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Conference Planners Want Tech – And Get It

By Debra Gibson Isaacs

Owensboro Convention Center, which opened in 2014, has 45 room combinations.

Technological innovations, generational preferences, the economy, a sellers’ market and a desire for a unique experience are all driving continual change in Kentucky’s meetings and convention market.

“When you look at recent years, convention/hospitality is one of the most transformative industries,” said Eric Summe, president and CEO of MeetinKY/Northern Kentucky Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Visitors’ behavior has started to change and transform. Groups are now much more investigative and discerning.”

And more demanding.

“You have to give them an experience, not just a meeting,” said Tom Underwood, executive director of the Kentucky Association of Association Executives (KAAE).

Even so, the convention and meetings market is “in a position of steady growth,” according to Bill Voegeli, president of Association Insights, an Atlanta-area research firm that produces a quarterly outlook for Meeting Professionals International. He summarized the state of the industry in the spring issue of Meetings Outlook: “As long as you have this seller’s market, you have this steady slow growth. We are seeing a healthy industry for a prolonged period of time.”

Changing with the times

Owensboro may well be the most visible example of changes in action.

Three years ago, visitors to the Western Kentucky city on the Ohio saw boarded up storefronts and a meeting facility well past its prime. Today, they see an expansive park bordered by the river and an array of restaurants and specialty shops as they make their way to a 170,000-s.f. convention center that includes 93,000 s.f. of meeting space, 13,000 s.f. of ballroom space and two exhibit halls.

Opened in February 2014, the upscale convention center is the cornerstone of Owensboro’s work to attract convention business.

But the center is not an A-to-Z solution as it might once have been.

“The convention center is part of a package Owensboro offers,” said Dean Dennis, general manager/vice president of Spectra Venue Management, the company running the convention center and ticketing office. “The riverfront redevelopment and two new hotels are important aspects of making Owensboro a desirable destination.”

The new facility appears to be doing its job.

In its second full year in operation, the Owensboro Convention Center has booked double the number of conventions in its original feasibility projections. From July 2015 through June 2016, these events were forecast to generate more than 6,700 hotel room nights and more than $4.3 million in economic impact for the City of Owensboro, according to the Kentucky Department of Tourism.

But the physical infrastructure is only part of attracting that revenue.

Making organizations and their members feel “like big fish in a small pond” is also important, according to Laura Alexander, director of sales and marketing for Spectra Venue Management.

“Many of the conventions currently scheduled were brought to Owensboro with the help of the local community,” Alexander said. “Individuals can help positively impact the local economy through recommendations.”

Owensboro’s community-involvement program is called Bring Your Meeting Home. Once an event is booked, the person who made the recommendation is designated as an Owensboro Convention Center ambassador and rewarded with a Visa gift card for up to $200 per lead. To date, the campaign has generated more than 5,300 hotel rooms and has paid out some $1,200 in gift cards.

Convention center employees also do myriad small things to make their guests feel welcome. For example, the local newspaper often runs articles about which groups are coming to town. That kind of attention is hard to garner in larger areas.

Collectively, Dennis said, these changes have earned Owensboro a significant amount of repeat business in the convention market.

“Part of success is getting onto the calendar and getting into the convention rotation,” he said. We have done that and been able to do some regional business in the tri-state area (Kentucky, Illinois and Tennessee). We are also proud of our repeat business. The Girl Scouts of Kentuckiana changed their bylaws to come back here a second year.”

Like most Kentucky cities – Louisville being the occasional exception – Owensboro does not compete against big markets such as Las Vegas, Orlando or New Orleans and instead finds its niche serving the multitude of statewide associations found in the area.

Technology rules

But that doesn’t mean attendees at smaller conferences expect less than the latest and greatest, particularly when it comes to technology.

Once nice selling points, many technologies are now necessities. Free Wi-Fi in conference facilities and hotels is a given today, Dennis said, and it has to be able to accommodate large bandwidths.

