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Baltimore-area lodging business looks for boost from a Preakness without COVID-19 restrictions

For the first time in three years, the Preakness is expected to draw revelers by the tens of thousands, a welcome jump in attendance that’s selling out some Baltimore hotels and giving others a much-needed boost.

As it rebounds from the pandemic, the city’s lodging sector is looking for an influx of business from the 147th Preakness Stakes, kicking off at Pimlico Race Course without COVID-19 crowd restrictions. The event also will feature the return of the traditional infield concert and the debut of a culinary, arts and music festival on Friday.

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Celena Dotson, general manager of the Hampton Inn Baltimore, said the 126-room hotel near Camden Yards expects to sell out, and others in the area likely will too.

“We’re all looking to do pretty well over Preakness weekend,” Dotson said.

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The hotel, like others in the city and beyond, took a “heavy hit” in reservations during the pandemic. But Preakness weekend picked up even last year, and occupancy this week reached 82% with the New York Yankees playing the Baltimore Orioles.

By the weekend, “I’m expecting those last rooms to go,” Dotson said. “Overall, we are seeing a pickup in the city.”

The Hampton Inn is among the city hotels that have seen improved business this spring on weekends and are beginning to benefit from the return of conventions and meetings, some of which had been canceled last year and rebooked this year.

Hotels occupancy rates have slowly increased this spring, especially on weekends, due to pent-up demand for travel, said Al Hutchinson, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore. Big events such as Preakness can only help the city and state’s lodging and restaurant sectors, he said.

Some hotels are expecting Preakness weekend occupancy in the 70% to 85% range, he said, while others expect to sell out.

“Preakness being the iconic event that it is for Baltimore, and we’ve been on sort of a delayed use of the Preakness due to COVID, there is a lot of excitement and anticipation for this weekend,” Hutchinson said. “People have been wanting to get out and travel as the springtime hits.”

Hutchinson described Baltimore tourism as going through a rebound this year.

“It may not be back to pre-COVID numbers yet ... but it’s trending in the right direction,” he said.

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That’s the case for this weekend for the The Inn at The Colonnade Baltimore in North Baltimore, which used the downtime during the pandemic to renovate the hotel.

“Preakness is definitely creating a demand for guest rooms in the area,” said Rob Breeden, the hotel’s director of sales. “It’s just not back to the pre-COVID standards.”

In a typical year leading up to Preakness weekend, “the hotel would already be sold out, and it’s not right now,” he said. “Our hotel still has some rooms to sell over this weekend. ... It appears that people are coming, but it doesn’t appear as though it’s in full force like it used to be.”

The hospitality industry was among the hardest hit by closures and travel restrictions during the pandemic. Downtown’s hospitality sector saw a sharp drop-off in business and international travel that has not rebounded, though conventions and conferences have begun to return, according to a report released earlier this month by the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore.

Occupancy rates at downtown hotels averaged nearly 43% last year, below the national average of 57%, according to Smith Travel Research, which estimates that the city overall lost about $7 million in hotel taxes due to the pandemic. Holiday Inn Inner Harbor and Baltimore Plaza Hotel both closed, while others are being converted to housing.

Hotels, restaurants and other hospitality businesses have typically counted on the state’s largest annual sporting event, the middle jewel in racing’s Triple Crown, to draw more than 130,000 people and generate from $30 million to $40 million in economic impact.

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This year, nearly 100,000 people are expected to attend the event. After a two-year hiatus, the infield music concert will return after being canceled in 2020 and held as the more limited Preakness LIVE, with 3,000 concertgoers grouped into socially distanced pods last year.

Saturday’s “InfieldFest,” will feature electronic artists Marshmello, The Chainsmokers, DJ Frank Walker and rapper Moneybagg Yo.

And a new event, the Preakness LIVE Culinary, Art and Music Festival, will debut Friday, with a music lineup including Ms. Lauryn Hill, Megan Thee Stallion and country music star and Baltimore native Brittney Spencer.

Besides hotel operators, hosts of Airbnb rentals in Baltimore also are benefitting from Preakness and other annual events returning in pre-pandemic form.

Baltimore’s Airbnb hosts earned more than $200,000 over Preakness weekend last year, about half of their earnings for the same weekend in May 2019 before the pandemic. But this spring, business has picked up, said Haven Thorn, a spokesman for the rental company.

Online searches for places to stay in Baltimore for the May 19 through May 22 period jumped 100% month-over-month in March, company data shows. And total earnings of $4.5 million for Baltimore hosts during the first three months of the year have outpaced total earnings of $3.5 million in the first quarter of pre-pandemic 2019.

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Airbnb’s data shows that a travel recovery that started last year has accelerated in the first three months of the year, Thorn said. Often when hotels fill up, particularly over big event weekends, visitors turn to private rentals, he said.

“Amidst a continuing travel rebound, it’s clear that big events are returning and that guests are fulfilling their ... desire for live entertainment and heading back to the stands and seats once again,” Thorn said. “It’s good news for hosts and the local economy, too.”

Some hoteliers said the Preakness will cap off a particularly strong May.

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Hotel Indigo Baltimore in Mount Vernon expects to be sold out or at least in the high 90% range by the weekend, but “I wouldn’t say it is all Preakness,” said Kathleen Dombrowski, director of sales.

It helps that Orioles home games and college graduations, such as the Johns Hopkins University’s and Loyola University’s, also fall this weekend. And business from weddings postponed during the pandemic continues to drive room reservations, she said.

“It’s a big mix of everything that’s helping,” Dombrowski said. “We still have some rooms to sell, but it’s definitely much better than the past two years. I would think all of Baltimore should be reporting great numbers for May.”

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Breeden, of the Inn at the Colonnade, said there’s still time for visitors making last-minute plans to snap up remaining rooms.

The hotel across from the Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus typically draws widely from the mid-Atlantic for Preakness. This weekend is busy as well from graduations at Morgan State and Coppin State universities, Breeden said.

Still, occupancy will be higher this weekend than during Preakness last year, he said.

“It appears as though we’re climbing back to the pre-COVID standards for Preakness,” he said. “We’re just not there yet.”


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