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Tourist Season Goes Year Round in Kentucky

Beyond its ‘bourbonism’ boom, $14.5 billion hospitality sector grows by giving visitors a taste of the authentic

By Susan Gosselin

Evan Williams Bourbon Experience (Marty Pearl)
Evan Williams Bourbon Experience (Marty Pearl)

Continuing an especially good run in recent years, vibrant Kentucky tourism grew another 5 percent in 2016, the strongest expansion rate since 2005, according to Kentucky’s Tourism Arts and Heritage Cabinet. The economic impact hit $14.5 billion last year, when all nine of the state tourism regions experienced increases.

Rising global taste for and interest in bourbon has certainly helped spike the numbers. It’s driving a revival down old West Main Street in downtown Louisville as well as hotel construction there and elsewhere in the state.

Long mostly a seasonal industry busy in spring and summer, tourism-sector members are developing it into a year-round enterprise in Kentucky that generates $1.5 billion in tax revenue and supports 193,000 jobs – an important number that grew by 7,000 in the 2016 measure.

And it’s going to be better for the foreseeable future, according to Kristen Branscum, commissioner of the Department of Travel and Tourism.

“The next three to five years are going to be incredible” Branscum said. “Very simply, Kentucky is in a wonderful place as far as the tourism sector goes. We have those authentic experiences that they are looking for. We are centrally located, and the Southern region is hot right now … among international visitors who want to come for that authentic Americana.”

Bourbon-related tourism spreads out across most months of the calendar, and venues and communities around the state are realizing success in appealing to travelers who want experiences not only during summer vacation season but all year long. Hospitality professionals are finding opportunities to create new packages and products. It’s a big reason tourism growth of hundreds of millions of dollars annually is happening.

Kentucky’s local hospitality sector members are making the most of things as well, Branscum said. They understand marketing and positioning themselves appropriately, and they are presenting a consistent message that is getting noticed.

“I love my job,” said Karen Williams, president and CEO of the Louisville Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. “It’s a great time to be selling Kentucky, and Louisville, in particular. People are looking for real, authentic cultural experiences. And we’re looked at as a city that’s authentic, that has great events and attractions that are based on our strengths, like bourbon, food and horseracing.

“We’ve built up some very attractive hotels and infrastructure around it –  infrastructure that makes us the gateway to bourbon country like Napa Valley is for wine. We’re at the point now that all our plans and investment are starting to feed on each other,” Williams said. “The momentum is taking us to some very interesting places.”

Owensboro, too, is enhancing its own longstanding authentic Kentucky cultural attraction.

“Construction of the Bluegrass Hall of Fame and Museum in Owensboro began in 2016 and is scheduled to open during 2018 as the newest piece of the city’s $80 million riverfront redevelopment project,” Mark Calitri, president/CEO of Visit Owensboro, said. “The region around Owensboro is known for ties to the roots of bluegrass music, so this uniquely Kentucky musical genre factors into our cultural tourism strategy. Bill Monroe was born, raised and laid to rest in nearby Rosine, Ky., where a museum dedicated to him is currently under construction and will join his home place as a popular destination in that community.”

The facility under construction will be a much larger home for the hall of fame and museum founded more than 20 years ago in Owensboro, and will add a research library, restaurant and indoor and outdoor performance spaces.

Louisville’s ascent as a year-round tourist destination is borne out by its CVB’s numbers, which show steady growth and a new interest in visiting Louisville outside of Derby season. From 2014 to 2016 alone, visits to Louisville increased by more than 1.7 million to 24.7 million. From 2013 to 2017, scheduled conventions grew from 536 to 667. Unbundled ticket sales to Louisville events grew more than 130 percent last year.

Building it … because they will come

Williams points specifically to 2005 as the year things began to turn around. It was the year the 591-room Louisville Marriott Downtown and the boutique 21C Museum Hotel opened – a critical expansion of hotel and meeting space downtown that caught the attention of event planners. The new venues also got the attention of restaurateurs, who began investing in new destination dining downtown to support the influx of tourists and conventioneers.

This launched a cycle that created its own momentum, Williams said. Construction of the 22,000-seat KFC Yum! Center in 2010 brought calls from more investors looking to bring new hotels downtown. It led to the current development of the Omni Hotel downtown, a 30-story, $320 million project that will have more than 600 hotel rooms and 225 luxury apartments, opening in early 2018.

And an $180 million expansion of the Louisville International Convention Center downtown will wrap up in early 2018 as well, bringing its exhibit space up to 200,000 s.f. and its ballroom space up to 40,000. The Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau estimates the expansion will increase bookings by 25 percent, a move that could bring an additional $53 million in annual economic impact with it.

Another sign of the momentum: The 12-year-old Louisville Downtown Marriott is undergoing a $30 million renovation set for completion in August 2018 when the Omni opens.

“We’re seeing convention traffic, but we’re also seeing a great deal of regional tourism and even local people who are doing staycations,” Williams said. “That’s one of the key reasons our weekend packages have been doing so well.”

Branscum said she views hotel construction around the state as “money in the pocket of Kentuckians.” New facilities appeal to travelers, but the companies building them are doing so because they “are paying attention to the trends. They know they are going to get their money back.”

Bourbonism pours it on

“A million people visited the Kentucky Bourbon Trail last year, and that’s a huge growth engine for the state,” said Susan Reigler, bourbon writer, event planner and president of the Bourbon Women’s Association. While many distillery stops are outside the city limits, a whole new bevy of attractions in the city limits are bringing vitality and growth to the trail, she noted.

“There’s great, long-standing attractions on the trail like the Woodford Reserve Distillery (near Versailles) and the Maker’s Mark Distillery (in rural Marion County) among many others,” Reigler said. “But then you’ve got the new attractions that are popping up in Louisville, such as the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience and speakeasy, tastings at Angel’s Envy, The Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse, Bulleit, Copper & Kings, Kentucky Peerless and a whole lot more downtown.

Non-distillers also see opportunity in Louisville’s “bourbonism” as Mayor Greg Fischer has dubbed it

“The Frazier Historical Museum has stepped up to the plate to support it, too, with its Prohibition exhibit,” Reigler said. “Historic Locust Grove in the East End has created its own farm distillery that’s true to its historic roots, and staffed with costumed interpreters. And then there are the restaurants, which have been adding bourbon-infused foods and leaning into bourbon culture. It’s created a unique experience for people who visit here, something they can’t get anywhere else.”

And that’s just the beginning. Several new attractions are slated to open in 2017-18 on Louisville’s now-ubiquitous Urban Bourbon Trail, including Rabbit Hole Spirits Craft Distillery in NuLu, Derby City Spirits in the Highlands, and two new Whiskey Row attractions – Old Forester and Michter’s Distillery.

Bourbons Bistro in downtown Louisville was early to sign on to the Urban Bourbon Trail, which has grown to some 35 bars and restaurants that carry significant bourbon selections. Urban Bourbon Trail action now has changed the way they do business.

“It’s a challenge to keep up with the pace,” said Jason Brauner, owner of Bourbons Bistro. “These days, we’re having bottle-signing events, getting single barrels for our restaurant, pairing up with liquor stores to do on-premise promotions, hosting cocktail parties, and even getting our own private barrels on liquor store shelves. It’s a quick moving industry, and you have to keep up with the demand.”

Brauner said the increased interest in bourbon is a sign of the times.

“Millennials in particular are more interested in the quality of what they are eating and drinking. When they find something they like, something that rings true as authentic and well crafted, they want to share it. Word is spreading about what Louisville has to offer.”

Picturesque Bardstown, 40 minutes south, has traded on its rich bourbon heritage for a few generations, and its annual mid-September Kentucky Bourbon Festival has exploded in the past decade.

Like Louisville, Lexington likes to point out its role in the early days of bourbon distilling, but recently it has taken a different strategy – creating its own “Brew”grass Trail. The city has at least a half-dozen new craft breweries, and recently created a “passport” visitors can get punched at destination breweries in Lexington, Paris, Danville and Harrodsburg.

Lexington’s bubbling Distillery District just west of downtown is repopulating historic warehouses with restaurants, ice cream parlors and bars. The 2016 opening of 21C Museum Hotel Lexington after a $38 million renovation of the century-old First National Bank Building presents a lure for travelers looking for world-class accommodations.

Good events gather crowds

Glasgow in south-central Kentucky understands the value of event tourism. Each year it hosts the Annual Glasgow Highland Games, which brings nearly 20,000 people from around the world to watch the celebration of Celtic music, dancing demonstrations and Scottish Highland sports like ax throwing.

Glasgow renovated a long-abandoned vaudeville venue to create the Plaza Theatre on Main Street, which in the past few years has hosted pop and country concerts, theatrical shows and more. With the state’s improved film industry incentives attracting business, the Plaza has been a venue for filming and opening parties.

“Between our Arts Guild events and workshops and the city’s natural assets like the river, we’ve been able to lure people here from all over the region for overnight stays,” said Ann Stewart, marketing and tourism director for Glasgow-Barren County Chamber of Commerce. “And we’re always looking for ways to connect our attractions. For instance, we’re finishing up new bike trails that will allow us to link city trails to the trails at nearby Barren River Lake State Resort Park. It’s working out great for us.”

For years Louisville has spun tourism revenue from long-standing annual events – the Kentucky Derby, The Derby Festival, the St. James Court Art Show in Old Louisville and now the two-day Forecastle Festival, which sells out every year. But Louisville’s reputation for great food and cultural amenities is making it a magnet for new event organizers.

The Louder than Life Festival, a heavy-metal concert festival now in its fourth year, attracted 50,000 attendees and netted the city $13 million in economic impact, according to a recent study released by the promoters.

The national Bourbon Women’s Association is based in Louisville, where it hosted its fourth annual “Sip-osium” last month and drew bourbon-lovers from across the nation for several days of tastings, networking and food events. The Kentucky Distiller’s Association has ramped up its annual Kentucky Bourbon Affair into six days worth of tastings, food events, parties and tours for the true bourbon aficionado.

The success of these events has helped give rise to a new festival, Bourbon & Beyond, that brings together top chefs, master distillers and legendary performers in rock and bluegrass. The event had sold more than 14,000 tickets, Williams said, several weeks before it was set to take place. Talks are underway for a similar, country-music themed concert event.

And this doesn’t count the steady A-list concerts the seven-year-old KFC Yum! Center has attracted, including Taylor Swift, Beyonce, Jimmy Buffett, Cher, Motley Crue, Katy Perry, Luke Bryan, Justin Timberlake, Lionel Richie, Maroon 5 and many more.

Experiential, bucket-list travel

“Experiential travel is a big buzzword these days. We’re looking to connect visitors to Paducah in a new, and immersive way,” said Laura Oswald, director of marketing for the Paducah Visitor’s Bureau.

New tours have been a part of that, capitalizing on Paducah’s river city history and its recent designation as a UNESCO Creative City, an award that links them to other, like-minded cities that are focused on the arts and creativity as a way to express their local culture, Oswald said. 

Paducah has put together a signature experience around its nationally known Quilting Museum, offering a white-glove, behind-the-scenes visit to the museum that allows tourists to create their own quilt block. Paducah has a tour centered around river culture, with a trip to the River Discovery Center, discussion with a modern day river captain, live river music and a dinner of local cuisine. Another tour centers on the restored Hotel Metropolitan, highlighting the famous “chitlin’ circuit” blues performers who played there, capped off by a soul-food tasting and live entertainment.

Kentucky’s weather is attractive to residents of Canada, other northern nations and residents of Northern U.S. states, Branscum said, attracting winter and early spring golfers. The commonwealth is “the front porch of the South” for Northerners who do not enjoy the heat of the Deep South.

In an increasingly processed, commercialized and homogenized world, tourists come to Kentucky today to see and touch elements of life they consider to have remained authentic

“A lot of people we see are coming here to cross things off their bucket list – experiencing those things they’ve always wanted to do,” said Sean Higgins, chief fun officer of Louisville-based Mint Julep Tours.

Mint Julep’s staff fields an average of 100 requests a week for specialty tours, and that business, combined with their general tours, amount to showing 30,000 people a year the best the Louisville area has to offer.

“Our main demographic is people aged 30 to 45, and we are seeing our biggest growth in corporate entertainment, corporate travel, and incentive trips,” Higgins said. “But we’re also seeing a lot of local tourism, too, especially for our supper series. Culturally speaking, there’s never been more to do in Louisville. People are coming back to us for the second and third time, because there’s always something new.”

Several large distillery, beer and general sightseeing public tours are always available. But Mint Julep has success also, Higgins said, with experiences, such as the “Heaven & Evan Behind the Scenes Bourbon Tour,” the “Secrets of Bluegrass Chefs” tour taking visitors to a taping of the popular television show, and the “Southern Supper” tour that goes to a different restaurant for each course of its participants’ meal.

Higgins was quick to say, however, that the Kentucky mystique extends far beyond food, or even bourbon.

“People come to us because Louisville is a place where craftsmanship is king. We make the best baseball bats at Louisville Slugger. We grow the world’s best racehorses in Kentucky. We have some of the world’s best artists at the Saint James, or in our museums,” he said. “We have a great tradition of making things, and making them well. People respond to that.” 

Susan Gosselin is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at [email protected]


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  • “Western Kentucky is experiencing a momentum in travel because of the authentic nature of our experiences”, said Mark Calitri, President, Visit Owensboro

  • Mark Calitri, president/CEO of Visit Owensboro, credits a few factors for the new hotel construction in town. Brand USA, which is the marketing agency for the U.S., named Owensboro a top 10 music destination for 2019, he said. In addition, there are increased youth sporting events, the O.Z. