Home » Market Review: Greater Louisville region tourism climbing back from pandemic’s pause

Market Review: Greater Louisville region tourism climbing back from pandemic’s pause

By Kathie Stamps


The Kentucky International Convention Center reopened in the fall of 2018 after a $207 million renovation and expansion.

January started off with the Kentucky Department of Tourism announcing 2020 as the “Year of Music in Kentucky,” would be the 2020 Official Visitor’s Guide cover was unveiled at an event in the state capitol rotunda. Louisville Tourism was planning for a convention-packed year ahead, with Thunder Over Louisville expected to draw 725,000 in attendance and then the anticipation of Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby weekend expecting more than 250,000 people, contributing an estimated economic impact of over $394 million during the first weekend in May.

market review coverIn February, the United States Civil Rights Trail added two more Kentucky sites to its collection of landmarks: the SEEK Museum in Russellville and the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville. The Louisville Downtown Civil Rights Trail, Whitney M. Young Jr.’s birthplace in Simpsonville, and Berea College in Madison County previously were named to the U.S. Civil Rights Trail.

And then March came. As Gov. Andy Beshear encouraged Kentuckians to stay “healthy at home” to help slow the spread of COVID-19, members of Louisville’s attractions and arts community offered entertainment and education online. Locals continued to support the culinary community by ordering takeout.

As part of the “Healthy at Work” initiative, the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet reopened tourist attractions and parks in June. Tourism is an $11 billion industry in Kentucky, providing employment to nearly 95,000 Kentuckians, with 27,000 of those tourism-related jobs in Louisville.

“Tourism not only makes a daily impact as the third largest industry in Louisville but continues to make a community impact during challenging times like these,” said Karen Williams, Louisville Tourism president and CEO. “We are grateful for the significant role the hospitality industry is playing in supporting our 27,000 service industry members as they are vital to Louisville’s success. We must keep our hospitality community strong as tourism will be one of the first industries out of the starting gate to aid to the city’s economic recovery.”

Top trade show destination

In late May, the Trade Show News Network released its list for the top trade shows of 2019. Louisville hosted seven of the Top 250 tradeshows, as did Indianapolis and Nashville, but the River City was the only city to host three of the Top 20 shows – the International Construction & Utility Equipment Exposition (ICUEE), the GIE+EXPO and the Mid-America Trucking Show (MATS) – which represented an estimated economic impact of almost $60 million for Louisville.

The ICUEE, now known as The Utility Expo, is the second-largest show in the United States. It was held in October 2019 at the Kentucky Exposition Center with over 19,000 utility and construction professionals from 67 countries attending the three-day tradeshow and visiting 1,000 exhibitors across 1.34 million square feet of interior and exterior space. The Utility Expo will return to the Kentucky Exposition Center Sept. 28-30, 2021, and has committed to meet in Louisville every other year through 2029.

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GIE+EXPO is committed to Louisville annually through 2025, with the 2020 tradeshow scheduled for Oct. 21-23 at the Kentucky Exposition Center. Over 26,500 attended the 2019 lawn and garden industry event.

The Mid-America Trucking Show (MATS) has been held in Louisville since 1972. It’s the largest annual event for the heavy-duty trucking industry. In March 2019, almost 72,600 attendees and more than 1,000 exhibitors contributed an estimated economic impact of $25 million for the three-day show. The 2020 tradeshow was canceled, but dates have been set for March 25-27, 2021, at the Kentucky Exposition Center.

Region’s big events rescheduled

Kentucky Kingdom has averaged 700,000 visitors annually since reopening in 2014. Locals and tourists have 63 acres of family fun with more than 70 rides and attractions, including six roller coasters and 3 million gallons of water-filled activities at Hurricane Bay. For the 2020 season beginning the end of June, Kentucky Kingdom lowered admission prices for the upcoming season to $29.95 for general admission tickets and $49.95 for season passes, which include free parking and many in-park discounts.

Churchill Downs Inc. announced the rescheduling of the 146th Longines Kentucky Oaks and the Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve for Friday, Sept. 4 and Saturday, Sept. 5, respectively. Thunder Over Louisville, the annual fireworks extravaganza that kicks off the Kentucky Derby Festival, was cancelled for 2020. The festival also announced that the 47th annual Humana minimarathon would be run early on Saturday morning, Aug. 22 through the infield at Churchill Downs from the starting line on Main Street near Slugger Field and the finish line outside the new Lynn Family Stadium on Adams Street.

