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The “Zen” of Commerce?

July 12, 2008

From The Morning Call – When Jeff Vaclavik, owner of Bethlehem’s Deja Brew Coffeehouse & Deli, heard the Dalai Lama was coming to town, he put his mind to boosting business during the spiritual leader’s historic visit.

Soon, the Dalai Latte was born.

Throughout the city, business owners are welcoming the thousands of visitors who have flocked to the Lehigh Valley to catch a glimpse of Tibet’s leader-in-exile.

Hotels near Lehigh University have been booked this weekend for almost a year. Restaurants, which typically struggle now because Lehigh students are on summer vacation, are finding tables filled with tourists, and with Buddhist monks and nuns draped in burgundy and saffron robes.

”It’s great to see so many people on the streets, especially during the summertime when it’s normally slow,” said Vaclavik, whose sign advertising the chai Dalai Latte is attracting visiting shutterbugs.

Thursday night a group of Buddhist monks sauntered down Fourth Street, catching the eye of his 3-year-old son Brady.

”Dad,” the boy said, ”there are five Dalai Lattes walking down the street.”

And it’s not just Bethlehem businesses cashing in on the Dalai Lama’s visit, during which he is lecturing through Tuesday on a 600-year-old Tibetan Buddhist text at Lehigh’s Stabler Arena. A separate talk Sunday is sold out.

In Hellertown, Braveheart Highland Pub has seen an unexpected surge in business because Stabler is just down the road.

When the crowd at Stabler broke for lunch, many headed to Braveheart and manager Bekah Van Gieson found herself alone, serving a packed restaurant that would normally be half empty because of the summertime lull. She called in reinforcements for the dinner shift.

”They just kept coming,” she said of the customers.

The crowds at Stabler have also been snapping up books on Tibetan Buddhism, plus T-shirts, mugs and posters celebrating the Dalai Lama’s visit. Sales by Lehigh University’s bookstore go to offset the expenses of hosting the Dalai Lama at Lehigh.

In addition to hearing the Dalai Lama speak, many visitors are here to soak up local flavor, said Marc Kaminetsky of the Lehigh Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau.

”They want to take in what the Lehigh Valley is,” Kaminetsky said, so they’ve been asking about local restaurants, shops and even historic tours.

Some Dalai Lama followers are sticking to a strictly spiritual itinerary. They include three Buddhist nuns and one monk-in-training who traveled with about 15 of their most devout followers from the Sravasti Abbey, a Buddhist monastic community in Washington state.

When not listening to the Dalai Lama speak, the group plans to meditate and talk about what they’ve learned each day. Community member Tracy Morgan said except for box lunches between lectures, they are eating mostly family-style meals cooked in their hotel, the Hilton Homewood Suites.

Area hotels are seeing perhaps the biggest boost in business courtesy of the Dalai Lama.

”Altogether, we’re looking at over 2,000 room-nights for this event,” said Kaminetsky. ”It’s massive for us.”

The Hotel Bethlehem hoisted a Tibetan flag custom made by a Pittsburgh company, general manager Dennis Costello said. A meditation room has been set aside for guests, and the hotel chef has prepared special vegetarian items.

The same is true at the Morningstar Inn on Market Street in Bethlehem, which booked up a year in advance, said owner Virginia Hadam.

”As soon as they announced the visit, we sold out in three days for the whole week,” said Hadam. ”It’s made our July.”

To prepare for her visitors, Hadam arranged for special vegan meals and she bought Zen CDs. Still, Hadam and Hotel Bethlehem’s Costello said their guests have been low-maintenance, focused mainly on prayer and meditation.

”Despite the magnitude of the event, it’s really a low-key thing,” said Costello. ”We’re finding Dalai Lama followers are not a very demanding group.”

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