A tourism summit held Tuesday at the Saratoga Springs City Center challenged downtown businesses to start a formal movement by building a network among themselves that taps into the city’s sense of intimacy and closeness.
“We can stimulate our own economy starting right now,” motivational speaker Erika Dietz said to a crowd of 130 people in a conference room. “You all are in a unique position to do that.”
The timing of the first “Discover it Again and Again” hospitality seminar for retailers, restaurants and service businesses was appropriate — July marks the city’s influx of thousands of repeat and first-time visitors who travel to Saratoga Springs during the horse racing season, which begins July 29.
Business owners could collectively use the small-town atmosphere to go beyond stimulating tourism in the city, Dietz said, ultimately “elevating the level of human caring for community.
“It’s not about getting through tough times,” she said. “It’s about elevating the way you do business and creating opportunities.”
Interest in the city has increased in “drivable markets” within a 100- to 500-mile radius, according to the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce.
Visitor inquiries increased 9 percent in June compared with last year around the same time.
“As we enter the July-August season, we need to remember that everybody we interact with could be here again and again,” Wheatfields restaurant owner Tim Holmes said to the crowd after Dietz’s speech.
Several decades ago, Saratoga Springs struggled to attract tourists as its downtown scene was haunted by vacant, boarded-up buildings.
Marianne Barker remembers that time. Her store, Impressions of Saratoga on Broadway, celebrated 31 years of operation last month.
“In the early ’70s, we were begging for people,” Barker said. “Saratoga was a ghost town.”
In the same way that a group of people worked to turn around the city, people have to work at continuing the city’s present momentum, according to Holmes.
“People set out to make Saratoga what it is. We all need each other to be successful,” he said.
According to Dietz, businesses should be responsible for their own success instead of waiting for the federal government’s stimulus plan to change the economic climate.
“At the end of the day, we need to be self-reliant,” Dietz said. “That’s how our country grew. When our founding fathers came over on the Mayflower, they didn’t have a stimulus plan.
“This is a community that is taking a deliberate, proactive approach to creating a vision of what we want this place to be,” Dietz said.
It is common for many businesses to start formal partnerships to decide to share resources, make referrals and do other things that create value for customers.
But Dietz said it’s important to streamline that process citywide.
“We don’t need a formal agreement,” she said. “It should be just a given.”
Dietz also gave a list of hospitality best practices to the group that included having a “hot sheet” of upcoming special events, workshops, lectures and concerts for customers; offering directions to patrons; and providing printed parking guides to help navigate the traffic and limited space downtown.
Recommending off-season experiences that can attract visitors was also on the list.
“There’s more than just the track,” Dietz said. “Talk fall foliage. Talk outdoor activities. Talk cross-country skiing in the park.”
Creating a referral culture that acts as a cohesive unit was also mentioned by Dietz.
Barker said that helping customers to find what they need regardless of the store is already a trend of helpfulness that city visitors enjoy. Customers seeking advice frequently mention if another local business has pointed them in her direction, she said.
Impressions trains its employees to walk around the other stores on Broadway so they can be knowledgeable enough to give referrals.
“I have no problem sending people to other stores if I don’t have what [a customer] needed,” Barker said.
She said that another way Saratoga Springs collectively pulls together is while hosting several upcoming events that span the downtown business district:
Sidewalk sales: July 16-19 and Sept. 4-9
Hats Off: July 31 and Aug. 1, 7 to 11 p.m.
Final Stretch: Sept. 5 and 6, 7 to 11 p.m.
Barker hopes the hospitality seminar will be an ongoing event: “It’s just something you have to do continuously — you have staff turnover and you have to train new people.”
Olde Bryan Inn restaurant server Jenna Curtiss said Dietz’s speech was filled with ideas that echoed what she has heard her employer often say.
“What I took away from it was that it’s OK to take the initiative to take the extra step to make someone’s day better,” Curtiss said.
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