LOUISVILLE, Ky. — When it comes to tourism in the Derby City, things are still far from normal.
However, tourism industry experts say things are improving. Kentucky Derby 147 is projected to bring in less than a fourth of the economic impact a "good year" would do for Louisville. However, folks are celebrating an increasing hotel occupancy and number of flights into the city.
The Galt House is one hotel steadily ramping-up operations. It's the largest hotel in Kentucky, with more than 1,300 rooms; Skip James said at least 1,100 are booked. It's about 85% occupied, and that's huge considering how COVID-19 shuttered the hospitality industry.
"Those feelings are coming back, of what it's like to have a busy hotel," James beamed.
He's worked in sales and marketing for AJS Hotels, which manages Galt House and two other hotels, for long enough to experience three Derby seasons.
"To have an event that's bigger than your hotel or bigger than what you're specifically doing in your venue...there's a celebration in the air," James says.
Usually, his hotels are booked months before now, but he's happy to compare Derby 147 to Derby 146. That is, a tremendous step toward "normal" from last September, when Derby 146 moved from its usual May date. The number of spectators was limited, which meant far fewer hotel guests then.
He's hopeful things are on the upswing, now, as travel officials are. At Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport, the number of passengers has been increasing since pandemic brought things to nearly a halt.
"It's about 1,000 seats more than the week prior, so there is definitely an increase specific to that Derby travel period. And again, it definitely is looking better than where we were in 2020," said Public Relations Director Natalie Chaudoin.
Chaudoin expects at least 14,500 arrivals from Wednesday through Friday ahead of Derby day. That's about half the activity leading into Derby 145, in 2019, pre-pandemic. To Chaudoin, it means things are "in recovery from the pandemic."
Although business pales in comparison to things pre-pandemic, Louisville Tourism's CEO chooses to see it "glass half-full," marking progress amid the pandemic.
"I am very very optimistic about the future," said Karen Williams, "I mean, just to stand here with you today saying that we are going to have Derby, and the world feels so much better from a visitor perspective."
Williams says The Derby, in a "good year," brings in about $200 million for Louisville in economic impact. She expects this year will bring in more like $35 million.
Even so, James is just one of the hotels trying to get back to business as normal. He's been hiring back the staff laid-off during the thick of COVID-19. There have been job fairs, but he says employees have been hard to bring back. It's part of the hospitality industry's next struggle.
"If you know anybody looking for work, we have plenty of openings. And that's, that's been the theme as well, is really finding the staff in order for us to take care of the demand," James pleads.