Hotels, restaurants, and retailers are expecting a more profitable Saratoga horse racing season this summer, based on healthy increases in business over the past two months.
“We have had a strong summer so far,” said Cindy Hollowood, general manager of the Holiday Inn on South Broadway. “We are looking at a very good season.”
Occupancy at the 170-room Holiday Inn was up 5 percent in July compared to last year, she said.
Hollowood and other hotel and bed and breakfast managers say a key difference coming into this racing meet at the Saratoga Race Course is that businesses knew since January that there would, indeed, be racing this summer at the historic track on Union Avenue.
In 2009 and 2010, the New York Racing Association was facing such daunting financial problems that the association, which operates the Saratoga, Aqueduct and Belmont Park thoroughbred tracks, threatened to stop racing because of lack of money.
The 2010 Saratoga meet did eventually happen after the state loaned NYRA money so it could make payroll and other expenses. Late last year, a deal was approved by the state that will allow the installation of 4,500 video lottery terminals at the Aqueduct race track in Queens and bring a large cash infusion into NYRA.
“I’m glad they [NYRA] came through and announced early they would be open,” said Dan Fortier, manager of Longfellow’s Hotel at 500 Union Ave. “It made all the difference in the world.”
He said regular customers who come to the hotel year after year for the racing meet booked rooms early this year, rather than waiting until the last minute or not booking at all.
“Things are good,” Fortier said about the hotel, which comprises 50 rooms and suites. Weekend dates at Longfellow’s during the racing season are almost completely booked, he said.
Saratoga Springs Mayor Scott Johnson said he has a “very positive outlook” for the racing season that started Friday and will run through Labor Day, Sept. 5.
“Hotels and restaurants are all reporting increases in sales and bookings over last year,” he said.
He said he also understands that rental properties are very hard to find this summer.
People who come to Saratoga Springs for the entire six weeks of racing — trainers, horse owners, jockeys and horse-loving tourists — often rent houses or apartments for the meet, rather than staying at a hotels.
“There is a real big demand for rental property,” said Joan Taub, an associate broker with Prudential Manor Homes Realtors at 376 Broadway.
Taub said that in addition to the people looking for a rental property for the racing meet, there are people working for the new GlobalFoundries computer chip plant in Malta seeking rentals, as well as senior citizens who have sold their homes and want to rent. U.S. Navy personnel stationed at the nuclear training facility in West Milton are also on the market for rental units.
“Some people are having a hard time finding properties,” Taub said.
Prices for a rental unit for the entire racing meet start at about $5,000 for a small house or condominium and go as high as $30,000 for a large home near the track for the six-week meet, she said.
Taub said that in recent years, some people who come to Saratoga Springs for the entire six weeks have purchased their own condominiums. They use these during the racing meet and then rent them out during other parts of the year.
At Impressions of Saratoga at Broadway and Phila Street, sales were slow this spring but have picked up this summer, said Marianne Barker, who runs the gift store with her husband, David. Impressions sells Saratoga-themed gifts, hats, clothing and equestrian items.
“We are looking good, people are buying,” Barker said about the business she has operated for the past 34 years. “I’m very, very optimistic about the racing season.”
She said hotel and motel bookings have been up this summer, and that helps her business, which opens at 9 a.m. and stays open until 10 p.m. during the week and until 11 p.m. on weekends during the summer.
She said that during the sluggish economy of the past three years, “flat is the new up” when talking about business growth. “We are holding our own,” Barker said.
Kathleen Smith, owner of Saratoga Arms, an upscale bed and breakfast at 497 Broadway, said she has had a strong July at her 31-room establishment.
“The most important thing is that all the inns and hotels have had advance notice,” Smith said about NYRA announcing in January there would be a Saratoga meet. “We had our racing dates,” she said.
Weekends are pretty much booked for the racing meet at Saratoga Arms, but not days in the early part of the week, such as Mondays and Tuesdays. Hotel managers noted that even if weekends are totally booked, there are often cancellations at the last minute and rooms can be found.
Smith expects this racing meet is going to be better than last year “and better than the year before that.”
Joe Shea is the general manager of the two Stadium Cafes in the city, one at 389 Broadway and one on Congress Street on the city’s West Side. He said spring was slow, but business started to pick up nicely about three weeks ago.
“We have had to hire more help. We will be up this year, up over last year,” Shea said about of the sports bar and restaurant with a full menu at both locations.
Jeff Clark, president of the Saratoga Springs Downtown Business Association, said downtown merchants are “cautiously optimistic” about the racing season.
“We are seeing an upsurge of visitors already,” Clark said. “I’m seeing a lot of out-of-town [license] plates.”
“I have spoken with some merchants, and the consensus is we are slightly up,” comparing this summer so far with the same months last summer, he said. “Restaurants are booming, doing really well.”
Clark said business was slow this spring because of the rainy weather. “Now that the good weather is here, we are seeing visitors everywhere,” he said.
Business in the Beekman Street arts district is also holding steady, according to Amejo Amyot, owner of the Beekman Artist Studios and a founder of the district about a decade ago.
“Spring started slow,” Amyot said, “but since July, there have been people on the streets.”
The arts district, on the city’s West Side, four or five blocks west of Broadway, has grown steadily over the years. “We didn’t lose any businesses during the recession,” Amyot said. “None of the shops have closed, but there are no new ones.”
Hollowood of the Holiday Inn said her “best year ever” was 2007, but then the recession started in 2008. Business seems to be picking up, she said, with more corporate events being booked than in the past few years.
“More people are willing to spend,” Hollowood said.