Economy

Louisville hotels, restaurants and businesses that capitalize on the Kentucky Derby are likely to see increased sales around this year’s Run for the Roses, but flights and hotel reservations signal demand has not yet returned to its typical heights. 

Churchill Downs decided not to hold last year’s Derby on the first Saturday in May for the first time since World War II because of the pandemic. When the country’s most famous horse racing track ultimately ran the race in September, it did so without spectators in the stands, while racial justice protesters marched outside the gates.

While the 2020 Derby was a bust for downtown, businesses have begun to see more traffic in recent months, and this year’s Derby is expected to attract locals and at least some out-of-town visitors. 

“I really do think the Derby will inject a much-needed sense of energy into our local economy and into the city as a whole,” said Sarah Davasher-Wisdom, Greater Louisville Inc. president and CEO. “So we’re very excited about it. We haven’t seen this kind of traffic increase since pre-pandemic.” 

This year, Churchill Downs says it will limit the number of reserved seats to 40-50% capacity and expects around 45,000 spectators — a fraction of the 170,000 fan attendance record.

Hotels

Ordinarily, Louisville hotels would be booked solid for the Kentucky Derby. This year, hotels are preparing to do about half that much business. That’s still an improvement over last year when, at the height of the pandemic, hotel occupancy rates were as low as 0%, according to Louisville Tourism.

Two weeks ago, Louisville Tourism staff surveyed local hotels to gauge occupancy for Derby and found hotels were booked at around 50% occupancy, said Stacey Yates, Louisville Tourism spokeswoman. Last week, that number bumped to 61% occupancy, including about a half-dozen hotels that are full, Yates said.

“That is very promising news. What it might indicate, we think, is that of those 45,000 tickets that have been sold, a greater percentage are visitors [out of town] and need lodging, so that really bodes well for the hospitality industry,” Yates said.

Louisville Marriott Downtown general manager David Greene had less rosy predictions, anticipating that overall hotel occupancy will be under 50% for the whole market. Greene said with limited ticket sales and many companies still restricting travel, he expects the majority of Derby attendees to be local, resulting in fewer occupied rooms and lower rates.

Still, Greene said he’s both proud and excited to host guests for this year’s races.

Flights

Thousands of fresh-cut roses and bourbon balls are on hand to greet air travelers at the Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport, where staff are anticipating around 14,500 scheduled arrivals Wednesday through Friday, said Natalie Chaudoin, spokeswoman for the Louisville Regional Airport Authority.

Arrivals are a little more than half of what they were in 2019. Private flights are about a quarter of what they would typically be for Derby, though the airport still expects between 150 and 200 aircraft to be on the ground at race time, Chaudoin said.

“So it is definitely an improvement, but it is indicative of the state of the industry with reduced capacity,” Chaudoin said.

Restaurants

Travelers and locals alike won’t be ordering their mint juleps from a bar seat this year while Kentucky’s COVID-19 restrictions remain in place for the Derby. Restaurant and bar restrictions include a 60% capacity, socially distanced tables, a ban on bar service and a midnight curfew.

Kentucky Restaurant Association spokeswoman Stacy Roof said it’s those restrictions and a lack of workers that remain the largest hurdles for restaurants.

“Demand is there. I have restaurants telling me every day that they’re turning people away, or they’re turning off their online ordering, or they’re saying no to some carryout order that comes in,” she said. “And it all boils down to workforce. Everybody’s desperate for help.”

Roof said she expects restaurant turnout won’t be as high as it was for the 2019 Derby but anticipates restaurants are still likely to have their hands full.

“I’m sure that our restaurants will be — between our locals and our visitors this weekend — will have all they can handle and then some,” Roof said.

Adapting To The Times

A few blocks from downtown, Paristown’s collection of businesses and event spaces are planning for the times with an outdoor garden party for Oaks and Derby. The event will feature food, drinks, live music and a livestream of the races with handicappers on hand to help visitors place bets online.

Business development director Jeanne Hilt said it’s Paristown’s first year holding the event, so they’re not sure what to expect. But with $10 tickets, Hilt said they are expecting people to come and go throughout the day.  

“Everything is outside. I think people have grown to trust that we’re going to make sure that you know we do everything we can to keep people safe,” Hilt said.

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter.