After a somewhat bumpy inaugural run last year, businesses hope for a smoother ride as they prepare for the second Grand Prix of Baltimore this weekend.
The IndyCar racing event takes place near the Inner Harbor, with races each day Friday through Sunday. Last year, the event brought more than $47 million in spending to Baltimore, with more than 100,000 tickets distributed, according to organizers.
Since then, the event has gone through three organizers and faced bankruptcy. And this year's organizers are taking new tacks in how they prepare the city's streets for the race.
“I'm looking forward to it. Our numbers last year were better than what they've been previously [on Labor Day weekends] and we hope to see that again,” said Tony Gambino, owner and operator of restaurant Ciao Bella in the Little Italy section of Baltimore. “It takes a couple years to get this process down. You have to think of it as a new business coming into Baltimore.”
Baltimore business owners generally have had favorable reactions to last year's race, although several expressed concerns about how the race's layout deterred pedestrian tourism and how the plethora of race events kept people from visiting the city itself.
Restaurateurs in Little Italy also were disappointed at what they called low interest in their area, given that the Grand Prix is heavily associated with European and Italian culture.
“Last year, Little Italy was completely forgotten. We had an outside café all set up, but nobody came,” said Germano Fabiani, owner of Germano's.
Race organizers hope to change that this year and more fully integrate the business community into the race crowd, said Jade Gurss, director of communication for Andretti Sports Marketing of Indianapolis.
Gurss declined to discuss ticket sales but said they are on target and that Andretti Sports has been pleased with its corporate sponsorship.
A rocky year
Andretti Sports, formed by racing star Michael Andretti, took over race operations in mid-May and since has been pushing a new message: Baltimore is open for business.
The agency stepped onto the scene after Baltimore businessmen J.P. Grant of Grant Capital Management and Greg O'Neill of BMW Construction Specialists took over financing the race.
The Grand Prix's original organizers, Baltimore Racing Development, dissolved early this year after incurring $12 million in debts, including $1.5 million in unpaid taxes and fees to Baltimore city.
Downforce Racing, a group formed by Indianapolis contractor Dale Dillion and former Constellation Energy Group executives Felix J. Dawson and Daniel Reck, took over the race in February. But when Downforce failed to meet the city's benchmarks for the race by March 15, the Grand Prix again faced an uncertain future.
Grant and O'Neill came to the race's rescue, forming Race On LLC, and bringing on Andretti Sports.
Since then, Andretti Sports has had 100 days to restore the race and get it ready for this weekend.
“This is a race with very few frills and added extras since our main commitment is running the race,” Gurss said.
'An easier relationship'
Andretti Sports has made a name for itself when it comes to restoring troubled racing, having resurrected race events in Toronto, St. Petersburg, Fla., and Milwaukee. Milwaukee's IndyFest was in danger of losing its place among the IndyCar bracket when Andretti Sports took over.
“We were proud to announce the race would be back for 2013,” Gurss said.
VisitBaltimore, the city's tourism office and a major race sponsor, lauded the expediency of the event's organizers.
“Working with these guys was been an easier relationship. They deliver on what they say,” said Thomas Noonan, CEO of VisitBaltimore. “We think these guys are in it for the long haul and will do a great job.”
Andretti Sports' efforts to maximize the race's business potential include limiting race construction to evenings through 5 a.m., ensuring that track setup is done to limit road closings and pedestrian restrictions, allowing people to exit and re-enter the gates more easily, and ending race events by 7 p.m. so people have more time to visit the city's tourist spots.
Power Plant Live has responded to the event's revised schedule, offering specials during race downtime and hosting evening parties for businesses, said Chris Furst, director of marketing for club.
“We do a lot of late-night business. Last year, there was just so much going on that it was harder to draw that crowd,” he said, adding that the difficulty with leaving and entering the gates also locked in race attendants.
Bringing the Grand Prix to Little Italy
Andretti Sports also has turned more attention to Little Italy and Fells Point businesses, lending them drivers for promotional events and having race cars drive down nearby streets Wednesday.
“We're trying to bring the atmosphere of the Grand Prix here,” Fabiani said. “It was a horrible weekend last year. It's looking better already this year.”
Germano's seats 190 and has 80 reservations for Friday, with 20 on both Saturday and Sunday, he said.
Gambino said he hopes the city's past experiences with the Grand Prix will ease traffic concerns and bring more people out.
“It wasn't so bad last year. If it's a little better this year, we're striving toward getting it right after a couple of years,” he said. “Let's not be so down on it.”
He said the whole Little Italy neighborhood has gotten into the race spirit this year, putting up the extra permit money to the city to set up outside cafés along the way.
“Let's hope for the best. Let's do it,” Gambino said.
Both expressed delight at having the IndyCar drivers visit their restaurants and streets.
Promoting the city
VisitBaltimore has launched Baltimore Race Week in association with the race to promote deals and discounts throughout the city and surrounding areas through its website.
“We really want to make sure our attractions do well with it,” Noonan said. “That's been a challenge for me. Last year, we saw a dip because everyone was at the race.”
Many Baltimore tourism attractions are offering special deals; the National Aquarium sold seven-day tickets good from Aug. 27 through Monday.
Urban Pirates, which provides pirate-themed cruises in the harbor, is offering $15 tickets instead of its usual $20 throughout the weekend.
“My whole take is that people may not give us business that weekend, but they'll see our boats and come back later,” said CEO Cara Joyce.
She lamented the lack of attention for her cruises last year, as her business is right next to the race. This year, Joyce plans to run nine cruises Saturday, which will include a free ride for her 100,000th customer.
Lessons learned by hotels
On the hoteliers' side, lessons also have been learned, Noonan said, referring to hoteliers' previous uncertainty over price and minimum-night stays.
“Our sense is the hotels have done a better job of figuring out how to price this,” he said.
The 524-room Baltimore Marriott Inner Harbor at Camden Yards is the official hotel of the race's organizers.
“We're almost sold out, which is awesome. It's typically a slow weekend,” said Omahlea Shimunek, general manager of the hotel. “It's different from last year since I think the city is better prepared.”
Though the hotel is offering two-night minimum stays, as opposed to the three- and four-night minimums of last year, it can remove the minimum if it is necessary, she said.
The hotel also has called in its entire team for the weekend and plans for staff to wear different race-themed shirts each day, Shimunek said.
Even some businesses outside the main race area are getting in on the action.
Wings Across America of Germantown, franchisee of 10 Buffalo Wild Wings in Maryland, partnered with Andretti Sports to offer a VIP pass giveaway and host driver appearances Wednesday.
“People lined up for this three hours in advance last year,” said Andrea Spinks, marketing director for Wings Across America.
Giant Food in Landover, the official grocery partner of the race, also is enjoying its second year of partnership, said spokesman Jamie Miller. Giant also hosts driver appearances and ticket raffles.
“It ties us that much more to the Baltimore community,” he said. “We see potential for this event to grow.”
Gurss said Andretti expects some skepticism toward the race, given this year's organizational chaos, and he hopes this weekend's event eases that.
“We're confident that we've put a very good plan in place and have set up the event to be very big for years to come,” he said. “This is a great racetrack adjacent to a beautiful harbor.”