‘Stay Close. Go Far’: Central Kentucky region is a perfect pandemic tourist destination

By Kathie Stamps

In late August, the Kentucky Department of Tourism announced its new marketing campaign, “Stay Close. Go Far.” Targeted toward travelers who are driving, particularly within the state, the media campaign will continue through the spring of 2021 to focus on promoting Kentucky’s outdoor recreation and camping, culinary tourism, and arts and cultural attractions and experiences.

Of the nine regions designated by the Kentucky Department of Tourism, the 15 counties comprising Central Kentucky are known as “Bluegrass, Horses, Bourbon & Boone.” This region had an economic impact of $1.4 billion in direct spending in 2019; tourism generated $8 billion in direct spending statewide.

Visitor spending in Kentucky has grown 17% over the past five years in the categories of food and beverage, lodging, retail, recreation and transportation. The 2019 numbers were up, up, up in every category from the previous year: total business sales ($11.8 billion), state and local tax revenues ($823 million), tourism-sustained jobs (95,803) and number of visitor trips (74 million). Fayette County’s 2019 economic impact of $904.24 million was up 2.7% over 2018.

“The tourism industry enjoyed a strong 2019,” said Mary Quinn Ramer, president of VisitLEX, Lexington’s Convention and Visitors’ Bureau. “Tourism means more to our everyday lives than most might realize.”

Total hotel room revenue topped $196 million, an increase of $5 million from 2018. Transient room tax revenue for the Bluegrass region grew in 2019 to exceed $16.6 million, which was reinvested in the community.

Attractions in Lexington earned 1.1 billion media impressions nationwide from Architectural Digest, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Southern Living, the “Today Show,” Town & Country and USA Today, among others. Entertainment Weekly named the new Railbird music festival to its “Ultimate 2019 Summer Music Festival” list and Country Living put Lexington on its “30 Best Weekend Getaways in the South.”

The first 20 weeks of the 2020 pandemic showed a $63 million shortfall in hotel room revenue and $32 million in lost revenue due to the cancellations of 183 groups. Even so, the VisitLEX sales team has booked at least 135 meetings and events in Lexington for future business, and has engaged in virtual meeting planner events in order to create new business leads for the city.

Over the spring and summer, VisitLEX used its Facebook page to promote virtual experiences from quite a few partners, such as quarantine concerts from Manchester Music Hall, distillery tours from Buffalo Trace and Castle & Key, horse farm tours facilitated by Horse Country, and performances and events from the Kentucky Horse Park, Lexington Art League, Lexington Public Library and Lexington Theatre Co.

“This year, COVID-19 has devastated the travel and tourism industry across the nation and right here in Lexington,” Ramer said. “VisitLEX is fully committed to the industry’s recovery and is working collaboratively with our partners to withstand the impact of this pandemic.”

Zeroing in on experiences for couples and very small groups, VisitLEX proclaimed “Lexington is a safe bet for travel” on its website (visitlex.com), highlighting small-batch experiences, bourbon tours, horse farm tours, canoeing, hiking and other outdoor activities.

The Bluegrass Hospitality Association (BHA) represents hotels, restaurants, breweries, distilleries, tourist attractions and other hospitality professionals with the mission of being the unified voice of the hospitality industry.

“We remain committed to bringing events, groups and individual travelers to our community. We are actively working to support VisitLEX in all of their efforts to continue to market our area,” said Pam Avery, president of BHA and general manager of Embassy Suites Lexington Green. “The hotel, restaurant and events industry is comprised of passionate people creating positive experiences for all of our guests and team members. We encourage the public to travel and eat out again. The industry has taken its role in the care and health of our guests very seriously and is engaged in new cleaning protocols in every area of their business. We are open and ready to welcome visitors.”

In January, the nonprofit Lexington Center Corp., a corporate agency of city government, announced a 14-year naming rights agreement with Lexington-based Central Bank. The entertainment complex formerly known as Lexington Center is now Central Bank Center, and Rupp Arena’s new name is Rupp Arena at Central Bank Center. The complex is undergoing a $300 million expansion project, expected to be completed in the spring of 2022, at which point Central Bank Center will have 200,000 s.f. of meeting and events space. An exhibit hall will take up half of that square footage and the other half of the flexible space will contain a ballroom, hospitality areas and meeting spaces.

