Denver All-Star Game “a celebration” for LoDo businesses

All-Star Game week is in Denver and Coors Field is far from the only building in LoDo that’s buzzing thanks to Major League Baseball’s midsummer classic and an associated festivities.

“I’m so excited about what this is going to do for the downtown Denver businesses after COVID,” retailer Julie Watson said. “We all needed this so much. It’s kind of like a reward for gutting it out. It really is.”

Watson owns Blue Ruby Boutique, which has two locations in the mixed-use Dairy Block development in Lower Downtown. Bounded by 18th, 19th, Blake and Wazee streets, Dairy Block is a short walk from the stadium and is co-hosting a free concert series that runs through Tuesday.

In the lobby of the Maven Hotel, where Watson keeps one of her two Blue Ruby stores (the other larger location fronts onto Blake Street), All-Star banners and logos adorned the space Tuesday afternoon.

Watson isn’t carrying any MLB-licensed stuff but she did buy an estimated $50,000 worth of extra merchandise ahead of the nearly week-long slate of activities that the league is bringing to town. That includes hundreds of T-shirts bearing Coors Brewing logos. More than two dozen of those were snapped up by shoppers while the Blue Ruby staff was unpacking them, Watson said.

LoDo and Denver at large didn’t have nearly the amount of lead time communities usually get before hosting the MLB All-Star game. League officials announced they were moving the game to Denver from Atlanta in April in response to Georgia passing a voting law many viewed as intentional voter suppression. It was a controversial move that survived a legal challenge last month.

Local leaders have said the game could provide $100 million in economic benefits, an estimate actually borrowed from projections done for Atlanta, said Richard Scharf, president and CEO of Visit Denver.

“Regarding general economic impacts of All-Star Week, this is a big win for Colorado’s loyal baseball fans, but more importantly, we are excited that this opportunity could serve as a much needed economic ‘shot-in-the-arm’ for the hotels, restaurants and attractions that make up Denver’s hospitality community,” he said.

Scharf acknowledges that the pandemic makes any projections challenging, but the spending at this point could prove more valuable coming out of such a difficult period for the hospitality industry. And the benefits extend to the exposure that will come from national and global media coverage.

“The 2019 All-Star Game in Cleveland was covered by more than 2,500 writers, broadcasters and photographers who provided worldwide coverage of the event. MLB Network’s international transmission of the All-Star Game also was broadcast by 60 media partners in more than 197 countries and territories around the globe in 14 languages,” he said.

As an added bonus, the MLB Draft will be broadcast from the Bellco Theater at the Colorado Convention Center, the first time the draft has been made part of All-Star Week. The draft will run Sunday through Tuesday.

At Blue Ruby, Watson has brought on four temporary employees for All-Star Week, bringing her total headcount to 10. Instead of one salesperson per location, each shop will have three through Wednesday. Watson has also hired a security guard. With big crowds, she just wants everyone to feel safe, she said.

“One of the days, I haven’t decided which one, I am probably going to make 100 to 200 hot dogs to give away,” she said. “We’re just going to make it so much fun. Honestly, to me, it’s completely a celebration. For downtown Denver, we’re back.”

Long hours for bar and restaurant workers

Getting staffed up hasn’t been as easy for other LoDo businesses still building back up after the COVID-19 pandemic closed Coors Field to fans in 2020 and crushed foot traffic in a part of town usually teeming with people.

At LoDo standby the Sports Column, general manager Kyle Hesseltine looked over spreadsheets on Tuesday afternoon. Pre-pandemic, the 400 capacity bar and restaurant with a rooftop patio usually had a staff of 45 to 50 people. Going into the All-Star Weekend, Hesseltine was preparing to make do with around 40.

“There’s a lot of unknowns, obviously,” he said. “We’re going to get busy. It’s just a question of when. All of us will be working some long hours.”

Sports Column could probably use additional help but it’s too late to train new hires. To make things run more smoothly, the business has pared back its menu, taking off items with long cook times to make things easier on the kitchen staff, Hesseltine said. The bar also put in its food and beverage orders early to avoid issues with a supply chain that has been hard to predict in the wake of the pandemic.

“Luckily beer is good, most of the liquor is good and we got all our food in and prepped,” Hesseltine said.

Hotels also struggling with staffing needs

The American Hotel and Lodging Association defines Denver’s lodging market as still being in a “recession,” with revenues per available room down 38% from $102 in May 2019 to $63 last month. Any boost in bookings the All-Star Game can provide will be welcome.

“All of the downtown hotels should be full this weekend through Tuesday,” said Walter Isenberg, CEO of Sage Hospitality Group in Denver.

The company’s hotels closest to Coors Field — the Rally, Maven, Crawford and Oxford — are full, with rooms commanding “nice” rates while hotels further away are commanding lower rates but also busy. Between higher rates and higher occupancy, Isenberg said revenues at some hotels could surpass pre-pandemic levels.

“The summer has always been busy, but I think it is possible this July, because of the All-Star Game, will be better than July 2019,” he said.

But finding enough staff is a challenge that could limit the number of rooms available at some hotels. During the early months of the pandemic, many downtown hotels sat mostly empty, run by skeleton crews. Although leisure travel has rebounded strongly this year, business and group travel remains depressed.

“Right now it is a rush to hire enough people to service the All-Star Game,” said Amie Mayhew, president and CEO of the Colorado Hotel & Lodging Association. The Sheraton Denver Downtown, for example, is “surge” hiring 150 to 200 people for up to two weeks to accommodate the added business.

“Finding staff has been extremely difficult, and it continues to be. That problem is getting to be less and less every week, but it is a real struggle,” said Isenberg, who estimates Sage is running its Denver hotels at 70% of normal staffing.

A catalyst, a showcase and a challenge for downtown businesses

For LoDo businesses, the festivities mean opportunity but also challenges, according to John Wetenkamp, director of operations for the Lower Downtown Historic District that represents residents and business owners interests in the area. While bars and restaurants are likely to cash in, other service-oriented businesses are worried about having the parking necessary to serve their clients.

“The major hope of businesses in downtown is that this event will be the catalyst to bring people back downtown in greater numbers,” Wetenkamp wrote in an email. “Without business people in their offices there just isn’t the foot traffic and economic prosperity that there would normally be in LoDo.”

It’s not just long-running downtown businesses gearing up for a major stress test. Tom’s Watch Bar opened in McGregor Square, the mixed-used megaproject developed by Colorado Rockies owner Dick Monfort across from Coors Field, on June 14. Tom Ryan, the hospitality industry veteran behind the 550-seat sports bar with more than 150 TV screens spread around its two floors, called the 7-day Rockies’ homestand that followed “a test of fire.”

With 130 vaccinated staff members in place with a few weeks of experience under their belts, Ryan is looking forward to showing what Tom’s Watch Bar can do. With locations across from the Staples Center in Los Angeles and on the Las Vegas strip, the business is used to doing high-volume, fast-moving business.

“(The All-Star Game) gives us a great stage for what we offer,” Ryan said. “We’re just really happy that we are going to be able to show this to a really diverse crowd from probably all over the U.S.”

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