The two biggest questions entering the summer with the looming shadow of coronavirus were how would the New York Racing Association do financially without fans, and how would the businesses that serve the fans from the track, and also the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, fare without them?
Judging by the handle numbers, especially on big event days such as Whitney, Travers and Alabama Saturdays, the answer to the first question is: just fine.
The answer to the second has a lot of subtleties to it, but can be summed up in: about as well as can be expected, though all are hurting.
A lot depends on what kind of business it is and what restrictions they are operating under. Restaurants and retail stores tend to do better than hotels/bed and breakfasts. Day-trippers and Capital Region residents will still shop and eat locally, but they don’t need a place to stay overnight for the week or for all 40 days of the horse racing meet.
Todd Shimkus, the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce president, said he doesn’t have hard numbers, but, anecdotally, every month has done better than the preceding one since April.
“So we’re trending in the right direction, but I think when the numbers do come out that they won’t be favorable compared to last year,” Shimkus said.
Maddy Zanetti, the co-owner of Impressions of Saratoga with Marianne Baker, said her store is definitely seeing an effect from no track or SPAC fans.
“Currently, we’re seeing foot traffic and business more like late May/early June of a regular year,” Zanetti said. “There are still a bunch of people from out of the area because every year it’s a tradition to come here.”
Fewer shoppers have forced Impressions to adapt. The store now closes at 7 p.m. weekdays and 9 p.m. weekends, as opposed to the 10 and 11 p.m. times it used to have when fans from the track and SPAC were around. It also can’t feature certain merchandise as much as it used to.
“We know normally when it’s a Dave Matthews or Phish weekend, or when it’s Travers weekend and the type of people that come with the uptick in business and what they may buy more of,” Zanetti said.
Zanetti said the store has been fortunate in that most of its summer staff consists of high school and college students working part-time and not full-time people.
“We had some staff choose not to come back because of their parents or family situation with the virus, but most of them said they’ll be here during the summer and wanted to work,” Zanetti said. “We were lucky because we have students as part-time staff and not so many full-time employees like other businesses that have had to lay off some.”
One thing that visiting horse racing fans like to do is get in some golf, and Saratoga Spa State Park Golf Course has been the beneficiary of many rounds. Bill Richardson, the general manager, said different parts of the outfit are affected differently.
“The golf course is quite busy, the golf store quite less so, and the restaurant is struggling a bit,” Richardson said. “As far as greens fees, they’re strong. We only have higher rates during racing season, so we didn’t put those into effect this year. Mostly our golfers this year are people we see all the time — we have a strong local following.”
The chairman of the New York State Restaurant Association recently said he wouldn’t be surprised to see as much as 20 percent of the state’s restaurants close due to the virus and restrictions placed on restaurants because of it. Some adapted immediately to takeout, some offered outdoor dining as soon as they could, while others had to wait until the 50 percent indoor capacity rule. So there were challenges to local restaurants before the prospect of no people from the track and SPAC.
“Honestly, our industry is more hurt by the 50 percent capacity and 6-foot spacing between tables than the lack of fans from the track. For the very small restaurants, it’s very difficult,” said Nancy Bambara, the vice president and chief operating officer of DZ Restaurants (Boca Bistro, Chianti Il Ristornate and Forno Bistro, all in Saratoga Springs).
In the case of Chez Pierre, on Route 9 in Gansevoort, just outside of Moreau, the virus forced owner Pia Baldwin Field to examine both the restaurant’s space and what it could possibly do. She offered takeout, but with the caveat that orders must be placed by 4 p.m.
“Because we only have one chef, so you can’t have 60 people there and then say, ‘Oh yeah, and this person wants a takeout order, too.’” Baldwin Field said.
Baldwin Field noted that her restaurant does have a good space, so she was able to open an outdoor dining area for the first time. That’s just part of being as flexible as she and her staff can, given the range of customers’ emotions about the virus.
“There’s a whole segment of the population that wants to go out, and yes, we’ll wear the mask and follow rules, but we want to go out,” explained Baldwin Field. “There’s another segment that might do takeout or outdoors, but doesn’t want to go inside for any length of time. There’s another who don’t want anything to do with it. We’re trying to keep everybody comfortable.”
