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Market Review | Visitors say ‘Yes’ to Louisville

Tourism spending tops $1.3 billion; entertainment options continue to grow

By Kathie Stamps

The Kentucky International Convention Center reopened in the fall of 2018 after a $208 million renovation and expansion. In March of 2019, KICC hosted the annual conference and stage expo for the New York-based United States Institute for Theatre Technology.

The word chosen by Doug Bennett, senior vice president of development for Louisville Tourism, when describing the state of conventions and tourism in Greater Louisville is “growth.”

“We’ve never been in a better or stronger position,” he said. “Our best days are in front of us.”

With the opening of the $315 million Omni Louisville Hotel in 2018 and renovations for Louisville Marriott Downtown and the Galt House Hotel, among others, the “impact on the product we’re able to sell is tremendous,” Bennett said. “Site inspections are way up in the past 12 months. Business across the board is up.”

Total tourism spending is an annual $1.307 billion in Louisville, according to a 110-page report by Longwoods International for the 2017 domestic tourism business in Louisville, with the top two expenditures being lodging (39%) and food/beverage at restaurants (25%). Of the 24.7 million visits, 81% were leisure travelers. The average age of visitors is 43.4 years.

After a two-year closure for a $207 million renovation and expansion, the downtown Kentucky International Convention Center (KICC) opened in August 2018 and generated 60 events in five months, with an estimated economic impact of $30 million. The new space has a 40,000-s.f. ballroom with color-changing LED walls and no columns; 52 meeting rooms; a tiered conference theater with seating for 175; a kitchen capacity of 15,000 meals per day; and 200,125 s.f. of contiguous Class A exhibit space. KICC also has Oak & Brew; a restaurant for coffee by day, bourbon by night.

“Groups say ‘yes’ to Louisville because of the number of rooms and things to do,” Bennett said. “A bigger convention center, more hotel product and more to do after 5 p.m. help a destination grow and become an option.”

Events large and small attract visitors from the surrounding region and the globe, and provide an unmeasurable quality of life for residents. The Longwoods report listed the zoo as a top attraction. Louisville Zoo is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2019 with two new exhibits: Snow Leopard Pass and Colobus Crossing take visitors on a virtual trip to Kenya to see the black and white Colobus monkeys.

Louisville’s ‘mane’ attractions

Last year’s largest tourism event had an estimated economic impact of just under $355 million. That would be, of course, the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks.

Louisville Tourism, the Greater Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau, listed the two-day Breeders’ Cup World Championship as the second largest event, with an estimated impact of $70 million on the local economy. Rounding out the top five events of 2018 were SkillsUSA National Leadership and Skills Conference ($26.2 million); Mid-America Trucking Show annual trade show ($25.6 million); and the National Farm Machinery Show and Championship Tractor Pull ($23.6 million).

Speaking of Louisville’s “mane” attraction, Airbnb booked more than $2.5 million in stays for 5,800 guests over Derby weekend in May through the community-driven hospitality company.

The International Festivals and Events Association, based in Boise, Idaho, has named Louisville in its list of top 10 “IFEA World Festival & Event Cities in North America.” Art, music and bourbon are the most common festival topics in Greater Louisville.

The Kentucky Distillers’ Association hosts the annual Kentucky Bourbon Affair in June, a week-long celebration of bourbon at distilleries and watering holes throughout downtown Louisville that is KDA’s signature event.

Abbey Road on the River, the world’s largest Beatles-inspired music festival, lasts five days over Memorial Day weekend at the Big Four Station Park in Jeffersonville, Ind. The 2019 event paid homage to the 50th anniversary of the British band’s penultimate album, “Abbey Road.”

Forecastle Festival is a three-day celebration of music, art and activism at Waterfront Park. The 17th annual Forecastle in mid-July features the Avett Brothers, the Free Nationals, Hozier, Tyler Childers and dozens of other performers. And new to 2019, the VIP weekend passes come with a Forecastle Urban Bourbon Trail passport and copper flask.

“The bourbon visitor will increasingly spend time in Shelby County,” said Katie Fussenegger, executive director of ShelbyKY Tourism, “with Jeptha Creed (distillery) fully established and Bulleit’s Distillery [opening].”

