SARATOGA SPRINGS — Saratoga County’s tourism and hospitality industry is booming but not immune to the external pressures that affect other market sectors, a panel of local experts said Wednesday.
All told, the sector had a $979 million economic impact on the county in 2018, government data tabulated by The Saratoga County Prosperity Partnership indicate. The economic development organization presented the numbers at a forum in Saratoga Springs that featured a discussion by Cindy Hollowood, who recently ended a long stint as general manager of the Holiday Inn Saratoga Springs; Darryl Leggieri, president of the Saratoga Convention and Tourism Bureau; and David O’Rourke, CEO and president of the New York Racing Association, which operates Saratoga Race Course.
The statistics on the tourism/hospitality sector were presented by Marty Vanags, president of the Partnership, in the form of a 2018 economic index. Details included:
- There were 541 accommodation and food service businesses in the county.
- Employment in the tourism/hospitality bottomed out at 9,188 in February and peaked at 11,238 in August.
- These jobs are not all full-time and/or year-round positions, nor is every one of them lucrative: Average annual wage in accommodation and food service businesses was $24,164 in 2018. However that is far more than the average in 2001 — $12,791.
- The sector generated state and local sales, property and bed tax revenue of $68.75 million.
- The Capital Region leader in tourism/hospitality is Albany County, with spending and tax revenue about two-thirds higher than No. 2 Saratoga County.
- Spending in the tourism/hospitality sector consists of: food and beverage, 32%; lodging and transportation, 20% each; retail/service 17%; second homes, 6%; recreation, 5%.
One of the biggest pieces of all this is Saratoga Race Course, which has an estimated $237 million annual economic impact, supports nearly 2,600 jobs across a nine-county area, and draws 59% of its visitors from beyond those nine counties.
The 2019 thoroughbred racing meet at the track was a break from recent decades, with an earlier start, a longer duration and five days of racing per week instead of six. It was a success, O’Rourke said, with a record amount of money bet and more than 1 million paying guests. NYRA intends to continue with the earlier start and two-day blackout period on Monday and Tuesday.
The change was noticed at area businesses — Hollowood said hotel occupancy rates can drop 20 percent on nights when there is no racing the next day.
After one season of this, Leggieri said, the business community can now plan a strategy and a message to keep the Saratoga Springs region active next season during the two-day stretches without racing, filling hotel beds and restaurant tables in the process.
There is a history of effective cooperation, he said, such as when five large organizations — each with their own calendar of events for leisure travelers — joined to create a single calendar.
“It takes a great amount of collaboration to enjoy the successes that we’ve had,” Leggieri said.
Hollowood offered additional insight on the hotel industry locally. Statewide, the average room rate is $120 per night, she said. But in Saratoga in the summer, it’s $170. That’s too high for certain categories of events, such as youth sports tournaments, which limits what can be done to backfill for the loss of racing fans. Leggieri noted some hotels told him they offered discounts Sundays and Mondays in 2019, when there was no racing Mondays and Tuesdays.
Hollowood also noted the emergence of Airbnb as a competitor to the hotel industry. It now has more than 800 listings locally, she said, each operating without the tax and regulatory burden placed on hotels in the county. Occupancy tax revenue could be 25% higher if not for this, she added.
Other challenges are the same for tourism/hospitality as for the rest of the economy: Insufficient affordable housing and accessible transportation for lower-paid workers, shortage of qualified job candidates, missing skills in the workforce.
Hollowood said her hotel hosted three vocational training programs when she was there and ditched the old six-day workweek common in the industry when she started.
“The industry can no longer tell people that they need to be available 24-7,” she said. “There are fewer and fewer people that are willing to make that commitment.”
Workforce shortage is a problem that affects many businesses, Leggieri said. “We’re spread very thin right now.”