After a few tepid tourism seasons in the Spa City, business leaders expect a jump forward this year.
And it already has begun.
Even before the racing season started, the number of conventions was up 30 percent for the year, bringing more people who stay in hotels, eat in restaurants and shop in stores, said Todd Garofano, president of the Saratoga Convention and Tourism Bureau.
That has helped boost hotel occupancy by 16 percent in the first six months of the year, Garofano said at a news conference Thursday about business expectations for the year and especially the summer racing meet at Saratoga Race Course.
That’s about what Cindy Hollowood has seen at the Holiday Inn, where she is general manager. Greater demand has allowed the hotel to raise its rates by 5 percent this summer, the first hike in the last four years.
“We’re very optimistic that our business will continue to grow,” she said. Room prices range from $269 to $399, depending on the room and the day of the week.
The Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce has gotten 5 percent more inquiries from tourists this year compared with last year, said President and CEO Todd Shimkus. That’s at least partially because of all the marketing the chamber does within a 100- to 300-mile range, especially on websites and social media.
“Our summer ad campaign is in full swing right now,” he said.
There’s one area where the business community can improve, though, Hollowood said.
“We need to work toward developing and educating new fan bases.”
That includes people ages 20 to 40. That age group is likely to come to the track from out of town as part of a bachelor party, but not as likely to visit to attend classical shows at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.
The introduction of free wireless Internet at the track this summer is likely to be a plus to that demographic, Shimkus said.
While the weather is always a wild card in making or breaking the racing season, business leaders don’t expect any major stumbling blocks. Even the recent controversy involving the New York Racing Association, which runs Saratoga Race Course, won’t dampen tourism, they predicted.
Only local residents seem to have followed the controversy that resulted in the firing of two top leaders at the racing association and a state takeover of the board of directors after the organization was caught keeping too much of the take for exotic bets.
“In this particular instance, I think the general John Q fan has no idea,” Hollowood said.
A few years ago, when NYRA was running out of money and needed a bridge loan from the state in order for the Saratoga meet to go on, people outside the area were aware of the crisis, Hollowood said. They called the hotel asking about the situation, concerned about whether they should make reservations or not.
This year, there hasn’t been even one such call, she said.
Business owners said Thursday they have seen more year-round action over the decades.
John LaPosta, owner of Maestro’s at the Van Dam on Broadway, expects to expand his business because of the year-round flow of customers and the summer influx.
“We see the same people four or five times a year, but they come to the town for racing,” he said.
LaPosta plans to create a second-floor banquet space and also a breakfast eatery in downstairs space that is currently leased by a retailer.
“Come next summer, we will have breakfast on the patio,” he said.