ShelbyKY Tourism created a series of Bourbon 101 workshops called “Dine & Discover Events” to educate community officials and those working in restaurants, hotels and other tourism-related businesses in Shelby County about bourbon. Once a month from April through July, Tim Knittel of Distilled Living has led tastings and explained responsible serving guidelines, the history of bourbon and how to taste it, and what makes it special to Kentucky.

“To keep our hospitality community bustling year-round, ShelbyKY Tourism is leading a focused campaign on group sales during the slower periods in winter,” Fussenegger said. “We are also marketing to smaller groups of 10 to 50 attendees that are specific to equine sports, affinity groups and reunions.”

In April, the Louisville Independent Business Alliance (LIBA) launched a series called “West on Wednesdays” at local and independent restaurants in West Louisville, to keep up the good word about supporting local entrepreneurs. Farm to Fork, Lucretia’s Kitchen and Mattie’s Kitchen were three of the first local eateries on the docket.

On Pearl Street in New Albany, “MESA, A Collaborative Kitchen” is a place for local chefs, and those who aspire to be, to take part in live culinary demonstrations for audience members who double as taste-testers. Five miles due north, Donum Dei Brewery on Grant Line Road opened four years ago and has added craft spirits with new distilling operations.

Jeffersonville’s Arts and Cultural District received a $220,000 grant from the Indiana Office of Tourism Development and more than $1 million in funding from SoIN Tourism to create workspaces for artists, makers, historians and inventors in underused buildings and green spaces in the city.

Outdoor adventures

Three parks departments in Southern Indiana – Clarksville, Jeffersonville and New Albany – created Le Tour de Greenway, a family-friendly event in May for participants to bike along the 7.5-mile Ohio River Greenway, a multiuse path that now fully connects all three communities, thanks to the opening of a walking bridge across Silver Creek.

Pedestrian access is a major attraction between Louisville and Southern Indiana, as the Big Four Bridge offers foot or bike access across the Ohio River, with stunning views of the city and countryside. And the river itself provides ample attractions for entertainment – from kayaking, to cruising on the Belle of Louisville to competitions like IRONMAN Louisville.

Bullitt County

300 S. Buckman St.

Shepherdsville, KY 40156

(502) 543-2262

Bullitt County is one of the fastest growing counties in Kentucky, and is home to the state’s official arboretum, Bernheim Forest, as well as the No. 1 selling bourbon in the world, Jim Beam. Situated just 20 minutes from downtown Louisville, Bullitt County is the best of both worlds – a rural setting that’s close enough to the metro area for whatever city offerings you may want.

To start your next venture, contact:

• Bullitt County Economic Development

John R. Snider

(502) 543-1200

[email protected]

• Bullitt County Tourist Commission

Troy Beam

(502) 543-1900

[email protected]

Area Attractions

American Printing House for the Blind Museum


Beck’s Mill

Salem, Ind.


Belle of Louisville


Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest



Blackacre State Nature Preserve and Historic Homestead


Brennan House


Bullitt County History Museum



Cave Hill Cemetery


Churchill Downs


Conrad-Caldwell House Museum


Corydon Capital State Historic Site


Culbertson Mansion State Historic Site

New Albany, Ind.


Falls of the Ohio Foundation

Clarksville, Ind.


Farmington Historic Home


Flame Run Glass Studio and Gallery


Fort Duffield Park & Historic Site

West Point


Fourth Street Live!


Frazier History Museum


General George Patton Museum of Leadership

Fort Knox


George Rogers Clark Homesite

Clarksville, Ind.


Gheens Science Hall and Rauch Planetarium


Historic Old Louisville


Howard Steamboat Museum

Jeffersonville, Ind.


Huber’s Orchard, Winery & Vineyards

Starlight, Ind.


John Hay Center

Salem, Ind.


Kentucky Derby Museum


Kentucky Kingdom and Hurricane Bay


Kentucky Railway Museum

New Haven


Kentucky Science Center


Louisville Mega Cavern


Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory


Louisville Zoo


Muhammad Ali Center


Museum Row on Main


My Old Kentucky Dinner Train



My Old Kentucky Home State Park



Oscar Getz Museum



Patriots Peace Memorial


Schimpff’s Confectionery

Jeffersonville, Ind.


Scribner House

New Albany, Ind.


Squire Boone Caverns & Village

Mauckport, Ind.


Thomas Edison House


Thomas Merton Center


Whitehall House & Gardens


Wickland Home



Zachary Taylor National Cemetery

cem.va.gov/cems/nchp/ zacharytaylor.asp