Economy

Derby City was on top of the world back in February: Louisville was a hot tourism destination with a booming convention business and in three months, it would stage an annual horse-race and festival that would bring in spectators from all around the world.

Then the pandemic hit.

“In mid-March we came to a screeching halt, and I mean screeching halt,” said Louisville Tourism President and CEO Karen Williams. “We have taken off much of the business we had on the books for 2020. We still have a few here and there but we feel like eventually they will probably all come off.”

In a normal year, the Kentucky Derby would bring in $400 million worth of economic stimulus to Louisville and the surrounding area, according to Williams.

Tourism is the state’s third largest industry employing more than 60,000 people — two-thirds of which have likely been laid off, Williams estimates. Without spectators in the stands at this year’s Derby, Williams said hotels that would normally be 85 to 95 percent booked will be fortunate to see 35 percent.

The Kentucky Derby Festival canceled most of its 70 plus in-person events including draws like the annual airshow Thunder Over Louisville, which together generate an estimated $128 million for the economy, said Aimee Boyd, Kentucky Derby Festival spokeswoman.

Meanwhile, dozens of the city’s restaurants have closed and the ones that are still open won’t be able to rely on the regular bump in revenues they get from Derby tourism, said Stacy Roof, president and CEO of the the Kentucky Restaurant Association.

Restaurants with carryout and delivery will likely benefit from folks staying at home, but fine dining and catering are missing out. Roof says revenues are down between 65 and 95% among the restaurant owners she’s spoken with.

“They are in survival mode,” Roof said. “They are trying to keep what staff they have. They are trying to reinvent themselves. They’re trying to keep delivery and carryout going.”

The state’s tourism industry hopes that although this year’s Derby will be held without spectators in the stands, it will continue to support the brand and help secure visitors for next year, said Louisville Tourism’s Williams.

In the meantime, some hospitality businesses are getting by thanks to locals spending more of their tourism dollars at home. Whether that be supporting local hotels and attractions like the Louisville Slugger Museum and the Muhammad Ali Center, or enjoying the Run for the Roses at home on TV while eating carryout.

“Albeit little, we celebrate the various small percentages,” Williams said.

A small number of Kentucky Derby Festival events have gone virtual like the Humana mini-marathon and marathon, which has residents running on their own and posting their own results.

Roof with the restaurant association is encouraging Kentuckians to — health permitting — frequent local restaurants by dining in, carrying out and buying gift cards to help them weather the economic hardship brought by the pandemic.

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