DARLINGTON, S.C. – Sunday's NASCAR Cook Out Southern 500 in Darlington this weekend normally brings a significant amount of business to Darlington and the surrounding communities, especially for the hospitality industry and restaurants.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, even though there will be 8,000 people in the stands watching the race, hotels and restaurants in the area don’t anticipate the uptick in business this year that is normal on race weekend.
The Raines Hospitality team is seeing a slight increase in reservations.
“It is not what we are used to seeing in prior years throughout our Florence portfolio,” said Kristy Gioldasis Fowler, regional director of sales at Raines Hospitality. “Limiting the number of fans has impacted us. Traditionally, the hotels have been at 100 percent occupancy over race weekend.”
To ensure the safety of visitors, Fowler said the hotels’ sanitization process has changed in adherence with new standards set by the CDC.
“We are also offering a more limited breakfast,” she said. “The main goal of Raines Hospitality is to continue providing the best service while being in line with all CDC guidelines."
Fowler said that Raines Hospitality is fortunate to have a diverse portfolio in Florence.
“Even if this race is not what we anticipated,” Fowler said, “I believe that we will be able to recover.”
Will Clark, the general manager of the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Florence off I-95 and I-20 near the Florence Center, located at 1735 Stokes Road in Florence, is much less optimistic about this race weekend than in previous years.
“We have a decrease in business this weekend,” Clark said. “Normally we would be completely booked.”
Since the beginning of COVID-19, Clark said the hotel has been approximately 30% to 45% booked.
He said guidelines are being followed for mask wearing, hand sanitizing, social distancing and cleaning of rooms and shared spaces.
Clark said he is hoping to get back to normal, but they are not there yet.
While Fairfield Inn by Marriott Hartsville, 200 S. Fifth St., has seen an increase in reservations for this weekend, it is nowhere near the occupancy on race weekend of years past.
“We are certainly down more than in previous years,” said Jacques Jackson, general manager of Fairfield Inn in Hartsville. “We are usually sold out during race weekend. This year that has not been the case.”
Jackson said they did have a lot of reservations for this weekend before the coronavirus hit but that as the time got closer for the race, people began to cancel their reservations.
Jackson said the hotel is running at about 30% to 40% capacity at this time.
He said they are following the guidelines for all Marriott properties for social distancing and face covering. He said Fairfield is taking extra precautions such as having the guests swipe their own credit cards, sanitizing after each use and other guidelines.
The Hilton Garden Inn, 2671 Hospitality Blvd. in Florence, is seeing an increase in reservations for this weekend, but it is less than a normal race weekend, said Melissa Banks, director of sales.
Banks said their room bookings are off an estimated 50%.
“We usually close out Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday to general reservations,” she said.
This year, due to the number of rooms still available, Hilton Garden Inn will be open for general reservations.
“It is 2020,” Banks said.
She said she isn’t sure what to expect. Banks said they are slowly coming back up in reservations from the past few months of the coronavirus.
Banks said they get a lot of last-minute reservations and walk-ins, so they won’t know the full impact of this race weekend until after the race.
“We have been lucky to have the same groups, just not as many in each group,” she said.
Most restaurants in the area are unsure of what the weekend will bring as far as customers to their establishments. Hopes are high, but none seem to be expecting crowds anywhere near what race weekends normally bring in.
“It is a wait and see,” said Cade Buchholz, the front manager for Mellow Mushroom in Florence. The restaurant is located near Magnolia Mall at 120 Dunbarton Dr.
Buchholz said for any other Darlington race, the restaurant would be busy all day, all weekend, but with the coronavirus it could be a tossup. He said they have added a few more people to the weekend schedule in hopes of being busy.
For other Darlington races they have Watch Parties, but not this year.
Buchholz said the coronavirus has put a damper on business all year. He said it has changed the way they do business to mostly “to go” orders. He said maybe people coming in for the race will order “to go” or families will order a pizza to watch the race at home.
Tricia Matthews, manager of Takis Diner in Darlington, is hopeful that business will pick up for race weekend, but she doesn’t think it will be like before the coronavirus pandemic.
In mid-May the first race after the coronavirus hit was held in Darlington without fans, but this time a limited number of fans are being allowed in the stands, Matthews said.
“We are expecting to be busy,” Matthews said. “We will be social distancing.”
With the social distancing, Matthews said the restaurant can only hold about 60 people inside and outside. Only every other table is being used now, she said.
Red Bone Alley at 1903 W. Palmetto St. in Florence at the Florence Mall is normally bustling during race weekend.
“I honestly don’t know what to expect this year,” General Manager David Poland said. “Normally we would have a lot of business, starting on Thursday of race week.”
He said with only 8,000 people allowed in the stands compared to more than 45,000 other years, it is difficult to predict how many will be eating in establishments in the area.
“This is just another disappointment for the year,” Poland said.
Since the coronavirus hit, Red Bone has increased its “to-go” business, but its clientele still are reluctant to eat indoors, he said.
Holt Bros. in Darlington opens Wednesday. Jack Holt said he and his sons, who own Holt Bros. BBQ, Jack’s Place and 1720 Burger Bar in Florence, are excited about their first race weekend in Darlington. Holt said there is a lot of excitement surrounding the race. He said the city of Darlington has been very helpful in getting them open by race week.
Holt said that even though the numbers of race fans are down this year, he anticipates there being a lot of people in town.
“I think this is a positive thing,” he said.
Holt said usually 1720 Burger Bar gets a lot of traffic from race fans staying in Florence at the hotels off I-95. He said last year the fans found their way to Holt Bros. BBQ, which was new.
Holt said he has been training new staff for about three weeks and will bring some of his more experienced staff to the Darlington opening for race weekend.