Typically held over Memorial Day weekend, the 2020 Abbey Road on the River was postponed to Oct. 8-11, coinciding with what would have been John Lennon’s 80th birthday. But the musical show still went on – online, that is – over Memorial Day Weekend on the festival’s website and Facebook page, for a broadcast of 10 hours of new musical performances by the Jukebox Beatles from Puerto Rico, Classicstone from Colombia, All You Need Is Love from Canada, as well as Louisville School Of Rock students, among others.

The three-day festival in October will take place at the Big Four Station Park in Jeffersonville, Ind., with increased safety protocol and security measures, and will include Beatles merchandise, craft vendors, interactive art installations, food and bar services, and a playground and activity tent for children. Some concerts and events will be held in the Radisson Hotel.

The dozens of tourism organizations located in Shelby County and affected by COVID-19 were able to apply for financial assistance, in the form of reimbursement of up to $1,000, from May 1 to June 15 through a new program established by the ShelbyKY Tourism Commission and Visitors Bureau Board.

“Since the in-person events that have been the hallmark of National Travel and Tourism Week in years past are not an option this year, ShelbyKY Tourism is looking to engage the community by supporting local partners,” said Chenelle McGee, president and CEO of ShelbyKY Tourism. “There’s no doubt this has been an incredibly challenging time for ShelbyKY. We see NTTW as an opportunity to remind our community of the incredible spirit and resiliency of the travel industry and our workforce.”

Top attractions

The Muhammad Ali Center is a multicultural center with an award-winning museum dedicated to the life and legacy of boxing legend, activist and philanthropist Muhammad Ali. The center’s museum captures the inspiration derived from the story of Muhammad Ali’s life and the principles that fueled his journey. It has three levels of award-winning and interactive exhibits and galleries.

The Big Four Bridge, a pedestrian and bicycle bridge, links Louisville’s Waterfront Park to Jeffersonville, Ind., over the Ohio River. The former railroad truss bridge, completed in 1895, got its name from the now defunct Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railway, which was named the Big Four Railroad. It offers breathtaking views of the river, city and the Louisville Waterfront Park. The bridge opened to the public in 2013 and averages more than 1.5 million visits per year.

Kentucky Science Center has three floors of interactive exhibits that offer educational science fun for the whole family.

The “World’s Largest Baseball Bat,” at the entrance of the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, has been towering over Louisville’s skyline since 1996, but the company has been making bats since 1884. The museum and factory celebrate the role Louisville Slugger baseball bats have played in the sport. In addition to guided factory tours, visitors can check out memorabilia and interactive exhibits.

The KFC Yum! Center, a large indoor arena located downtown, hosts UofL and NCAA basketball games as well as some of the musical biggest acts in the country, like Janet Jackson, Katy Perry, Garth Brooks, Paul McCartney, The Eagles, Journey, Madonna, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, just to name a few.

The Louisville Zoo celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2019. Home to more than 1,200 animals on 134 acres of natural settings, the zoo welcomes more than 900,000 visitors each year.

21c Museum Hotel collects and exhibits the best work of living artists from all over the world. The exhibits are free and open to the public.

Fourth Street Live is a popular dining and entertainment district that features a mix of leading national and regional restaurants, retail, nightclubs and live entertainment.

Louisville Mega Cavern is a 17-mile underground adventure. It is home to Mega Zips, the world’s only underground zipline adventure tour; Mega Quest, the only underground ropes challenge course in the world; the BMX and MTB Mega Bike Park; and the Mega Tram, a historical tour of the cavern.

Churchill Downs Racetrack, home of the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks, conducts horse racing during three meets each year. It has a one-mile dirt, oval racetrack and seven furlong turf race course. Thoroughbred racing has continuously run at the track since 1875.

Kentucky Derby Museum is the official tour provider of Churchill Downs. Tours are offered throughout the year, and admission includes two levels of family-friendly interactive permanent and temporary exhibits.

The Louisville Palace is a historic theater that opened in 1928 as a movie house but was restored in the 1990s. The 2,800-seat theater resembles a Spanish courtyard, with a dark sky and twinkling stars above and castle-like features. The venue hosts concerts of all genres, Broadway attractions, classic films and other and events.

The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts is Kentucky’s premier performing arts venue, hosting Broadway performances, ballet, orchestra and children’s theater.

Derby Dinner Playhouse in Clarksville, Ind., is the region’s only professional dinner theater. It is noted for its professional productions of Broadway musicals and lighthearted comedies.

Waterfront Park in downtown Louisville features a family recreation area, playground and water features, and hosts seasonal special events and concerts.


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


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


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 Kingdom and Hurricane Bay


Kentucky Railway Museum

New Haven


Muhammad Ali Center


Museum Row on Main


My Old Kentucky Dinner Train



My Old Kentucky Home State Park



Oscar Getz Museum



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