Baldwin Field and Bambara both said the lack of track fans is felt, but that it is also introducing a different clientele to their restaurants. They said they’ve learned to lower their goals for this year.
“(An early August night) we were busy,” Baldwin Field said, “and quite a few of them were track people — maybe not all owners or trainers but people who had always come and probably said, ‘Oh, it’s a nice area anyway, let’s just go.’ But then there were quite a few people whom we’d never seen before.
“Honestly, I can’t complain,” she added. “All businesses, we’ve had to adjust along the way. Obviously it’s not the same, and nobody expected it to be, but our locals have been supportive of the local businesses.”
“It certainly has changed our clientele, but it is busy,” Bambara said. “We’re doing OK. It’s kind of a year we all have to write off.
“There was a lot we were seeing by mid-April to mid-May that said this wasn’t going to be a two-month thing,” Bambara added. “Having some of the federal bailout money helped many businesses, but 20 years in business, we needed to be on the right side of things to make it, and I have a feeling we won’t see a turnaround until at least the first quarter of 2021.”
The thing about seeing a different clientele was something that Matthew Taormino, the general manager of Dunham’s Bay Resort in Lake George, noticed, but he is one of the lucky ones in his industry. Because at least he’s seeing clientele.
“We’re seeing people come because of their ability to travel,” Taormino said. “Business is flat, some would say down a bit, but it’s a different clientele. Normally it’s a number of steady people that come every year (for the track and such) and other people who want to be away from the track. We’re missing them. We’ve been doing increased traffic from people in Saratoga and south.”
At other hotels, motels and bed and breakfasts, it hasn’t been so good. Shawn Asghar, owner of the Landmark Motor Inn in Moreau, saw a falloff in business because of the virus, and the lack of track fans added to it.
“There’s a big difference,” he said. “It did affect us a lot. The last two months, everybody that normally came for the track has canceled.”
Shimkus said his chamber goes by hotel numbers on the theory that where people stay also has a direct effect on where they shop and eat. And without the racetrack and SPAC, the numbers won’t be that good.
One person who knew what the lack of horse racing fans would mean is Tom Amello, who for over 20 years was a handicapper and produced and hosted original programming for Capital District Off-Track Betting’s television network. He then joined his wife, Renee, and daughter Kate in purchasing The Brunswick at Saratoga Bed and Breakfast, located on Union Avenue across the street from Saratoga Race Course.
The Amellos said goodbye to two parents of Skidmore College students they were picking up to return home on March 19. And with that, they entered into the normally slow time of year that they knew would be slower still.
“We can’t take out,” Tom said. “I didn’t do takeout breakfasts and we can’t take out a bed. Everybody is sad for the restaurants, and they should be, but for businesses like ours that rely on out-of-towners from 100 miles away or further, it has been difficult.”
One of the difficulties is maintaining good relations with guests by not charging them cancellation fees. On the one hand, they certainly understood. On the other hand, they could use money.
“We lost most if not all of our out-of-town business,” Tom said. “I call them the shippers. July is the upstaters, August is the shippers. We’ve had bookings, but not anywhere near the volume or normal. What we’re seeing is people looking to get out of (New York City) or New Jersey and people who like Saratoga with no interest in the horses.”
Shimkus said that Saratoga County’s virus infection numbers are low — as are those in nearby counties — and he makes the argument that Gov. Andrew Cuomo could take the next step in opening up things.
“I think we can have weddings with more than 50 people, open the City Center with more than 50 people, open up the casino (at Saratoga Casino Hotel),” Shimkus said.
Amello said there is also a wider emotional loss being felt by Saratoga-area people, whether they run businesses or not.
“For 30 years I’ve been a part of Saratoga, and it has been everything a reunion is,” he said. “‘Oh, you’re back,’ and I see you and all is well. That, to me, is the biggest non-economical loss.”
Follow Will Springstead on Twitter @WSpringsteadPSV.
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