With Little 500 returning in full force this year, Bloomington restaurants and hotels are expecting pre-pandemic levels of business to return as well.
This will be the first time in two years that the race looks like it did before the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning more people will be in town to patronize local businesses. Last year’s races did not allow spectators, and the races were not held in 2020.
Pete Mikolaitis, the general manager of Nick’s English Hut, said the weekend of Little 500 is one of the busiest weekends of the year, along with home football game weekends against teams like Ohio State. Since the 2021 races were held after most students left Bloomington for the summer, the restaurant missed out on those sales completely, Mikolaitis said.
“I look forward to it every year,” Mikolaitis said. “I am just a little bit relieved when it's over because it is a very hectic weekend,”
In general, Mikolaitis said the restaurant has seen sales start to return to what they were before the pandemic, ever since IU athletics allowed fans to go to sporting events last fall. However, he said that nation-wide staffing issues keeps Nick’s from returning to 100% capacity.
Nick’s currently has just shy of 60 employees while the restaurant had at least 80 employees in past years. Mikolaitis said the restaurant schedules extra servers and bartenders for Little 500.
“A lot of our staff realize it's going to be a very busy weekend,” Mikolaitis said. “Most of them are willing to work doubles because they know the money will be there.”
Little 500 draws in a large crowd of visitors to Bloomington, including a large number of alumni. Little 500 Race Director Hank Duncan said the IU Student Foundation is expecting 20,000-25,000 fans to be around IU’s campus for the events.
“When we saw hundreds and over 1000 fans during qualifications cheering for just one team, and imagining that times 33, it puts in perspective what's to come on race day and how much energy those fans bring,” Duncan said.
With the number of people coming into town, local hotels will also see an increase in business for Little 500. The Graduate Hotel is fully booked for the weekend, guest services manager Brayden Kutch said.
Despite Little 500 not allowing fans last year, Kutch said the hotel still saw around the usual amount of business for race weekend in 2021.
“So it actually did not impact us a whole lot because, oddly enough despite the fans coming in this year versus them not coming in last year, people still came to Bloomington for Little 500 that we were seeing,” Kutch said. “People came here to have fun, go to certain unofficial events because I'm not sure there were any official events last year.”
The Graduate Hotel raises its rates slightly for Little 500 weekend, Kutch said. He said the hotel started preparing for the busy weekend about 2 months ago, making sure the rooms will be up to the hotel’s standards.
“It's fun, especially as a business,” Kutch said. “We are so happy to see all the students come in for all the events going on throughout the day. We are the open door to the community so we do allow people to come in here, hang out, have a good time.”
Both Kutch and Mikolaitis said they are personally excited for Little 500 weekend.
“I like to see the alumni come back and see all the teams come in,” Mikolaitis said. “It's kind of a sense of tying back the current teams with alumni in the past, and it brings everyone together to kind of celebrate this tradition of Indiana University.”