When the New York Racing Association (NYRA) announced that Saratoga Race Course would likely be closed to fans this summer, there was talk around town about what it would mean for the businesses that rely on the influx of tourists during the summer months. (In short, it wasn’t good.) Tack on the fact that Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC), the city’s other major tourism driver, wouldn’t be hosting its classical season or most Live Nation concerts, and all signs were pointing toward a tough summer for Saratoga’s economy.
But Todd Shimkus, president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, and Ken Rotondo, president of Mind Genomics Advisors, a Saratoga-based company that uses machine learning to identify consumer preferences for clients such as IBM, MasterCard and Amazon, thought that didn’t quite add up: Saratoga County has much more to offer than just the racetrack and SPAC. So, in partnership with Discover Saratoga, the Saratoga County Prosperity Partnership, the Downtown Business Association, the Saratoga Economic Development Corporation and the Saratoga Springs City Center, as well as local organizations like SPAC, Universal Preservation Hall, Saratoga Arms and the Saratoga Casino Hotel, the chamber and Mind Genomics set out to determine just what makes Saratoga County attractive to tourists.
“What was important for this study, and what this group recognized very early on, is that people come to Saratoga normally to gather in crowds,” Rotondo says. “SPAC is a gathering of a crowd, the racetrack is a gathering of a crowd, Saturday night—or every weeknight—on Caroline Street, in and out of the bars, is. So we’ve now trained all these people to say ‘don’t do that.’ So now, what’s gonna bring them back?”
To find the answer, Mind Genomics and the partnership of Saratoga organizations sent out a survey to nearly 100,000 people that evaluated how likely people were to visit Saratoga County in the future, what safety measures taken by businesses would make people most comfortable here and what specifically would drive people to the region. More than 3,000 participants took the survey, with 80 percent of those people living between the Capital Region and Hudson Valley, in New York City or on Long Island. Ninety percent of the respondents have visited Saratoga County multiple times in the past.
The results of the survey, which were laid out in a press conference outside Saratoga Arms on the morning of Wednesday, July 8, showed that an impressive 71 percent of respondents were “very likely” to visit Saratoga County in the next six months, while 86 percent were likely to visit when all COVID-19 restrictions were lifted. What’s deterring the remaining respondents from planning a trip here? The results of the survey showed that it’s lack of trust in venues enforcing proper safety guidelines, a desire to avoid crowds and the lack of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Mind Genomics was also able to identify three major mindsets held by survey participants. The first, held by 50 percent of the respondents, is that they are extremely interested in visiting Saratoga County regardless of the messaging used, but respond especially positively to messages about dining, the outdoors and horse racing. The second group, made up of 25 percent of the respondents, is motivated by outdoor recreation, health and wellness, as well as arts, culture and history. And the third group, made up of 25 percent of respondents, is motivated by the “quintessential” Saratoga experience, which includes arts, culture, history, dining, shopping and racing.
With the data from the survey, the chamber, along with the Saratoga County Reopening Advisory Group, has put together a digital ad campaign called “Feel The Freedom,” as well as a TV ad campaign showcasing all the county has to offer. “We incorporated a lot of the messaging and the motivation that came out of Ken and his team’s study from Mind Genomics,” Shimkus said in the press conference. “We’re showcasing our outdoor adventure—the lakes, the mountains, the parks, outdoor dining. With no fans at the track, no SPAC [and] no Live Nation, we are so thankful that we have so many other amenities here in Saratoga County that we know can help us attract visitors.”
It remains to be seen whether the 71 percent of respondents will, in fact, visit Saratoga County this year, and just how greatly the absence of tourists here for the track and SPAC will influence the local economy. (The estimated influx of revenue last year was some $237 million.) Seventy-one percent is a promising number, though. “I was surprised that so many people said ‘I plan on coming back to Saratoga again in six months,'” Rotondo says. “In the face of all this! You’re polling people that don’t even want to get out of their house, so that was pretty surprising.” If you need to get out of your house, it seems, Saratoga County is a pretty great place to go.