Lane One-on-One: Becoming More Businesslike at the Kentucky Horse Park

State-owned equine venue sets sights on becoming self-supporting through partnerships and events, says Executive Director Laura Prewitt

By Mark Green

Laura Prewitt in July 2016 became Executive Director of the Kentucky Horse Park, an agency of the Kentucky Tourism, Arts & Heritage Cabinet and one of the world’s top equine competition facilities as well as the leading tourist attraction in the Bluegrass area.

Mark Green: The Kentucky Horse Park came into existence in 1978 and operations have grown slowly and continue to expand today. What are its current size and facilities?

Laura Prewitt: The park is over 1,200 acres. The front part of the park is a visitor section: the walking tour, the Parade of Breeds, the Hall of Champions, a playground, horseback trail rides, and our museum. That’s truly why the horse park was built: to educate folks on the relationship of man and equine. Our museum is dedicated to that and is a Smithsonian-affiliated museum.

Over the years, the park has expanded to event space. The 2010 FEI World Equestrian Games put the Kentucky Horse Park on the map, and resulted in the construction of Rolex Stadium and the Alltech Arena. Prior to that, the horse park had rings and show facilities but not to that magnitude. We’ve got acreage dedicated just to the cross-country course, acres dedicated to the visitor center and the walking tour, and the equestrian or events facilities. We have many other activities at the park other than horse shows.

MG: What are some of the non-equine activities that occur here?

LP: The non-equine activities are usually through events (conducted by those who contract to use park facilities) and activities our community can come and enjoy. We have soccer fields that a couple of different clubs use for practices during soccer season. We have car shows, trade shows, and the Kentucky Crafted market. You can even come to the horse park and pay $5 to fish in our stock ponds. Last year we started having high school graduations in Alltech Arena. We have weddings, parties, and business meetings. Whether it’s in the Alltech Arena or in the covered arena, we have space for anything.

MG: What is the annual budget and number of employees?

LP: Our annual budget fluctuates between $11 million and $11.5 million. A lot of people think we’re a private park, but we’re a state-run agency so we get allocations from state government every year. Those allocations have dropped. We have been close to $2 million a year, but now we’re down to a little over $1 million a year. Since this administration and I came on board, we’ve found additional revenue in various ways. The goal is for the horse park to become self-sufficient. With any business, your model is to break even or to make money, and I think the horse park can get to that level. We still need the supplemental allocation.

The revenues we generate offset some of our expenses. What makes it really difficult is we have 1,200 acres, miles in fencing and over 80 horses year-round. We’re a public facility and we do it all with 76 employees. Our employee base is mandated by the state. We supplement a lot through contractors and third parties, seasonal and temporary help. Right now we are trying to figure out the best metric on how to mow everything. It’s a $300,000 investment to pay for mowing April through November. We compete with area farms that are also having a hard time finding quality workers.

MG: There are many equine organization headquarters based at the park. How many total employees work on the park grounds?

LP: Close to 1,000. We have 30 national, regional and local businesses here. The U.S. Equestrian Federation has a new 35,000-s.f. headquarters building going up. They’re the governing body for the majority of disciplines in the United States and employ over 200 people. They signed a new lease for 40 years. We have the U.S. Pony Club and the U.S. Hunter/Jumper Association. On a state level, we have the Kentucky Horse Council, the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, the State Racing Commission, the Secretariat Center, and Central Kentucky Riding for Hope.

MG: How many events do park facilities host a year and what is the attendance?

LP: Attendance is about 535,000 to 550,000. We have over 200 events a year. Every weekend is busy with something, even in the winter. The events recognizable to most people would be Breyerfest and the Land Rover Three-Day Events (formerly the Rolex Three-Day Event). Kentucky Horseshows LLC has a seven-week horse show series here in the summer; probably 5,000 horses go through here in that period. We have the Festival of the Bluegrass (music) in our campground every July; Road to the Horse; Kentucky Crafted; the Good Guys Car Show. We’ve had rodeos, tractor pulls, graduations. We’re a wedding destination and the museum is a great backdrop for a reception.

This past year we had the Junior League Horse Show that historically has been at the Red Mile. It happened to be the same weekend of Breyerfest and there were 30,000 to 40,000 people here on that Saturday. Land Rover’s estimates of their three-day event is anywhere from 50,000 to 70,000 people.

MG: What is the relationship between the park and the events?

LP: The park never owned nor operated its own event until two years ago, when we started our first: the Bluegrass Rocking Rodeo. This year – and this is crazy, but the horse park has never had its own horse show – we have the Kentucky Horse Park Spring Opener. It is a horse show we’re owning and operating to get folks in who have never had the opportunity to show at the horse park. A lot of the shows done are sanctioned or you have to be at some kind of level to participate, or part of an organization. This is open to anyone. We’ve had great response.

Our relationships are strong with the event promoters who have their shows here. Our team knows their teams; we know how to put it up, how to tear it down, how to help so the turnaround is really quick. We always want to make it a positive experience for the promoter so they make us their forever home. It’s a great place because we’re located on the interstate and have world class facilities. From the big promoters to the folks who call us and want to have a meeting, wedding or a car show, those relationships are built early on when they come out here for a site visit.

