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City businesses counting on Grand Prix boost

Baltimore’s hotels and restaurants are looking forward to sold-out tourism business from the Baltimore Grand Prix that starts Friday, even if hotels aren’t fully booked yet.

“I think once we get past Wednesday, the hotels will be filling up and things will take care of themselves,” said Judi DiGioia, sales and marketing manager for Morton’s The Steakhouse at Conway and Charles streets.

DiGioia said she is planning a Grand Prix kick-off dinner at the restaurant Wednesday, which will host about 75 people. The four-course dinner is the first step to bringing in good business for what DiGioia said she hopes is a busy weekend.

“That was one of the days I was most concerned about,” she said. “I’m betting for a successful Grand Prix because there’s so much at stake for the city, for my company, and for me personally, because I hung my hat on this being successful.”

Friday and Saturday nights look busy but the restaurant is not fully booked, DiGioia said. Thursday’s bookings are still light.

The restaurant’s staff will also be on hand during the races at lunch time, selling sandwiches and drinks on the sidewalk.

Grand Prix racing begins Friday morning on a 2.1-mile loop through downtown Baltimore and extends through Sunday. Labor Day weekend is typically not a big weekend for Baltimore’s tourism industry, and hotel occupancy is mediocre at best, according to the city’s tourism agency, Visit Baltimore.

City officials and race organizers expect the Grand Prix to draw at least 100,000 spectators. The event also is expected to generate approximately $70 million in economic activity for the city.

Hotel occupancy has averaged 65 percent during the holiday weekend from 2006 to 2010, according to Visit Baltimore. Saturday night is typically the strongest of the extended weekend’s days, said spokeswoman Sara Hisamoto, with average hotel occupancy of 85 percent during those years.

John Hawley, director of sales and marketing for the 757-room Hilton Baltimore, said the hotel is 100 rooms shy of being completely occupied for the Grand Prix weekend. And being about 80 percent occupied isn’t something that typically happens over Labor Day weekend, Hawley said.

City officials hope that the event will attract a good number of last-minute tourists as well, but that impact won’t be known until after the race.

Baltimore City Council member William H. Cole IV said he will assess with city officials and race organizers the economic impact on small businesses, which is still expected to be greater than what a typical Labor Day weekend would create.

Donald Kelly, principal owner of the Pratt Street Ale House, where the Budweiser Block Party area will be, has already been logging long hours leading up to Friday.

The restaurant and bar will open at 9 a.m. Saturday and Sunday and at 10 a.m. Friday. Closing time will be 2 a.m. as usual.

“We’ve been going 18-hour days,” Kelly said. “We’ve got hotel rooms at the Days Inn for our staff. We plan on being on 20-hour days during the race.”

Alison Jones, director of sales at the Days Inn Inner Harbor Hotel, said that sort of business is what will help fill the tiny percentage of rooms still available for this weekend. The 249-room hotel is at 90 percent occupancy with about 95 percent of the rooms filled on Saturday, Jones said.

The hotel doesn’t have any special packages or rates planned for the weekend, but expects by Friday night to be filled for the whole weekend, she said.