“We are a four-lane highway when it comes to Wi-Fi,” Dennis said. “You can’t be a sidewalk when it comes to technology now.”

Meeting Professionals International reports that “apps, beacons, data collection, attendee tracking and other tech advances are being experimented with to bring greater value to meetings and events.”

A recent study by Red 7 Media bears this out. The study found the top three concerns for conference goers involve technology, with wireless internet access topping the list at 71 percent. (See above.)

Ditto that at conferences across the state and nation.

“Technology is on the forefront of conferences,” said Will Engle, director of conference and events, for AMR Management in Lexington, which oversees some 60 events annually throughout the country for professional associations.

A prevalent trend, Engle said, is the use of smartphone apps that allow event attendees to access essential information such as agendas, session descriptions and speaker biographies as well as communicate among themselves. Private companies partner with an organization to provide the app. Larger organizations are now even building their own.

Meanwhile, Catchbox is a popular tech tool at conferences, according to Engle. Instead of passing a microphone to one another, participants literally toss around a soft, lightweight, brightly colored Catchbox, which contains a microphone. The microphone automatically shuts off when the lightweight neoprene box is moving.

The Finnish maker of the device touts that, with Catchbox, “event “professionals finally have a tool that helps liven up events while shifting conferences to be more about participation and discussion. Not only does the device make asking questions in packed rooms faster, but the simple act of throwing a soft cube breaks the ice and gets people talking.”

Lexington is using technology long before participants arrive or their organization even decides on a location, according to Marcie Krueger, vice president of sales and marketing for VisitLex.

“At VisitLex we have new electronic tools they can use such as short videos of 15 seconds to 2 minutes,” Krueger said. “They sell the destination. We also share pictures with conference planners if they haven’t been to Lexington. They love pictures of food. We do a lot of social and media interaction.”

Marketing can be a guerrilla process.

“Technology keeps evolving. It’s our day and time,” she said. “We had people ‘following’ us outside Lexington, but we didn’t realize it. Meeting planners are getting younger and younger. They’re learning a lot for free.”

Generational preferences

Technology is not the only new kid on the block.

“We are looking at different ways of meeting design,” Engle said. “We’re reframing our whole way of looking at adult education. What are the best ways in 2016 that adults learn? Is it listening to speaker give a presentation for 45 minutes? Maybe, but there may be new ways such as shorter presentations of 15 minutes each or other ways.

“We are also configuring rooms differently. For example, there is the ‘fish bowl’ concept. You put up to 50 people in a big circle around the room with four chairs in center. Only the people in the four chairs can talk, but audience members can tap a person on the shoulder to trade out and be able to talk. The idea is getting information from attendees, called crowd sourcing. While the person up front may be an expert, there is tremendous value in getting ideas from members on the fly.”

It’s all part of the new norm as GenXers and Millennials now outnumber Baby Boomers at many conferences.

“Gen Xers and Millennials value their personal time,” said KAAE’s Underwood. “They are looking for a return on their investment. They want to take home tools they can use in their careers. They want to get what they need and get back to their personal lives.”

Signature experiences

The younger generations are also taking conferences into new places and old places are changing to remain viable.

“Hotels have transformed a lot as well,” said Northern Kentucky’s Summe. “People used to use the hotel as place to stay and go out to explore. Now people want experiences in the hotel as well. Boutique hotels are trying to offer a different kind of experience.”

That works well for Northern Kentucky, Summe said, because the area has such diverse resources.

“We are the top of the South so we can give people a Southern experience if that is what they want,” he said, “but we are also part of the Greater Cincinnati metro area with all its culinary offerings.

“A growing segment for us is faith-based groups. We have the Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum. We can also do hobbies, sports, training and corporate. It just depends on what they want, but whatever they want, they tend to be more specific now.”

Bowling Green is taking advantage of the “making memories” trend as well.

