Picnics, pennies, & potato chips: NYRA price hikes begin

Late Sunday night, the New York Racing Association announced what appears to be a hastily called board meeting for this Wednesday afternoon at 2 pm.  Originally planned for March, the meeting will take place at a new venue—the law offices of Weil Gotshal and Magnes, not the Empire State Development Corporation, where all previous New York City board meetings had been held—and video conferences will be held at the New York State Capital and at Cornell University, the latter of which is an addition from previous meetings.

An agenda had not been posted by the time this was published, but a possible agenda item is the proposed admission increase at Belmont and Saratoga.  Though not part of the December meeting’s draft, unapproved minutes, the disagreement over those proposed increases led the board to agree to vote in favor of the budget while re-visiting this specific budget item at the March meeting, after research into the proposed prices could be conducted.

It seems reasonable to speculate that admission prices for Belmont Stakes day could also be a part of the conversation.

Not all prices increases for 2014 are on hold, as I discovered last weekend when I stopped into group sales to book the summer picnic that a friend and I have co-hosted for the last four or five years. Renting one of the trackside areas, we bring our own food and beverages, invite a gang of people, and eat, drink, and gamble away a summer afternoon.

Each picnic area can accommodate up to 48 people; when those areas first opened, cost to book one area to full capacity was about $400. Those prices have steadily increased, with last year costing $500, or about $10 per person. That price includes admission and a pocket program, the small ones without past performances. Each picnic area is equipped with a grill and a garbage can, and six picnic tables that can each accommodate eight people.

On Saturday, as I was finalizing this year’s details, the group sales rep with whom I’ve worked for the last few years noted, somewhat apologetically, that the price this year is $650, a 30% increase.  He said that this year’s contract would include a $50 food credit—a lovely gesture, but one not of much use if you don’t use NYRA catering.

A NYRA spokesperson pointed out that with the food credit, the increase is slightly more than $2 per person, a “very modest per-person increase that still reflects excellent value in what has become a very popular section of Belmont Park.”

It’s hard to argue that a $2 per person increase is unreasonable, even when it’s really $3 if you don’t count the food credit, which I don’t, because according to last year’s menu (the 2014 rental agreement and menu are not yet on the NYRA website), an order of popcorn costs $60, an order of potato chips $70, a hot dog bar $225—each expected to serve 10-15 guests.  I love all the people who come to my party, but spending $4 a guest on potato chips seems a little on the prodigal side, especially considering all the two-horse exacta boxes you could have for the same price. Or all the potato chips: for $70, I could buy 20 bags of them at Fresh Direct, and way more than that at any wholesale club.  (I’m guessing that those 2013 NYRA catering prices are probably a little higher this year, too.)

While the increase per person may be modest, it’s not accompanied by a corresponding “enhancement”—not even a modest one—in the customer experience.  The mantra of CEO Chris Kay since he assumed leadership of NYRA last summer, “enhanced customer experience” is a project that still apparently under construction.

Earlier this month, Kay said that a Derby-comparable experience—which he claims this year’s Belmont Stakes will be—would be accompanied by Derby-comparable prices. NYRA is willing to raise prices 30% and offer nothing of significance in return (and yes, I would say that a $50 credit on overpriced food isn’t terribly significant, especially if you have to spend more money to get it) for a hospitality experience on a pedestrian Saturday afternoon.  It doesn’t augur well for what customers might expect to see on Belmont day and elsewhere this summer.

Start saving your pennies, people.  And your potato chips.

5 thoughts on “Picnics, pennies, & potato chips: NYRA price hikes begin

  1. They really don’t get it, do they? I understand the need for revenues but soaking the fans for food, drink and accomodations is not the way to do it.
    So will you still have your party?

  2. The prevailing sentiment on the Board of Trustees seems to be one of giving up on attracting new fans, and instead soaking the few remaining fans for everything they’ve got.

    This must necessarily be based on a belief that the price elasticity of demand is low; that they can raise prices all they want and the demand will not change significantly.

    This belief will very quickly be proven quite wrong; the experience of The New York Mets is instructive here.

    Maybe the sentiment on the Board is that it needs to get rid of the pesky fans who attend the races so it can operate for simulcast fans only.

    • Mark, might be worth noting that it was the Board who stopped the Belmont and Saratoga price increases that were inserted into the budget by management. It was the Board’s opposition that has led to the conversation being continued and into market research being done.

  3. You are so kind and polite. Me, not so much. Chris Kay’s management has not addressed the knucklehead in charge of Food and Beverage. They do not understand the values of their repeat customers. First, the racetrack is not the Superbowl. Most track goers are not on corporate expense accounts. As far as The Belmont being the Kentucky Derby, I say thank God that it isn’t. The first rule in Food and Beverage is to be clean. As the garbage piles up in the food and beverage areas at Saratoga, as the filth on the hand rails and escalators builds up, as long as the old decrepit picnic tables which are twenty years past their useful life remain on the grounds, it’s apparent that my little slice of heaven is going to hell.

    • I don’t think it’s kindness, Christopher, but maybe a difference of opinion. I thought the reduced beer/hot dog prices at Saratoga were a great idea, and the Shake Shack complex offers food at pretty reasonable prices–though I usually bring my own food and beverages, which is such a huge plus. No other sports venues let you do that. And I love those old picnic tables–I love thinking that some of them have been there nearly as long as I have.

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