We haven’t lost any shows, and our industry is a lot more competitive now. Back in the day, the horse park was the only competition facility around. Now you have Ohio, North Carolina, Florida. It can be hard to compete against private entities because they can negotiate, and as a state entity we’re basically the same price for you as for a big name show. It has to be fair for all.

MG: Will the park try to acquire or create more events that it owns?

LP: The plus for doing our own events is that we can do them; we have the staff and don’t have to pay ourselves for the facility. Then we can capture the ticket cost, which is where the revenue is. This is what I was charged with from Secretary Don Parkinson (of the Tourism, Arts, and Heritage Cabinet): Let’s make some signature events that will grow. One thing I did arose from an email two Decembers ago to a German executive director of Equitana, the world’s largest equine trade show. My email to him was, “I’m executive director of the horse park. I have the best facility in North America. You have the biggest equine trade show in Europe. Let’s partner.” We just got back from Germany in March, where we announced our partnership with Reed International, the company that produces Equitana. Equitana’s been going on 32 years so it’s built into over 800 exhibitors. They have a high-end Cirque du Soleil horse show a couple nights that is a high-end ticket. The horse park is going to be the home of Equitana USA starting in the fall of 2020. Reed International is the biggest company that does any kind of trade shows: Comic Con, all the big ones. They’re multinational. That’s a good partner to have. We’re excited that’s going to come to fruition.

MG: Of the 530,000 people who come in the park every year, what percentage are day visitors to the park versus event attendees?

LP: It’s higher on the event attendee side; I would say 60/40. It’s easy for us to calculate the park-visit folks coming through our point of sales system and tell where they’re coming from. The back side, not so much; there’s a formula we use for horse shows of 2.8 people for one horse that comes in.

MG: Where do the visitors to the park come from?

LP: The majority are Kentucky or the surrounding states – Michigan down to Florida. We have a lot of international visitors; usually through the four-star or five-star horse shows. We consider ourselves one of the biggest welcome centers in the state; we’re located centrally on the I-75/I-64 split. When you come to the horse park we promote the other industries in Kentucky. We understand it’s all about co-branding and co-marketing. We don’t want this to be visitors’ only touch on Kentucky when they come here. We give them information about other tourist attractions that are close, such as Keeneland.

MG: Is the majority of the marketing of events done by the event operators, not the park itself?

LP: Correct. But what’s great about that is they’re marketing the park while they do it. They put our destination in their marketing, and we get free advertising while folks are here. We do have a marketing budget, and the park itself has tried to do a better job the past few years of marketing, mainly to our locals. We have a free run/walk club on Monday nights in the summer and have had 500 or 600 people out here on Monday nights. We have food trucks and there are families pushing strollers, families with their dogs, run groups. So that’s a great aspect as well as our museum, our fishing, our open fields, all the beautiful trees here. The Legacy Trail wraps right around the Kentucky Horse Park. Our campground has a swimming pool, a merchandise store and over 260 sites. We’re full year-round except January and February.

MG: The park hosted the FEI World Equestrian Games in 2010. Is there any likelihood the park would host a future World Equestrian Games?

LP: Yes. We were shortlisted for ’18, and we declined; there wasn’t enough time. It was 18 months out. The planning for the World Equestrian Games in 2010 started some four to five years prior. We have the infrastructure, but we didn’t have the sponsorship dollars nor did we have time to sell that event or manage the expectations. We wouldn’t have had enough time to let everybody know that we probably can’t have a Spotlight (entertainment series) downtown; we probably can’t have a big tent city (again) from Alltech. And we didn’t want to disappoint people. 2010 was so great.

Another reason we declined was their business model. I didn’t feel it was a great business model for the horse park to be taking so much risk and liability and the entity selling the show – FEI – not taking so much. This being said, FEI has come up with a new bid process. They’ve changed their business model somewhat. I went to a meeting and there were over 20 nations there. And I don’t know if they’re all going to vie for the World Equestrian Games, but we’re seriously considering putting in a bid for 2022.

MG: Is there anything on the park’s wish list for new or additional facilities or programs?

LP: The one thing that the horse park needs is new barn facilities. With the number of horse shows we have here, that’s the one thing our competitors beat us in hands down. The World Equestrian Center in Wilmington, Ohio, and Wellington Equestrian center near West Palm Beach, Fla., are much newer. Our barns are old and they’re not up to date. We’re planning and trying to set aside money. We’re going to try to work with the Kentucky Horse Park Foundation to have a campaign to get updated barn facilities.

MG: The park has cut annual costs by $2.6 million since 2016, but revenues fell also and the state allotment has remained around $2.2 million. However, the estimated economic impact from the park is $131 million with $13.5 million in tax revenue. Is it a goal for the park to be cash-flow positive? Is that realistic?

LP: It’s a goal of any operation to be cash-flow positive. But the overhead of a facility this large shouldn’t be the responsibility of all taxpayers. Quite frankly we’re not receiving a large majority of the taxpayer’s dollars. The allotment is no longer $2.2 million; next calendar year they’ve asked us to take $1.4 million less. Another thing that’s happened is legislation passed last year increasing our share of paying for employee benefits from 49.47% to 83.4%. We’ll do the best we can.

