Saratoga Springs

As pandemic recedes, Saratoga Springs braces for big summer of tourism

Deann Devitt, president, Saratoga Springs Downtown Business Association speaks during a press conference Tuesday promoting a full slate of summer events in Saratoga Springs.
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Deann Devitt, president, Saratoga Springs Downtown Business Association speaks during a press conference Tuesday promoting a full slate of summer events in Saratoga Springs.

SARATOGA SPRINGS — For the first time in three years, horse racing fans have the ability to plan their visit to the Saratoga Race Course well in advance of the start of the season that runs from July 14 to Labor Day, Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce President Todd Shimkus said Tuesday.

Atop that, the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, with its Live Nation-promoted events, is planning its largest number of concerts ever, perhaps drawing as many as half a million people combined this summer, Shimkus said.

Meanwhile, Saratoga Casino continues to attract in the neighborhood of 2 million people annually.

All are factors in Shimkus and other local business leaders’ expectation of a huge convergence on the tourist-centric Spa City of 28,000 residents, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to recede.

The advance knowledge of actual dates for 2022 meets at the track, along with the concert series, and yet another factor — indications of groups returning to book conferences — has spurred a sense of optimism among the business leaders who gathered for a press event at the entry of the Horseshoe Inn on Gridley Street, across the street from the historic 1 1/8 mile oval on Union Avenue.

The racetrack, which generates more than 2,000 jobs, was acknowledged as an economic engine that brings in nearly $240 million for the Capital Region, according to a study by the Saratoga County Industrial Development Agency.

The track had more than 1 million paid attendees last summer, despite an abbreviated and expedited sales and stakes schedule caused by the pandemic.

In fact, 2021 marked the sixth consecutive season of more than 1 million paid attendees at Saratoga Race Course — except for 2020, when fans could not attend the meet at all.

Due to a collective sense of optimism, Shimkus hinted to discussions the chamber has had with city officials and organizations about, what he said would be, first-time events in June that would help kickstart the tourism season. He declined to elaborate.

Among indicators of a strong summer for tourism is the fact that Saratoga County’s sales tax revenues were higher in 2021 than they were in 2019, with that trend expected to continue, Shimkus said.

Also, Saratoga Springs’ year over year increase of 32.5% in sales tax collected in 2021 was the highest in the state, city officials recently announced.

Shimkus noted that tickets to all of the region’s major tourism attractions are already on sale, and group tickets are available in many instances.

Meanwhile, he acknowledged that the labor shortage is the most significant barrier the region faces to having full economic success this summer.

“We’re at 2.2% unemployment in Saratoga County, which is the lowest in the history of monitoring unemployment,” he said.

The chamber official mentioned 200 jobs are available for the concert series. Applications are available at livenation.com.

Officials from Discover Saratoga and members of the Saratoga Downtown Business Association joined in the discussion about the economic landscape ahead of summer tourism and the racing meet.

The Holiday Inn on Broadway has recorded $440,986 more in room revenue from summer 2022 bookings already than it did during the 2021 season, according to general manager Kevin Tuohy.

The increased bookings are due almost entirely to the fact that the track will allow spectators. Last year, attendance guidelines were not made public until June, Tuohy said.

The hotel plans to hire about 80 full-time team members to meet the summer season’s demand, Tuohy added.

Last year, the hotel employed just 45 full-time workers. It hadn’t hired prior to the season because of the uncertainty around what demand would look like, Tuohy said.

“This year we are able to plan effectively, and proactively hire for the summer season,” he said. “While I am of the opinion that it will be a challenging season and that I may not be able to get to the 80 full-time team members I would like, I am certain this will be a season where I have enough team members to comfortably service our guests needs.”

Darryl Leggieri, president of Discover Saratoga, spoke of the receding pandemic.

“We’re optimistic where Saratoga Springs and Saratoga County stand today with COVID-19 cases remaining very low, and vaccination rates remaining very high,” he said. “Mask restrictions being lifted and indicators continue to signal momentum. We have reason to feel positive.”

Leggieri cited a Longwood International study that showed a pandemic high of 92% of people are ready to make their travel plans in the next six months.

“That’s significant, and we want to inspire them to visit Saratoga Springs,” he said.

Association groups are booking stays in the city for the fall, he added, with some of Discover Saratoga’s lodging partners reporting double-digit increases in forecasted revenues compared to last year.

Deann Devitt, president of Saratoga Springs Downtown Business Association, said small businesses in the downtown area have had ebbs and flows of business the past couple of years.

“We’ve been very lucky to be in a community that had support from those that live here, and most of our small businesses survived,” she said.

But the loss of visitors to the racetrack was ever present, she acknowledged.

Maddy Zanetti, a partner with Impressions of Saratoga and The Dark Horse Mercantile, said that while most retailers enjoy a big boost from Christmas shopping, summer is its busiest time of year.

“We’ve already been planning for 2022, and the last two years we were very conservative in what we were bringing in, and we weren’t sure if we should be getting in the amount of product that we normally would,” she said.

“It’s been a long couple of years maintaining the business during the pandemic,” said Charlie Hoertkorn, co-owner of the Horseshoe Inn Bar and Grill.

“We all pretty much had to reinvent how we did business and just everything we thought we knew or our systems. We had to change over,” he said, adding the company renovated to make the experience more comfortable and safer for guests. “And now we’re just excited to bring people back and with no restrictions and all that.”

The local business leaders said they were confident that they can fill jobs and adjust to supply shortages associated with the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Zanetti said she’s noticed freight costs on products increased “astronomically” during the pandemic, and the business has tried to absorb it to the greatest extent possible by buying products locally, such as at trade shows.

“We’re very fortunate in Saratoga County to have so many local makers, whether it’s a food product or they can print T-shirts for us,” she said.

Hoertkorn, who mentioned a shortage of chicken wings, said every business sector in the city, from hotels, to retail to restaurants has had to reinvent itself.

The expected convergence of visitors will likely result in more work for city police, and there’s been a spate of recent violent incidents along the city’s bar scene on Caroline Street, the business leaders acknowledged.

Shimkus said the group looks forward to working with the five-member City Council, which includes four first-year Democrats.

“What we’re trying to do is have that conversation with the newly-elected officials and see what they’re interested in doing,” Shimkus said, “the new ideas they might have, but also to share some of the history and what the bar and restaurant owners know works and doesn’t work, particularly on Caroline Street.

“We know what to do to keep people safe. We just have to have everybody working to do that. And that’s what we’re trying to get to this summer.”

Contact reporter Brian Lee at [email protected] or 518-419-9766.

Categories: Business, News, Saratoga County, Saratoga Springs

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