Construction workers have been busy on Versailles Road at The Kentucky Castle, where a pool and pool house, spa and three-bedroom guest cabin were completed in the fall of 2019 and work on a “glamping” chalet was finished in April 2020. Last year, the landmark hotel and event center hosted more than 500 events and 20,000 visitors. Guests come from Chicago and New York, but the top two markets providing visitors are Lexington and Louisville, respectively, followed by Cincinnati, Nashville and Frankfort.

“The Kentucky Castle is going above and beyond to make sure our facilities are safe for guests. We have cut capacities and are following all state guidelines for each facet of our business,” said CEO Christie Eckerline. “We are continuing to host guests in our hotel, Castle Farm restaurant, The Kentucky Castle Spa, and our event venues. We have revamped our plans for this year, including adding additional restaurant spaces, indoor and outdoor, and utilizing more of our outdoor areas for events.”

Outdoor adventures

Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill near Harrodsburg held its “Music on the Lawn” series on Friday and Saturday evenings over the summer, with no admission charge for the scenery and live music. The music accompanied outdoor dining, drinks and specialty cocktails around the fire pit. Now a tourist destination, Shaker Village was home to the third largest Shaker community in the United States between 1805 and 1910. It has 34 of the original Shaker structures, 36 miles of trails, seed-to-table dining, 72 hotel rooms, shopping and more.

The Legacy Trail is a shared-use greenway trail that connects downtown Lexington to the Kentucky Horse Park. The final two miles of the trail, a $3.9 million project, will be completed this fall from Fifth St. at Jefferson St. to the Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden at Third St. and Midland Ave.

By the end of the year, the 15-year Town Branch Trail project is slated to be complete, a $3.8 million project connecting downtown to the Distillery District, McConnell Springs and Masterson Station Park. And within a couple of years, tourists and residents will enjoy biking and walking through downtown Lexington on the Town Branch Commons Trail, a $20.1 million project funded by local, state and federal funds. The two-mile trail, expected to be complete in 2022, will run along Midland Ave. from Main St. to Third St., along Vine St. from East Main St. to Central Bank Center and will include three times as many trees on Vine and Midland. Town Branch Commons Trail will link Town Branch Trail and the Legacy Trail for a total of 22 trail miles.

Horse farms provide beautiful scenic views and tourism attractions. Going into 2020, Horse Country Inc., an agency that connects visitors and equine attractions, had made major investments in its website, user experience and marketing. Their aggressive projections to increase sales 36% year over year were actually being exceeded, as the organization was trending at 40% growth halfway into its July to June fiscal year.

“Our members had been consistently investing in elevating experiences and adding tour inventory,” said Anne Hardy, executive director of Horse Country.

The pandemic has been financially devastating, however.

“We missed out on our most profitable months (March to June) for touring and simultaneously incurred significant refunds from pre-sold admissions. That said, it’s been incredible to see our members and community respond to these challenges with mission-focused activities like free virtual tours that have reached millions of views from around the world,” Hardy said.

Horse County started a C3 fund with Bluegrass Community Foundation to support the education and scholarship elements.

“We are grateful for the contributions of support and that people continue to share our experiences, engage with our online channels and grow their love of the Bluegrass and our horse country,” she said.

Safety protocols are in place for the horse farm tours that have started back, requiring masking and limited capacity. More options are available for private tours for those who want to tour a farm with their own closed groups.

Kefah and Tessa Habash own Lavender in Bloom, a u-pick lavender farm in Georgetown. Their 15-acre property features 11 varieties of lavender on two acres. They planted 2,000 lavender plants in 2017 and held their first u-pick the next year. The Habash family welcomed over 1,000 visitors to the farm in 2020 from all over Kentucky, as well as southern Indiana, Ohio and New York. “Although lavender isn’t what you typically envision when you think of Central Kentucky tourism, I believe it’s a wonderful draw for tourists and a great way for people to experience something new,” said Tessa Habash. “Who knows, maybe one day people will come to Kentucky just for the lavender.”

The Frankfort Public Art Tour is a self-guided tour for walkers or motorists throughout downtown Frankfort and Franklin County. Attractions include architecture, murals, sculptures and other pieces of public art, and each piece is described online (visitfrankfort.com/art) to include the artist and medium, and a history of the artwork.

Kentucky River Tours is a privately run attraction (bourbonboat.com) taking guests on different types of boat trips on the river in Frankfort. Options include bourbon-themed tours from Buffalo Trace and historical tours along the Kentucky River, as well as private boat tours.

