SOUTHERN INDIANA — Each year, many Southern Indiana business owners look forward to the flood of visitors to Louisville and its neighbors across the river for the Kentucky Derby during the first weekend of May.

For some, it marks the beginning of higher business volume after the cold winter months. For others, especially hotels, the weekend can be a huge chunk of revenue business owners count on annually.

This year, local entrepreneurs hope for a busy weekend but some say that with Churchill Downs still limited in capacity due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they’re not sure they can hit that pre-2020 mark.

LODGINGS Andria Philips, who co-owns the Best Western Greentree Inn and newly completed Best Western Plus in Clarksville, along with another hotel in Louisville, said they are usually 95% to 99% booked for Derby weekend. Just a few days away, they’re at 60% to 70% full.

“I think we’re looking forward to being busy but it’s not nearly as busy as we used to be,” Philips said, adding that in normal years, up to half of the Derby business is made a year in advance. “We count on Derby 100% because that’s one of our moneymakers. So it’s definitely going to hurt us a little bit this really hurt us last year for sure.”

The pandemic has also been hard on the owners’ newer Best Western Plus, the 100-room, Derby-themed luxury hotel that opened in February. Philips said she’s been getting creative — working to help bring in more groups, especially to the newer hotel, to make up for the 2020 drop.

“I try to bring in more sports groups,” she said. “We’re starting to see a bump in the sports industry so a lot of people are starting to travel.”

Luanne Mattson, assistant director at SoIN Tourism, said the pandemic’s effects have been felt across the local lodging industry, although business has been making a comeback as more and more vaccinated visitors venture out for weekends trips. Philips said she’s seen this at her hotels too.

According to the 2020 annual report from SoIN Tourism, lodging revenue in Clark and Floyd counties had been on an upward trend over the past five years before the pandemic temporarily halted travel. In 2015, Southern Indiana saw $42.1 million in hotel revenue, which rose to $49.6 million in 2019. Last year, it was $28.2 million.

“Pre-2020, Derby has always been a great generator for tourism over here,” Mattson said. “Our data suggest that the month of May, our occupancies are generally pretty good. I think historically we have at least 80% to 85% occupancy, at least for that weekend.”

But Mattson said that the lodgings have been “consistently better, little by little,” she said. “And I think since people have been getting vaccinated it has been steadily increasing. Our data shows that the hotels are seeing upticks on the weekends and especially in the spring. It seems like people are going ‘OK, I’m getting vaccinated so I’m going to get out there.’”

Ron Smith, owner at the Pepin Mansion, a renovated historic home turned bed-and-breakfast in New Albany, said he’s starting to see a bump in stays after losing up to 95% of business during some months of 2020. This weekend, he’s booked but he can’t say for sure that it’s all Derby-related.

“The last 20 years it has been challenging with Airbnb and other competition, but I’m hopeful that we’re going to have business coming back and it seems to be right now,” he said.

RETAILThe Kentucky Derby is a “second Christmas” for many local retailers, according to Britni Knable, owner of House of K Boutique in downtown New Albany. She is also the owner and milliner of HeadCandi, a brand that offers custom-designed hats and fascinators.

For HeadCandi, about 89% of business is tied to the Kentucky Derby, whether it’s hats for those attending the race or gathering for Derby parties, Knable said. The apparel is available online and in-store at House of K.

HeadCandi receives Derby orders year-round, Knable said, and business really starts picking up in March.

The last few weeks before Derby are the busiest, especially when the weather report for Derby weekend is released, she said.

Customers can also find jewelry at House of K to match their Derby dresses, Knable said, and people sometimes find their entire Derby outfit at the shop.

“It’s a big deal for people who spend a lot of money on the ticket [for the Kentucky Derby],” Knable said. “It’s a time for them to feel a little Hollywood, and it’s definitely a great time to make a fashion statement.”

Ross Wallace, owner of Him Gentleman’s Boutique, said the Kentucky Derby is huge for business at his shops, which include locations in downtown New Albany and Frankfort Avenue in Louisville.

“It’s just as big for Christmas for us,” he said.

Popular Derby items at Him include sports coats, ties, pocket squares, bow-ties, patterned shirts and hats.

Last year, the COVID-19 shutdown had a major impact, he said.

“It’s tough, because we bought Derby product in August of 2019, so we already bought it way before we knew what COVID was,” Wallace said. “We were stocked up and it was the biggest selection we ever had, and we shut down.”

He wasn’t sure what this year would look like for Derby sales, but this past month is one of the busiest he’s seen. There’s been a big spike in sales the past two weeks.

“We noticed the day they said the infield is going to be open [at Churchill Downs], we really got busy,” Wallace said.

EATSZack Flanagan, who with Sean Lara co-owns Board and You Bistro and Wine Bar in New Albany, said business has been great, despite opening last year during the pandemic.

Weekend reservations are usually booked up three or four days in advance, but “this whole week has been absolute craziness with our normal crowd that comes out in addition to the Derby crowd,” Flanagan said, adding that Derby weekend booked up about two weeks ahead of time. They recently also started opening for lunch.

“We made the decision to open up during the pandemic and it’s definitely a decision I do not regret. We’ve been fortunate and very lucky that the community has supported us so much. Restaurants typically really struggle in the first year but we were rocking and rolling.”

The restaurant came just over a year after the two opened Board and You Custom Charcuterie in April 2019. Last year, they were contracted to be the official caterer for Derby VIP events before those were shuttered.

“It definitely stinks that that was canceled but there’s always next year,” Flanagan said. This year’s Derby board launched this week has already been a huge hit with people planning for Derby events like parties.

“Events like Derby are pretty strong for us,” he said. It’s almost like pre-COVID.”

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