlet stores that are a big draw for visitors. For products other than lodging, it seems, brand names are already a big part of Manchester.
But the hospitality businesses, the lodging places where visitors return to at the end of the day to rest up and learn about places to hike or ski, have been a different story.
Owners of independent motels and inns say they can provide a personal touch and knowledge of the community that the chains can't match. They also claim they can put visitors' dollars back into the community to a larger extent than franchises or chains will.
“It’s often been suggested that one of the strengths of this community is the locally owned, independent nature of the hospitality industry," Krohn said. "We don’t have chain hotels. We don’t have chain restaurants, by and large.”
In all of Bennington County, in fact, there is only one brand-name hotel so far -- a Best Western on Northside Drive in Bennington. A second, a Hampton Inn, is under construction in Bennington.
Brand names meet the Berkshires
To the south, in the Berkshires, the change being faced by towns like Manchester is already well under way.
In Great Barrington, Mass., independent innkeepers are still riled about a Comfort Inn & Suites and a Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites that moved in a couple of years ago.
Susanna Abarbanel of Acorn’s Hope Bed and Breakfast said she learned from customers that at times when the Holiday Inn Express was full, its staff directed customers out of town to another hotel, rather than to other local lodgings that had rooms available.
“They have no interest whatsoever in anything local," Abarbanel said. "They’re the worst.”
She said she worries that tourists sometimes head first to the chains, because that’s what they’re used to.
Roberta Lefkowitz, owner of Seekonk Pines Inn Bed & Breakfast, said the modern look of the chains, on the Route 7 strip heading north from Great Barrington, takes away from the area’s charm and adds to a “honky tonk” look on the highway.
She said the chains are hurting the business of independents, including her establishment, a six-room inn in an 1832 farmhouse on 200 acres of land.
“We didn’t need them,” Lefkowitz said.
The indoor swimming pools in the new hotels are a big draw, especially in winter, and have taken family business away from the bed-and-breakfasts, she said. Winter business in particular is crucial for giving Lefkowitz and others “almost a year-round income,” she said.
In Lenox, Mass., new proposals call for a 92-unit Marriott on Housatonic Street at Routes 7 and 20 and a 100-unit Hampton Inn and Suites, a franchise of the Hilton Hotel Corp., on Pittsfield Road. These would join a Days Inn, Howard Johnson’s and Quality Inn already in the Lenox area.
Lenox Planner Gregory Federspiel said there’s been no outcry so far from independent lodging owners, although the proposals might just be too new to have provoked one.
“I’m sure they’re watching this carefully and are going to be a little nervous,” he said.
If what the chains say is true, there’s enough demand for rooms “to satisfy everyone.”
But even if there isn't, towns cannot simply block certain kinds of business from coming in. Specific projects can only be blocked if they run afoul of zoning or other legal standards.
Joseph M. Toole, who hopes to open the Hampton Inn in Lenox, said that if anyone should be nervous, it should be him. He’s planning to put the new hotel on a 140-acre parcel next to the Yankee Inn, an independent motel he owns.
“I’m going to have to figure out ways to further clarify my niche” at the Yankee Inn, he said.
He said that’s what other independents will have to do, too.
The arrival of this franchise hotel was inevitable, Toole said. He said the corporation wants one in that location, having found an unmet need for new rooms with the latest amenities, and asked him to take the franchise. If he didn’t, he says, someone else would have.
“It will happen," Toole said. "It’s a question of who’s doing it.”
He said he understands the lodging industry from all sides, being the owner of a number of different properties in the area, including the Chambery Inn, a bed-and-breakfast in the neighboring town of Lee.
“There’s clearly a difference between people who want to stay at a B&B and a person who wants to stay at a Hampton Inn," Toole said. The chain hotel, he added, "is really a totally different concept.”
The hotel, which will target business travelers and tourists, will offer high-speed Internet access, a business center, meeting rooms, an indoor pool and breakfast. Toole said he expects it will help draw new people to the Berkshires.
In Saratoga Springs, N.Y., which also has seen an influx of hotel chains lately, City Planner Geoff Bornemann said he’s hearing from some of the smaller establishments that the new hotels are hurting their business.
Since 2003, when Saratoga Springs had 1,200 lodging rooms, city planning officials have approved or received applications for 580 new rooms, 429 of which are for chain hotels, Bornemann said.
“We’ve certainly seen a boom,” he said.
Major new projects include the now-completed 145-room Marriott Courtyard and a 104-room Marriott Residency Inn; a proposal for a 120-room Hampton Inn; and a couple dozen additional rooms added to the Best Western and planned for the Holiday Inn.
But Saratoga Springs has been prospering, and independent lodgings also are growing. The Lexington Club, for example, is preparing to add 80 rooms, and several other independents, like Longfellows Inn, Saratoga Arms and Adirondack Inn, have each added up to several dozen rooms.
Bornemann said the complaints he's heard from the lodging industry involve the supply of rooms increasing too quickly and hurting existing businesses, rather than a debate over chains vs. independents.
The city requires that the new hotels have a Saratoga look, so appearance is not an issue, he said.
Growing the pie
Area tourism officials say the challenge posed by the new hotels is to ensure there is enough business for everyone. By definition, tourism officials want to attract more visitors to the region; with that in mind, they say chain hotels could be a good thing.
In the Berkshires, the chains may help to attract more families, Berkshire Visitors Bureau President William R. Wilson Jr. said. It's his job, he said, to make sure the area has enough cultural and recreational opportunities to draw visitors for all the types of lodging.
Wilson said he appreciates anyone who invests in the Berkshires, and he called the two new chains in Great Barrington “a credit to the community.”
Chains, with their brand loyalty, reward programs and discounts for repeat customers, can draw visitors who might not otherwise come, Vermont Department of Tourism spokesman Jason Aldous said.
The chain hotels that come to Vermont’s larger towns and cities seem to co-exist with other inns and motels, he said. Some people are looking for the "authentic Vermont experience," but others seek out the brand-name hotel, and others just want a good, inexpensive room.
“For some, they don’t care, as long as there’s a roof and it doesn’t leak,” Aldous said.
Ironically, he said, it's Manchester’s success as a leisure destination that's helping attract interest from the national lodging industry.
But he acknowledged wondering whether the different types of lodging businesses will be able to co-exist in smaller towns like Bennington and Manchester that are just now facing the prospect of chain hotels. There’s no way of knowing because the trend is so new, he said.
Humphrey, the Barnstead Inn owner, said he doesn’t care to find out.
“No spot in Manchester is a good spot for it,” he said of the proposed chain. “It’s not what Manchester or Vermont should be about.”
Copyright 2005 Observer Publishing Inc.