WEG boosts business, just not as much as owners hoped

While businesses had expected more, many see a boost in their bottom lines

ssloan@herald-leader.comOctober 6, 2010 

The high hopes of businesses to cash in on the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games seem to have dissipated, but many around Lexington say it has provided a boost, just not as much as they had expected.

From hotels and restaurants to transportation providers and tourist attractions, companies generally say business from Games visitors started slowly but has begun to pick up as the event nears its conclusion this weekend.

And in a recovering economy, "it was a needed shot in the arm," said Wallace Jones Jr., owner of Blue Grass Tours. "It's been slow all year long."

Hotels

Numerous hotels in and around Lexington had rooms available this week and this weekend, according to the Games' travel Web site.

That's contrary to what hotel owners predicted when they increased their rates a year ago for what they presumed would be an online onslaught of customers.

"A year ago, everybody thought we were going to be sold out for 17 nights straight but, six months ago, I could tell that wasn't going to happen," said Nathan Dodge, general manager at the Days Inn at the North Broadway exit of Interstate 75.

He said he expects his 200-room hotel to have sold out five or six nights during the Games.

"Every night's been a great night, though," he said, and the inn is running about 90 percent occupancy compared with the typical 60 percent.

"It's excellent business, and I can't complain about it at all, but it's not what we thought it would be a year and a half ago," Dodge said.

Sunny Patel, general manager of the Quality Inn off Newtown Pike, said the hotel hasn't sold out a single night.

"We expected to be full every day, and we aren't getting that much traffic," he said.

The city is expected to fill with visitors this weekend, though, as Keeneland opens its fall meet and the University of Kentucky football team hosts Auburn.

David Lord, president of the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau, said his organization is receiving requests for rooms from dignitaries visiting the Games "who are making arrangements at the very last minute."

Transportation

Travel to and from the Kentucky Horse Park wasn't what some local transportation companies expected.

Greg Kujawski, co-owner of Mr. Taxi, said cab service was affected by LexTran's well-run, inexpensive shuttle buses.

There also had been complaints that taxi companies were overcharging customers going to the park, although Kujawski said it wasn't his drivers. Mr. Taxi dropped the fixed-price structure that it and other companies had planned for travel to and from the park to "get rid of the perception of price gouging," he said.

Kujawski defended the structure, though, saying that wait times in traffic meant most prices were about the same as they would have been under the regular fare schedule.

And Kujawski said Mr. Taxi has "seen an increase in business from the airport and at hotels taking people out to dinner," he said. "Some people have even done a little sightseeing."

He said call volume is up about 40 percent from what's typical.

Travel to and from the Games also wasn't what was expected by limousine company Gold Shield Transportation, the official private-car service for the event.

"I just don't think it reached the level that everybody anticipated," company president and chief executive George Doyle said.

Tours

Tourism around the area has seen an increase as the Games progressed, business executives said.

"When we first started, it wasn't nearly what we thought it would be," said Jones, the owner of Blue Grass Tours, which gives guided tours of the area. Not knowing what visitors would want, his company added several tours only to cancel some for a lack of reservations.

But beginning last Thursday, business has picked up, and most of the tours are sold out now.

Jones laments that this weekend marks a confluence of three great events — the Games, Keeneland and UK football.

"Unfortunately, we can't spread those out ... and we've turned down business for each one of them because we don't have enough equipment," he said.

Tours also are up at stops along the Bourbon Trail distilleries.

Gift-shop sales have risen to 30 percent above normal at Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceburg, said Julie Gorham, customer relations manager. The number of visitors taking the distillery's tour is up 24 percent.

"And that's just people taking the tour," she said. "We have a lot of people who just stop in."

More people also are touring the Toyota manufacturing plant in Georgetown, the automaker's largest in North America.

The tours attracted 2,137 people in all of September, and 904 in just three days in October, spokesman Rick Hesterberg said.

"You can see we're seeing quite a spike," he said. The company added tours in anticipation of increased interest.

Restaurants

Business has been up at some of Lexington's toniest restaurants, which were expected to see boosts from wealthy foreigners visiting for the Games.

Jonathan at Gratz Park has had to turn away customers on several occasions, server Nate Almes said.

And Bluegrass Hospitality Group — which operates Malone's, Harry's, Drake's and Sal's Chophouse — has seen record business at some of its restaurants.

"It started off slowly," said Elise Menold, marketing director. "We kind of thought, 'Oh man, this isn't all we'd hoped and dreamed it would be,' but it's since been a great week, for Hamburg especially."

In fact, the Malone's and Harry's in Hamburg have "had one of our biggest weeks on record this past week," she said.

Contributing to that were visits from singer Lyle Lovett, who will perform at the Games' closing ceremony on Sunday but was in Lexington to watch his reining horse, Smart and Shiney, compete for the Italian team.

And, yes, the Malone's staff did have him sign a certificate that will adorn the restaurant's walls with those of other celebrities who have visited.

"We don't miss out on those," Menold said, chuckling.

Reach Scott Sloan at (859) 231-1447 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1447.

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