“Our niche is motor sports,” said Vicki Fitch, executive director of the Bowling Green Area CVB. “We have Beech Bend Raceway, the headquarters of Holley Performance Products, the (GM Bowling Green) Corvette plant tours, and the National Corvette Museum.”

The city recently welcomed a three-mile road course with Le Mans curves, dips and a sinkhole where participants can experience a racetrack experience.

“A good number of multiday events want some sort of off-site activity,” Fitch said, “and these venues have some unique meeting space that works well for opening receptions. We also have SKyPAC (Southern Kentucky Performing Arts Center), which has a fantastic lobby that lends itself to dinners and receptions.”

Lost River Cave is another distinctive Bowling Green venue with a natural rock floor large enough for many functions, including meals, dances and conference sessions. A few feet away, participants can board a boat ride deep into the cave.

“The cave maintains 60 degrees year-round,” she said. “It is so nice, especially when it’s hot.

The big city venues are not threats, according to Fitch.

“Some organizations feel the need to go to giant cities first,” she said, “but people want to visit Middle America. Geography is good to us. We have a fantastic location on I-65 between Nashville and Louisville as well as a community that is easy to get around in and different sizes of facilities for different size events. We treat every single event like they are gold; they like coming back.”

In Lexington, another kind of horse power attracts conventioneers.

“We hear all the time that the group wants a unique experience and to build memories,” said Krueger of VisitLex.

The equine industry in Lexington can fill that bill.

“We have such a rich history,” she said, “and that gets people excited: the horse farms, the Kentucky Horse Park and so many great repurposed bourbon warehouses.”

Welcome back

Repurposed might be a good description of the work going on in Paducah as well. The far western Kentucky city has been out of the convention and meetings competition for nearly 10 years, according to Fowler Black, sales director for the Paducah Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“We have been out of the game for long enough that we have to be reintroduced as a player in the state,” Black said, “but we believe visitors will rediscover a destination that is unexpectedly sophisticated.

“Those who have not been to Paducah will find an authentic sense of place. Many know us as an inland river hub of inland waterways where the Tennessee, Ohio and Mississippi (rivers) converge, and that is a core part of our business, but we have key cultural attractions now that are not just show-and-tell but more of an immersive experience.”

At the National Quilt Museum, there are 20 sewing machines where visitors can create a miniature quilt in 120 minutes. At the Hotel Metropolitan, a historic African-American hotel, Miss Maggie, the hotel operator, will take you back to segregation and introduce you to some of the luminaries who stayed there, such as B.B. King, Billy Holiday and Ray Charles. There is also an authentic soul-food tasting.

Black hopes those experiences will attract people back to the city and to the new-generation riverfront Holiday Inn set to open in 2017.

But it is Paducah’s philosophy – echoed by facility managers, CVB directors and tourism experts across the state – that Black believes is the true difference.

“Looking good is basically solving their needs,” he said. “When they come here, they can rely on one person to make their job easier and make them look good. We will make sure their needs are met.”

Kentucky has dozens of historic and modern facilities designed to accommodate conventions, meetings, concerts and performances.

Kentucky’s Meeting and Convention Facilities

Ranked by overall square footage and event capacity

Kentucky Exposition Center, Louisville


1.2 million s.f.; seats 18,875 arena style, 6,000 (Broadbent Arena),

600 auditorium style; 300 outdoor acres, livestock arena, 1,000 horse stalls; 122 hotels nearby. Contact: (800) 618-5151, [email protected]

KFC Yum! Center, Louisville


721,000 s.f.; seats 22,000 arena style, 750 theater style (Hickman Camp Room), 640 banquet style (Spirit Room); large hotels nearby.

