By Kathie Stamps
Blessed with the assets and affordable to boot, three-county Northern Kentucky River region accounts for one-fifth of the state’s roughly $14 billion tourism economy.
“When you have 120 counties and our three are 20 percent, we are a major player,” said Eric Summe, president and CEO of the Northern Kentucky Convention and Visitors Bureau, also known as meetNKY.
Proximity to next-door neighboring Cincinnati and interstate neighbor Louisville, combined with air access via CVG, “really opens the door for us to ‘sell’ all of the experiences visitors can have in Northern Kentucky,” said Julie Kirkpatrick, vice president of sales and marketing at the CVB. “Quite a few meeting planners are intrigued with hosting their event in a destination that offers such value coupled with so much to do.”
All nine tourism regions of the commonwealth had an uptick in tourism when the Kentucky Tourism, Arts & Heritage Cabinet released results of its 2014-2015 economic impact study in May 2016. The tourism and travel industry contributed more than $13.7 billion to the state’s $190 billion economy in 2015. There were increases from 2014 in direct expenditures by tourists (5 percent), state and local tax revenues (5 percent) and tourism-generated jobs (3 percent).
In 2015, visitor expenditures in the Northern Kentucky region totaled $2.9 billion on hotels, transportation, shopping and restaurants. The number reflect the fact that the region has urban access, rural charm, riverfront recreation and natural wonders.
Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties comprise the Northern Kentucky River Region. Those three counties have 32 municipalities, including Florence, Newport and Covington. Keeping track of all the people, places and things could be a daunting task, but the 16 staff members of the Northern Kentucky CVB handle it with aplomb.
Air travelers know the abbreviation for the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport is CVG and that it stands for Covington. The airport actually is in Hebron, Ky., in Boone County, while its primary oversight is by Kenton County, and it serves residents and the business community of Cincinnati. “It’s truly a regional airport,” Summe said.
Covington is the home office of the Northern Kentucky CVB, whose tagline for years was “the southern side of Cincinnati.” It refreshed, however, and even sports a new name, “meetNKY,” after a 2013 branding assessment. Meeting planners and other professionals asked for their opinions said Kentucky’s side of the Ohio had become a destination in its own right, without further need for a constant reference to Cincinnati. Hence, the CVB emerged as meetNKY.
Teamwork with Cincinnati has been and still is a key component for meetNKY’s success. In 2005 the CVBs from Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky together formed a third entity whose formal name is Cincinnati USA Regional Tourism Network. Known by a shorter moniker, RTN, it’s a destination marketing organization (DMO) for leisure travel to the tri-state area.
While meetNKY, like other convention and visitors bureaus, concentrates on conventions and other business travelers, the RTN promotes leisure tourism on behalf of 15 counties in three states. The three counties in Indiana are primarily focused on casino industry tourism. Meanwhile, the five Ohio counties are oriented primarily toward Cincinnati’s Hamilton County. The other counties are in Kentucky, with the lion’s share of experiences and hotels within a 40-mile radius of the Ohio River where Covington and Cincinnati meet.
“It’s the zipper that holds us together,” Linda Antus, president/CEO of RTN, likes to say of the river.
The economic impact of tourism on the Cincinnati metropolitan statistical area – the same 15 counties RTN serves – was $4.4 billion in 2013 from 24.1 million visitors, with business visitors spending $189 a day and leisure tourists spending $101 per day. And efficiency is the name of the marketing game with RTN.
“Over 80 percent of our money every year is money in front of the customer,” Antus said. She participates in monthly and quarterly meetings with the CVBs in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky and attends their board meetings.
“Working with meetNKY and Eric (Summe) and his team is a real joy,” she said. “It’s been very successful in terms of collaboration. By making very clear targets for who’s doing what type of work, you can really lift all ships.”
“The RTN works hard to ensure that Northern Kentucky’s brand promise of being ‘the start of Southern hospitality’ is merged with the appeal of the urban Cincinnati experience,” meetNKY’s Kirkpatrick said. “We absolutely want the visitor to come and see Cincinnati USA and especially want to make sure they make Northern Kentucky a big portion of their visit. We try to amplify any marketing the RTN does into our own brand marketing and still maintain our own identity in the region.”
Antus and her Regional Tourism Network team work directly with meetNKY on certain projects, such as “fam tours” to “familiarize” journalists and tourism professionals with the area’s key attractions and assets.