It’s a goal to be self-sufficient; it’s not a goal to make tens of thousands of dollars. The horse park is being managed as efficiently as possible with the resources we have. To my understanding, the horse park never operated in the black; 2017 would have been the first year that the Kentucky Horse Park, with the allocation, operated in the black. In 2018 we operated in the black again, but not as much – we went from over $100,000 positive to last year $13,000 positive. In ’19 we’re not going to be positive, but we’re trending in the right direction.

MG: What is the economic impact on local hotels and restaurants from your events?

LP: There are at least 10 to 20 shows here annually that book up Lexington’s Newtown Pike corridor, Georgetown and even over into Hamburg (in northeast Lexington). All the hotels, restaurants are full, the gas stations, and equine suppliers, benefit from these events. We have great relationships with all the hoteliers. The hotels understand the importance of the horse park and its proximity to their business. Lots of hotels become headquarters for events when the teams come in weeks early for the set-up. So there’s a lot of economic impact outside the park from activities.

MG: What has been the impact of a state auditor report released in 2017 suggesting some of the management practices at the park were not compliant with state regulations?

LP: State entities are audited every year as a good practice of checks and balances. A special audit, as this was, is just taking a deeper, in-depth look. There were seven findings that all go back to procedures being lax. There’s a process with contracts and posting RFPs (request for proposal) and posting sponsorships that you have to do. If one of those steps is missed, it’s not done right. It doesn’t mean it’s been illegal; it doesn’t mean it’s been done to benefit somebody else than the horse park. It was a step that wasn’t done. Happily, though, prior to the auditor coming out with his report in 2017, we had already recognized all of these shortfalls and already started to or implemented tightening of the rules as directed to us from our state entity.

MG: The Kentucky Horse Park Foundation is a legally separate, tax-exempt corporation that receives, holds, and administers gifts and grants in the name of the park. It has an $8.97 million net position. What is the relationship between the park and the foundation? Does it contribute to your budget on a regular basis?

LP: The relationship is strong. There were private individuals then and now who are so passionate about the park. It’s a vehicle by which folks can contribute and get a 100% write-off, like many foundations. We do not go to the foundation with anything superficial or that it would have a hard time “selling” to its supporters. Last year they purchased a water truck, probably an $85,000 purchase but something vital to maintaining the rings here at the horse park. Foundation moneys do not go to cover payroll or operating expenses.

The foundation leadership and the horse park leadership are on the same page with the common goal that we want to be financially set long-term. There are organizations with foundations whose whole operating costs are covered by the interest their foundations generate. That would be a huge goal of the Kentucky Horse Park. Can it get there? Absolutely. Some of the people who come and show here are part of families with great resources. It’s not unreasonable to think that harvesting those relationships could help the horse park get to self-sufficiency through the foundation.

MG: The park’s stated vision is to be the premier equestrian event venue and 2017 readers of The Chronicle of the Horse voted it No. 1. Who are KHP’s rivals and what does the park need to do to maintain a premiere position?

LP: The vision is for us to be the premier venue for equestrians but also for those who want to learn more about and enjoy the land we have that’s dedicated to the horses. On top of our show facilities, what the horse park has going for it that the other venues don’t have is our location, our green space. We have an entertainment, educational part on the front half of the park as well. Our competition would be Tryon, N.C., which hosted the World Equestrian Games in ’18. Our other competition would be the World Equestrian Center in Ohio; they also have a facility down in Wellington, Fla.

MG: How much awareness is there about the Kentucky Horse Park outside your main geographic footprint and overseas in Europe?

LP: I often tell people the horse park is more known internationally than it is nationally. And it’s better known nationally that it is locally. That’s partly due to our lack of marketing dollars. We’re doing a much better job of letting people know that there are horses here all the time, and we’re doing a much better job of cross-promoting ourselves with other tourist attractions in the state. We are part of the Better in the Bluegrass marketing campaign that the tourism department has taken on this past year. The majority of people know about the horse park because the World Equestrian Games put the horse park on the map in 2010.

MG: What do most Kentuckians not know about the state horse park?

LP: Most Kentuckians don’t know we have a world class, one-of-a-kind, Smithsonian Institution museum sitting here. Most Kentuckians don’t know you can come out to the horse park any day of the week. During season you can buy tickets to do all the different things at a $20 admission. Kentuckians think they have to be coming out here for an event or that they have to own horses to enjoy the park.

Our Breeds Barn has more breeds than any one place in North America. We have 27 different rare breeds that perform with riders in costume during our Parade of Breeds show and represent their breed throughout the park. We have the Hall of Champions Barn that has two shows a day and includes two Kentucky Derby winners, Standardbred winners and a Quarter Horse winner. The walking tour of the horse park is self-guided and could take a whole day. We’re one of very few places in the state where you can come take horseback trail rides. A lot of people who come to Kentucky know us for our bourbon and horses. What better place to see, ride and pet a horse than the Kentucky Horse Park. 


Mark Green is executive editor of The Lane Report. He can be reached at [email protected]

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