Businesses hope for a bigger purse from the Preakness

Hotels, restaurants and others expect to benefit from larger crowd at race

  • Michael Saunders, co-owner of Baltimore-based Universal Limousines, says that the Preakness guarantees "a weekend we can depend on for business." He says he usually doesn't drive customers, but that for the Preakness, it's "all hands on deck."
Michael Saunders, co-owner of Baltimore-based Universal… (JED KIRSCHBAUM/BALTIMORE…)
May 18, 2011|By Andrea K. Walker, The Baltimore Sun

Michael Saunders has learned that you don't have to bet on horses to make money at the Preakness.

The co-owner of Baltimore-based Universal Limousines doesn't plan to get much sleep this weekend. He'll be ferrying clients around day and night to race-related events.

Saunders is one of many area business owners who hope to reap some of the economic benefits that come with the Preakness, the second jewel of the Triple Crown, which is expected to attract more than 100,000 people to the region.

"Preakness weekend is something we look forward to every year," said Saunders, who will be working his eighth Preakness on Saturday. "It's a weekend we can depend on for business. People will show up even in the rain."

As the company's owner, Saunders usually doesn't drive clients himself, but he said that for Preakness weekend it's "all hands on deck."

Ticket sales this year are up 17 percent over last year, when nearly 96,000 people attended, according to race officials.

With the bigger crowd, some businesses are also hoping for bigger profits. This optimism comes after attendance fell sharply in 2009 after the Maryland Jockey Club, fed up with boorish behavior in the infield, banned racegoers from bringing their own beer to the race. After the marketing debacle, an advertising agency was hired to help boost the numbers.

While the Preakness is best known for its sport and entertainment aspects, many businesses and state and local officials recognize the race as a revenue generator and one of the state's most popular tourist attractions and networking events.

Restaurants, hotels, gas stations and a host of other businesses will all see additional business. After the race Saturday, many racegoers will leave the Pimlico Race Course in Northwest Baltimore to head downtown or to other neighborhoods for dinner and a night on the town.

Corporations — sports apparel company Under Armour and makeup firm Cover Girl among them — have bought pricey tents and sponsorships for the purposes of networking and wooing clients.

The race will also bring revenue to the state in the form of taxes and a small portion of the wagers. Preakness spending generated about $1.3 million in state and local taxes last year, according to the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, and nearly $16,800 from about $5.3 million worth of bets made in the state.

All told, about $79 million in wagers were made on the Preakness last year, including bets made by people at tracks in other states via simulcasting.

"This is a significant event for the city," said Tom Noonan, president and CEO of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. "It puts us on the map in some ways, and it has a huge impact on our hotels and on our restaurants."

The weekend also creates free publicity and brings attention to the city — benefits that can't be measured in dollars.

"Those media impressions that get out there and the buildup of the state and the city — you can't pay for that," said Terry Hasseltine, director of the Office of Sports Marketing for the state.

Hotels have been booked for weeks and restaurant datebooks are crowded with reservations.

Peter Yeung, the general manager of Hampton Inn & Suites on Redwood Street in downtown Baltimore, said that the hotel is sold out this weekend and that about 20 percent of the reservations are from racegoers.

At Power Plant Live, free concerts will lead up to the race as the entertainment venue capitalizes on the crowds coming to town. The race will be broadcast Saturday on large television screens outside for people who may not want to brave the traffic and crowds at Pimlico. The venue's owners also expect big crowds after the race, as partiers continue the revelry into the night.

"We definitely benefit," said Chris Furst, director of marketing at Power Plant Live.

At the racetrack, dozens of vendors will cater to hungry patrons in the infield, where singer Bruno Mars will perform.

Zeffert and Gold Catering set up a stand last year and will do so again this year — this time doubling the size of the operation to serve more customers. The company usually serves bar mitzvahs and weddings, but during the Preakness it serves up falafel, bratwurst and pit-beef sandwiches for the fans.

Aaron Gold, a partner in the firm, said that the Preakness can be a madhouse but that it is a good way to do extra business. The company brought in about $6,000 in gross income from the event last year and hopes to double that amount this year.

"It's not what we do normally, but it's a unique way of us employing our staff for the day, and it worked out fine," Gold said.

While the younger set is living it up in the infield, corporate tents will be filled with racegoers in fancy dress — and hats — on the other side of the track.

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