“It’s easy to be collaborative like that when the target audience doesn’t care about a river dividing it,” Summe said.
The Regional Tourism Network is funded with the lodging tax created in June 2005 by the commonwealth of Kentucky. The transient room tax for hotels and similar facilities is 1 percent of the lodging rate (levied in addition to the 6 percent sales tax).
“The idea was, when you come up to Northern Kentucky your total destination experience will include the Cincinnati Zoo, King’s Island, the Bengals or Reds,” Summe said. “We are a regional destination center.”
In 2015 the three Kentucky counties of Boone, Campbell and Kenton booked over 1.5 million hotel rooms. “That’s always going to be our story,” Summe said of the area’s strength of tourism.
Just outside the three-county region, the biggest recent new attraction is the Ark Encounter. Phase one of what will be a $100 million theme park opened in July 2016 and centers around a replica of Noah’s ark that is 51 feet high and 510 feet long. The Ark Encounter is owned and operated by Answers in Genesis (AiG), headquartered in Boone County, where it also operates the 75,000-s.f. Creation Museum.
The Ice Age ended 12,000 years ago, but Big Bone Lick near Union is considered the birthplace of American vertebrate paleontology due to the impressive Ice Age artifacts the site has yielded. Big Bone Lick State Historic Site in Boone County had an economic impact topping $5.5 million in 2014. In 2016, a new interactive “ancient bison” exhibit was added.
In Covington, the MainStrasse Village Association was formed in 1979 to celebrate the area’s German history and modern tourism with residential activities, shopping events and festivals. Every May since the late ’70s, the annual MainStrasse Village Maifest fills six city blocks with a major festival celebrating the German tradition of welcoming the first wines of spring. Equally large in scope every September is Oktoberfest, complete with a German biergarten.
Built in 1998, the Northern Kentucky Convention Center in Covington is almost right on the riverbank, and more than half of its 204,000 s.f. is devoted to meeting space. It is owned by the commonwealth of Kentucky.
“2016 has been a strong year at the Northern Kentucky Convention Center,” Kirkpatrick said. Future business, known as “lead volume,” is up, which Kirkpatrick attributes to an overall interest in the region based on new attractions.
In 2014, for example, New Riff Distilling opened in Newport and immediately joined the Kentucky Distillers’ Association and its Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour. The 2016 opening of Ark Encounter led to an increase in faith-based meetings and conventions.
“While the demand is very strong for our region and our convention center, we are reaching capacity at the center and will need a plan and a process to enlarge the center in the next couple of years to stay competitive,” Kirkpatrick said.
The convention center has been financially self-sufficient throughout its existence. The need for expansion is good news, but presents a fiscal challenge.
“Some of our good clients have said their events have outgrown the center,” Summe said. “We don’t have the capacity to serve them anymore.”
More room is needed for exhibit space and breakout sessions in order to attract new meetings and conventions as well as to retain current regular customers. The CVB has been involved in initiatives to seek new state money for the past eight years, according to Summe.”
The meetNKY bureau sells the convention center inventory within a 12-month timeframe for all conventions, meetings and local events. Hosting the bigger conventions is a competitive endeavor. Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati are doing well with attractions, entertainment, restaurants, shopping and hotels (there are 73 hotels within meetNKY’s three Kentucky counties). Making sure there’s enough room to hold large meetings and conferences completes the circle. “The convention center is the core of it all,” Summe said.
Ark Encounter, Williamstown
BB Riverboats, Newport
Behringer-Crawford Museum, Covington
Big Bone Lick State Park, Union
Blue Licks Battlefield State Park, Carlisle
Braxton Brewing Co., Covington
The Carnegie, Covington
Creation Museum, Petersburg
Devou Park, Covington
Donna Salyers’ Fabulous Furs, Covington
Hofbrauhaus Newport, Newport
Kentucky Speedway, Sparta
MainStrasse Village, Covington
New Riff Distilling, Newport
Newport Aquarium, Newport
Newport Gangster Tour, Newport
Newport on the Levee, Newport
Northern Kentucky Back Roads Wine Trail, Camp Springs
Purple People Bridge, Newport
Riverside Food Tours, Covington
Roebling Murals, Covington
St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption, Covington
Turfway Park, Florence
Vent Haven Museum, Fort Mitchell
Walt’s Hitching Post, Fort Mitchell
World Peace Bell, Newport