There are 15 bourbon distilleries within 45 miles of downtown Lexington. Brewgrass Trail has 20 craft breweries for tours.

Wise Bird Cider Co. in Lexington’s Distillery District hosted a weekly farm-to-table dinner series outside on the patio in late summer and fall. Featuring a three-course meal and cider pairings, the series was sponsored by VisitLEX and Guide Realty with organizing partner Black Soil: Our Better Nature. Black Soil’s network of chefs connected participants to the legacy of Black agriculture in Kentucky through their dishes and stories.

“Because of tourism, we have a stronger revenue base that saves taxpayers money,” VisitLEX’s Ramer said. “Because of tourism, we have thousands of jobs. Because of tourism, we have enhanced quality of life through increased offerings in culinary, music, arts and entertainment.”

As the Bluegrass Hospitality Association says, “The hospitality of the Bluegrass will shine on, extending to our neighbors, perfecting until our visitors return. Our visitors will return. And when they do, we’ll be ready.”

EVENT VENUES

Apiary Catering & Events

the-apiary.com

Base 110

base110.com

Blue Grass Airport

bluegrassairport.com/meetingrooms.html

Boone Tavern Event Center (Berea)

boonetavernhotel.com/events

Buffalo Trace Distillery (Frankfort)

buffalotracedistillery.com/events

Carrick House

carrickhouse.com

Central Bank Center

centralbankcenter.com

Fasig-Tipton

fasigtipton.com

Headley-Whitney Museum

headley-whitney.org/events

Hilary J. Boone Center

boonecenter.uky.edu

Keeneland/Keene Barn

keeneland.com

Kentucky Castle

thekentuckycastle.com

LexArts

lexarts.org/about/rental-space/

Lexington Opera House

lexingtonoperahouse.com

Limestone Hall

limestonehall.com

Mane on Main

themaneonmain.com

Signature Club of Lansdowne

signatureclub.org

Spindletop Hall

spindletophall.org

Thoroughbred Center

thoroughbred-center.com

Venues of the Grand Reserve

grandreserveevents.com

HOTELS

Beaumont Inn (Harrodsburg)

beaumontinn.com

Bluegrass Extended Stay

bluegrassextendedstay.com

Boone Tavern (Berea)

boonetavernhotel.com

Bright Leaf Golf Resort (Harrodsburg)

brightleafgolfresort.com

Campbell House Lexington,
Curio Collection by Hilton

thecampbellhouse.com

Capital Plaza Hotel (Frankfort)

capitalplazaky.com

Clarion Hotel Conference Center North

clarionhotellex.com

DoubleTree Suites by Hilton Hotel

doubletree3.hilton.com

Embassy Suites Lexington

embassysuites3.hilton.com

Griffin Gate Marriott Resort & Spa

marriott.com

Hilton Lexington/Downtown

lexingtondowntownhotel.com

Hyatt Regency Lexington

lexington.hyatt.com

Kentucky Castle

thekentuckycastle.com

Lexington Marriott City Center

marriott.com

Origin Lexington

originhotel.com

Ramada Lexington North Hotel
& Conference Center

wyndhamhotels.com/ramada

Residence Inn by Marriott City Center

marriott.com

21c Museum Hotel

21cmuseumhotels.com/lexington

Woodford Inn (Versailles)

Woodfordinn.com

ATTRACTIONS

Arboretum State Botanical
Garden of Kentucky

arboretum.ca.uky.edu

Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate

henryclay.org

Aviation Museum of Kentucky

aviationky.org

Distillery District

lexingtondistillerydistrict.com

Horse Country Tours

visithorsecountry.com

Hummel Planetarium (Richmond)

planetarium.eku.edu

Keeneland

keeneland.com

Kentucky Artisan Center at Berea

kentuckyartisancenter.ky.gov

Kentucky Horse Park

kyhorsepark.com

Mary Todd Lincoln House

mtlhouse.org

McConnell Springs

mcconnellsprings.org

Old Fort Harrod State Park (Harrodsburg)

parks.ky.gov/parks/recreationparks/fort-harrod

Pioneer Playhouse (Danville)

pioneerplayhouse.com

Red Mile

redmileky.com

Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill (Harrodsburg)

shakervillageky.org

Yuko-En On the Elkhorn,
the Official Kentucky-Japan
Friendship Garden (Georgetown)

yukoen.com