LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — In the days running up to the Kentucky Derby, the odds of finding a room at one of Louisville's prime downtown hotels once seemed more remote than those of a slow horse winning the Run for the Roses.
But that changed two years ago, when the deep recession dampened festivities traditionally considered a rite of spring for horse lovers and an economic bonanza for local businesses.
Hotel rooms could be snatched up late into Derby week in 2009. Restaurant and bar tabs were down. Corporations cut back on sponsorships. Even fashion took a hit, as recycled Derby hats pulled out of closets were more in vogue.
There was an uptick in business a year ago but it still trailed the boom years.
This spring, Derby spending appears to be making a strong comeback in what amounts to a second Christmas season for Louisville businesses leading up to the big race Saturday that kicks off horse racing's Triple Crown season.
Jim Wood, president and CEO of the Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau, predicted that the economic spinoff from Derby for area businesses will return to the $120 million level of pre-recessionary times.
"The Derby is back very strong this year," Wood said. "The majority of the major hotels sold out six weeks ago. Parties are back and restaurants are full."
The Derby is more than a horse race: It's a giant party that's a melting pot of celebrities and common folk. In the days before the big race at Churchill Downs, much of the action is downtown as visitors flock to hotels, restaurants and bars.
The Galt House Hotel, a downtown fixture, was fully booked long ago for the final days leading up to Derby.
"Business couldn't be better for this Derby," said Rita Reedy, a marketing director for the company that owns the Galt House.
In another sign of an improving economy, the hotel is hosting a first-ever Derby night party. The $375-per-person Night of Silks Derby Party will benefit the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund.
"Economically, the timing was perfect," said Mary Moseley, CEO of the Al J. Schneider Co., the hotel's parent company.
Meanwhile, four new sponsors were signed up for this year's Derby Eve Julep Ball, which benefits the James Graham Brown Cancer Center at the University of Louisville, said Heather Falmen, director of special events for the center. The new sponsorships range from $5,000 to $10,000, and an existing sponsor increased its contribution from $30,000 to $50,000, she said.
At Sully's Restaurant and Saloon, situated in Louisville's main downtown entertainment district, the average two-person tab for food and drinks has been $40 to $60 this Derby week, compared to $30 to $35 a year ago, said Mee Mee Lee, a manager.
"People are definitely spending more this year," she said. "I'm expecting it to be a huge Derby for us."
The restaurant hiked food and bar prices during Derby week, a luxury it avoided a year ago because of the sour economy.
Kathy Olliges, owner of Dee's, a store specializing in women's accessories, said special hat orders are up this year, and women are spending more for the brightly plumed regalia that will adorn their heads on Derby Day.
Women in greater numbers are choosing new hats over the cheaper option of redecorating their retreads.
Olliges has noticed the fashion spending spree doesn't end with hats as women bring in their outfits to match their hats.
"It doesn't seem like they're scrimping on their clothes," Olliges said. "Everybody's come in with something new. It's not like they're taking something out of their closet."
At Rodeo Drive, a high-end Louisville boutique, women are spending more freely to arrive at Churchill Downs in style.
Kasey Miller, a sales associate, said her customers on average are spending $1,700 to $1,900 for a full outfit — consisting of a dress, shoes, hat, earrings and purse. Hats are going for around $800, up from around $500 two years ago, she said.
"It's been one of our best seasons in a very long time," she said.
At Rodes, a high-end men's and women's specialty clothing store in Louisville, sales are up by single digits from a year ago and by double digits from two years ago, said store president Howard Vogt. Customers who limited their purchases to new accessories the past couple of years are now more prone to spring for entire new outfits, he said.
He attributes the stronger sales to an "attitude shift."
"People seem happier," he said. "They want to spend. They're excited about it. It's fun again."
In Louisville, people spend weeks celebrating the "fastest two minutes in sports," starting with a massive fireworks show that is part of the Kentucky Derby Festival.
Corporate spending on hospitality tents was on par with last year or slightly up for the fireworks event, said Kentucky Derby Festival President and CEO Mike Berry.
Festival sponsorships were down slightly from a year ago, though the group signed up several new sponsors, he said.
The festival felt little impact from the economic meltdown in 2009, but the full effect of the recovery hasn't taken hold, Berry said.
"It has become apparent to me that festivals and special events are a trailing indicator of the economy," he said.
Meanwhile, area businesses are noticing a bigger influx of visitors from the East and West coasts, Wood said.
Bob and Lorraine Lucas of Boston shrugged off high prices for heating oil at home and other necessities to attend their first Derby. They budgeted $3,500 for the vacation, which began with a trip to California for a family wedding.
They had arrived in Louisville days before the Derby, splurging on dining at nice restaurants. They expect to plunk down plenty of betting money while taking in three days of racing at Churchill Downs, culminating with the Derby.
"We work too hard not to have fun," Bob Lucas said.
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