Balasios “Saki” Lahaniatis works behind the counter of Great American Creamery, 645 Penn St. in Reading. Lahaniatis owns the ice cream shop with his wife Lucine Sihelnik. (PHOTO BY ANDREW KULP)
Joan Jett. Tracy Morgan. Bill Burr. WWE. Reading Royals hockey.
If the event schedule for the Santander Arena and Santander Performing Arts Center in Reading looks unusually jam-packed for 2022, that’s probably just a symptom of recalling the roughly year-and-a-half period the venues went dark.
With COVID-19 restrictions lifted last year and cases now receding in Berks County, enthusiasm for large gatherings has returned in full force — and downtown businesses are sharing in the impact.
“It’s life-changing to us right now,” said Craig Poole, general manager at the DoubleTree by Hitlon hotel in Reading across the street from Santander Arena.
“For us, it’s probably adding 50% occupancy per night — especially the bigger shows,” he said. “Then, many of our guests stay and eat dinner here, too.”
This photo shows the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel, 701 Penn St. in Reading. (PHOTO BY ANDREW KULP)
Plenty more venture off the hotel grounds or skip accommodations altogether and explore what else the city has to offer.
“We definitely see a surge on entertainment nights and game nights,” said Kirby Powell, vice president of operations and co-owner of Saucony Creek Brewing Co., with its Franklin Station Brewpub located right around the corner from the arena.
“We see a nice increase,” Powell said. “It might be 20% on Royals hockey nights. When there are really big-name attractions at the arena, we can be at capacity. On a Tuesday, we might see three-times the volume.”
And the benefits can be even more profound than sales alone.
Great American Creamery opens
Since its grand opening in February, the Great American Creamery at 645 Penn St. — a short walk from the arena entrance — has been steadily growing its customer base.
Balasios “Saki” Lahaniatis is co-owner of Great American Creamery, 645 Penn St. in Reading. (PHOTO BY ANDREW KULP)
Despite serving ice cream straight from the famous Penn State Berkey Creamery in State College and other locally sourced snacks, events haven’t necessarily been the boon to business that people might think.
“Depending on the show, a lot of them are adult-themed and ice cream isn’t necessarily their thing,” said Balasios “Saki” Lahaniatis, who owns the Great American Creamery with his wife, Lucine Sihelnik.
“More people are finding out we’re here, so we are getting some overflow,” Lahaniatis said. “When hockey games happen, we’re seeing activity before the game. But, for the most part, we’re closed when the game lets out, so that’s our only real metric is pregame hours.”
Yet, even if it doesn’t always drive people to the storefront on the day of the event, the Great American Creamery’s fortunes are still tied to Santander Arena right now.
Not only is it great visibility, but Lahaniatis also peddles ice cream inside the venue.
“If it wasn’t for those events, we wouldn’t have thousands of people coming in (downtown),” he said. “There are tons of shows and events going on. Several times a week, there are 3,000 to 4,000 people downtown.
“It’s been wonderful. The whole reopening has been very positive.”
If you build it, they will come
It’s difficult to understate what events returning to Santander Arena and Performing Arts Center means for the local economy.
According to David Farrar, general manager at both venues, the event schedule for 2022 so far is normal in terms of the number and level of acts coming to Reading — which, despite the blip with the omicron variant at the beginning of the year, means cumulative attendance is anticipated to total in the multiple hundreds of thousands.
“Our attendance has been strong, for sure,” Farrar said. “Attendance pre-COVID was 400,000, and we’ll probably get to that this year.
“When the new variant came out, it got wonky there for a while. It was nerve-wracking, we thought we’d maybe go backwards.” Instead, he said February “was our best February ever in terms of food and beverage sales.”
That isn’t just people from the area, either, Poole insists, noting the venues are a huge draw for fans from out-of-state.
“I try to tell people that all the time,” the hotel operator said. “Santander has a niche. People are coming from New Jersey, Baltimore, Delaware, Bucks County, Scranton. They drive here and stay overnight and eat dinner and lunch here because it’s less expensive than going to New York City or Philadelphia.
“The venues have so much value. We’ve had people fly in from Washington state to see certain bands. And it helps local people.”
Even when events did initially return to Santander Arena and Performing Arts Center in September, it was with a tempered enthusiasm.
The virus was still much more a part of everyday life, with a third act on the way in the form of omicron, so nobody could be sure exactly what to expect.
“It caught us a little bit off guard,” Powell said.
“I always check the performer schedule before I prepare the shift schedule to try to anticipate what’s happening,” Powell said. “But the very first show, when Judas Priest performed, we were totally taken by surprise by how many people showed up, to be honest.”
For Saucony Creek Brewing and many other downtown businesses, the venues were part of the attraction when they chose Reading locations.
At the DoubleTree, which was built many years after the arena was constructed, they’re still figuring out ways to meet demand from ticket holders spilling out over into the hotel for food and drinks.
“We’ve actually put a bar in the lobby now because there’s so much business, you can’t get in,” Poole said. “So, if you walk into our lobby, you’ll see a bar there.
“As long as we do it so well, they come back, we’re gonna do better than we ever have before the pandemic. Record years.”
Workers and entrepreneurs benefit, too
Of course, events returning doesn’t solve all woes.
Lahaniatis notes that, events or no, parking in the area has generally been a concern for the Great American Creamery since its opening, with the hope that new rules passed on meters will alleviate some of those concerns.
Powell noted that on an event or game night, the brewpub empties out pretty reliably 20-30 minutes before the gig starts, with Farrar adding that some bars and restaurants aren’t open afterward, making it harder to keep attendees in the area.
Then there are the ongoing matters of supply chain issues and a labor shortage, too.
“It has been a struggle for staffing, no doubt about it,” Farrar said. “And then just getting goods has been difficult. The brand of chicken fingers we get on one Friday may be different the next Tuesday.”
Still, all of that is far outweighed by operations returning to the venues — not only for the businesses, but their employees as well.
“We went pretty lean on staff, so to be able to bring our full-time staff was huge,” Farrar said. “Some had been with us 10, 15 years plus. We spend enough time together, it’s kind of like family, so to get the staff that chose to come back is great.”
“Even though it gets really busy, it creates an energy the staff enjoys,” Powell added. “They sort of feed off of it.”
Hopefully, the city continues to feed off that momentum as well, Poole said, reminding everybody once again how important each and every event is to the community.
“There’s a sense of relief, a sense of hope,” Poole said. “It’s been a rough couple years for everybody, and now we have success in our mind.
“We want more people to pay attention to downtown Reading and make people think, ‘Wow, I can’t get a seat anywhere, maybe I should open a restaurant here.’ That’s what we’re looking for.
“It’s a driver of new businesses.”