Contact: (502) 690-900

Rupp Arena, Lexington


Seats 2,300-23,500 arena style, 500 banquet style; 700 hotel rooms attached, other large hotels nearby. Contact: (859) 233-4567

Kentucky International Convention Center, Louisville


Under reconstruction until 2018 – 300,000 s.f.; seats 3,500 banquet style, 5,000 theater style; 2,300 hotel rooms connected by skywalk.
Contact: (800) 701-5831 [email protected]

Northern Kentucky Convention Center, Covington


204,000 s.f.; seats 6,000 theater style, 4,050 banquet style;
321 hotel rooms attached, 947 nearby. Contact: Gretchen Landrum,

(859) 261-4500 or [email protected]

Lexington Convention Center, Lexington


130,000 s.f. (66,000 s.f. exhibit, 40,000 s.f. meeting/ballroom);
seats 3,541 theater style, 2,160 banquet style; 700 hotel rooms attached, other large hotels nearby. Contact: (859) 233-4567

Muhammed Ali Center, Louisville


96,750 s.f.; Seats 450 theater style, 500 banquet style; large hotels nearby. Contact: (502) 584-9254

Owensboro Convention Center, Owensboro


92,000 s.f.; seats 4,000 theater style, 2,200 banquet style; 273 adjacent hotel rooms, 1,100 within 4-mile radius. Contact: Laura Alexander (270) 926-1100

Sloan Convention Center, Bowling Green


60,000 s.f.; seats 1,700 theater style; 1,000 banquet style; 662 attached hotel rooms. Contact: (270) 745-0088

Southern Kentucky Performing Arts Center, Bowling Green


74,000 s.f.; seats 1,686 theater style; hotel nearby. Contact: (270) 846-2426

Paducah McCracken County Convention & Expo Center, Paducah


52,000 s.f. Julian Carroll Convention Center; seats 1,900 theatre style, 800 banquet style; 13 breakout rooms. 40,000 s.f. Bill & Meredith
Schroeder Expo Center; space for 200+ exhibit booths, airplane-vehicle display, ice skating rink; 30 local hotels. Contact: Michelle Campbell (270) 408-1346, [email protected]

Kentucky Center For The Performing Arts, Louisville


Seats 2,406 theater style (Whitney Hall), 619 theater style (Bomhard Hall); large hotels nearby. Contact: (502) 562-0100

The Center for Rural Development, Somerset


26,000 s.f.; seats 760 theater style, 3,440 banquet style; 700 hotel room nearby. Contact: Laura Glover (606) 677-6001 [email protected]

East Kentucky Expo Center, Pikeville


26,000 s.f. (floor 24,000 s.f.) seats 7,000 arena style, 280 banquet style in separate ballroom; concessions and full food service; hotel nearby.
Contact: Cindy Collins (606) 444-5500 [email protected]

Morehead Conference Center, Morehead

18,000 s.f.; seats 1,800 theater style, 650 banquet style; hotels (transportation available) nearby including Hampton Inn, Best Western, Comfort Inn and more. Contact: (606) 780-4342, [email protected].

Frankfort Convention Center, Frankfort

18,000 s.f.; seats 5,000 theater style, 800 banquet style; 163 adjacent
Capital Plaza Hotel rooms. Contact: [email protected]

Louisville Palace Theatre, Louisville


11,856 s.f.; seats 2,700 theater style, 200 banquet style (faces lobby); large hotels nearby. Contact: (502) 736-1249

Brown Theatre, Louisville


5,700 s.f.; seats 1,400 theater style; 293-room Brown Hotel attached. Contact: (502) 562-0191

Henderson Fine Arts Center, Henderson


Seats 1,000 theater style, 681 banquet style; hotels nearby.

Contact: Rachael Baar (270) 827-1893 [email protected]

Lexington Opera House, Lexington


Seats 900 theater style; large hotels nearby. Contact: (502) 584-9254

Cave City Convention Center, Cave City

10,000 s.f.; seats 800 theater style, 400 banquet style; hotels and cabins nearby. Contact: Scott Thompson [email protected]

Kentucky Center For African American Heritage, Louisville


10,700 s.f.; seats 750 theater style, 400 banquet style; large hotels nearby. Contact: (502) 583-4100

General Butler State Resort Park, Carrollton


Seats 750 theater style, 400 banquet style; 53 lodge rooms plus 1-, 2- and 3-bedroom cottages and 100+ campsites; Two Rivers Restaurant; outdoor recreation. Contact: Dave Jordan or Sara Thacker (502) 732-4384

Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park, Gilbertsville


20,000 s.f.; seats 750 theater style, 600 banquet style; 72 hotel rooms plus

1-, 2- and 3-bedroom cottages and 200-site campground; 200-seat restaurant; largest marina on Kentucky Lake with outdoor recreation activities. Contact: Karen Faughn and Ella Bennett, (270) 362-4271, [email protected] or [email protected]

Ballard Convention Center, Madisonville


8,400 s.f.; seats 650 theater style, 350 banquet style; 375 hotel rooms within 2 miles. Contact: Dana Brown (270) 245-2970,
[email protected];

Harlan Center, Harlan


7,000 s.f.; seats 700 theater style, 400 banquet style.

Contact: (606) 573-4495 [email protected]

Grand Rivers Community Center, Grand Rivers

7,000 s.f.; seats 200 people; 258 hotels rooms total nearby.

Contact: (270) 362-8272

CityPlace Convention & Event Center, La Grange


38,000 s.f. with 5,500 s.f. and 6,500 s.f. pavilions; seats 1,400 outdoors, 954 classroom style, 376 banquet style. Contact: Karen Greenwell

(502) 225-0870

Elizabethtown Tourism and Convention Bureau, Elizabethtown


5,000-s.f.; Heartland Room seats 150 theater style, 128 banquet, 120 classroom style;  Heritage Hall seats 100, 96, 81; multiple nearby hotels. Contact: Jessica Russo (270) 765-2175 [email protected]

Community Arts Center, Danville


1,323-s.f. Grand Hall, 442-s.f. Farmers Bank Gallery, 494-s.f. classroom; seats 125 theater style, 75-100 banquet style. Contact: Mary Beth

Touchstone (859) 236-4054 [email protected]

Always Renovating

Construction, renovation and updates are happening around the state as each place works to make its unique selling proposition stand out. Here’s a summary of current construction.

Northern Kentucky

As The Lane Report went to press, the Northern Kentucky CVB had a major announcement: CTI, a privately held company providing therapeutic expertise to the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries in 25 countries, is moving its headquarters to Covington. The company’s $36.4 million investment is projected to create up to 500 jobs over 10 years. In addition, 250 jobs will move from Blue Ash, CTI’s current home office.

In addition, a portion of space at the Northern Kentucky Convention Center will be turned into a training center that will not only serve CTI, but also convention center clients and the greater community.

“Working with Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development, Northern Kentucky Tri-ED, Corporex, the City of Covington, Kenton County and NKU, our board of directors has agreed to convert 5,300 s.f. of space in Ballroom A on the upper level of the Convention Center into a 466-seat, state-of-the-art training center,” said Gretchen Landrum, executive director of the Center.

The training center, which will be operated by the Convention Center, will include a two-story digital wall that can display a wide combination of videos, images and graphics; seminar seating with retractable desktops; and state-of-the-art technology.

Expected to cost between $2 and $3 million and funded by the state, construction is expected to start in November 2017 and be finished during the first quarter of 2018.


Just last month, a $207 million expansion and renovation got underway on the city’s downtown convention center, which will be closed during construction. When complete, exhibit space will increase by more than one-third – from 146,000 to over 200,000 s.f. – and the ballroom will increase by 10,000 s.f., up to 40,000 s.f.

Bowling Green

Renovation began in August of the convention center’s 60,000-s.f. main lobby. Renovations are expected to run $550,000, with $40,000 dedicated to purchase local and regional art work and $60,000 for furniture.


A new Holiday Inn is expected to open on the riverfront in 2017. This will give the convention center its first adjacent hotel in 10 years, a must in today’s market.

Debra Gibson Isaacs is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at [email protected].