By Kathie Stamps
If you need any evidence that a collaborative mindset in the attractions, tourism and conventions landscape is working, let the numbers do the talking.
Travel and tourism in Northern Kentucky generated $3.334 billion of the entire commonwealth’s $15 billion in economic impact in 2017, according to Kentucky’s Department of Tourism. A separate report, commissioned by meetNKY, Cincinnati USA Convention and Visitors Bureau, and the Cincinnati USA Regional Tourism Network, showed that 26.6 million visitors spent an eye-popping $5.3 billion in the 15-county Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati region, supporting 80,000 jobs and generating $1.2 billion in tax revenue.
Attraction-goers in each county and those coming to the broader area from 50 to 500 miles in any direction travel freely back and forth across the Ohio River with their tourism dollars. Eric Summe, president and CEO of meetNKY, is pleased with the continued upward trend in tourism.
“These results reflect our dedication to collaborating on promoting this unique place where North and South converge,” he said, “where bourbon and beer connect, and our merging of Midwest ingenuity and Southern hospitality.”
In August 2018, in concert with the Northern Kentucky Convention Center, meetNKY began a market analysis of the expansion of the 20-year-old facility on Covington’s riverfront just several miles from the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.
“We are beginning to study what the market forecast is, for what we do in terms of conventions,” Summe said. meetNKY signed a consultant, CSL International of Minneapolis, to look at the current performance of groups and conventions at the convention center, and what the emerging market segments might be.
“One of the segments is faith-based,” Summe said. “It goes back to last year with the success of the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter. They generated a key interest in faith groups.”
Located in Petersburg, west of the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, the Creation Museum has welcomed 3.6 million guests since opening in 2007. Attendance has nearly doubled since its sister experience, a 510-foot-long ark on 800 acres, opened off I-75 in Williamstown in 2016. The Creation Museum and Ark Encounter are operated by Answers in Genesis.
By summer of 2019, the Ark Encounter is adding a new multipurpose facility with a 2,500-seat auditorium and 36,000-s.f. basement with classrooms, a new children’s play area, and the Ararat Ridge Zoo will double in size. More than 90 percent of visitors to both faith-based attractions come from outside Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana.
Studying how best to expand
Hotel supply is another aspect of the feasibility study for CSL (Conventions, Sports and Leisure) International. More than 1,400 area hotel rooms are under construction or in development to meet the demand of the growing number of visitors.
The size of the Northern Kentucky Convention Center in downtown Covington is another factor in whether large groups choose the area for conventions and meetings. Built in 1998, the 204,000-s.f. convention center opened the following year and has hosted 2,500 events generating $1 billion in economic impact. In late 2018, the state-owned facility was the venue for the Ohio Designer Craftsmen’s Winterfair and the Council of State Governments’ national conference.
The Learning Center at the convention center opened March 31, creating a state-of-the-art 400-seat auditorium in a portion of existing space.
“It’s been a very good facility, but there is a need to look at what we need the center to be, to be competitive,” Summe said. “The destination market is a very competitive business.”
After the market study with CSL, there will be a funding study and then a design phase, all of which are expected to be complete by first quarter 2019.
In preparation for expanding the convention center, local county governments implemented a 1 percent local lodging tax rate increase earmarked for a development fund. It was approved unanimously in 2017 by the three fiscal courts in Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties, with the increase expected to generate $1.2 million to $1.5 million annually toward the capital plan for expansion of the convention center. Even with the lodging tax at 12.36 percent, Northern Kentucky’s tax is significantly lower than Cincinnati’s 17.5 percent.
Many new attractions are already online in Northern Kentucky, and more are on the way.
“The SkyWheel is still on track,” Summe said of the giant Ferris wheel proposed to be located at Newport on the Levee, between Newport Aquarium and Mitchell’s Fish Market. “The City of Newport has advised us they will begin work in the construction season of 2019.”
Catering to the Kentucky bourbon audience, The B-Line project spearheaded by meetNKY was almost a year in development – “from the first idea that we needed to add a splash more Kentucky into Northern Kentucky,” said Julie Kirkpatrick, vice president of sales and marketing for meetNKY. Patrons download a Line Guide from findyoursippingpoint.com and collect stamps in their guide when they visit participating distilleries, bars and/or restaurants.
“The B-Line celebrates the bourbon heritage we have in our region, especially since this was the port from which most of the bourbon made its journey ‘down the river’ before Prohibition. It is also a celebration of the true B-Line or Bourbon Line, which is the Ohio River,” Kirkpatrick said. “Once a visitor crosses the river (south), they have arrived into the state where 95 percent of the country’s bourbon is made and they can enjoy a first sip of Kentucky bourbon and a warm welcome to the commonwealth.”
A B-Line advisory committee has representatives from the three Kentucky Bourbon Trail craft distilleries (Boone County Distilling, New Riff and Old Pogue Distillery), as well as from B-Line bars, restaurants and local hotels.
“We plan to leverage the idea that beer and bourbon are natural connection points where our river connects the North and South,” said Linda Antus, president/CEO Cincinnati USA Regional Tourism Network. Formed in 2005 by the CVBs from Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati, RTN is a destination marketing organization promoting leisure tourism.
She is pleased, Antus said, to have so many tourism attractions in the region to promote plus tours to undertake on foot and driving, even by water with BB Riverboats, that help people see everything.
“Tours are so important to cultural tourism,” she said. “They let you see first-hand what you’re famous for. Tours and sightseeing have realized a wonderful resurgence here.”
Visitors and event/conference travelers will likely run out of time well before running out of things to do when visiting the region.
Big Bone Lick State Park
Blue Licks Battlefield State Park
Braxton Brewing Co.
Donna Salyers’ Fabulous Furs
New Riff Distilling
Newport Gangster Tour
Newport on the Levee
Northern Kentucky Back Roads Wine Trail
Purple People Bridge
Riverside Food Tours
Roebling Murals, Covington
St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption
Vent Haven Museum
Walt’s Hitching Post
World Peace Bell
This is not a comprehensive list.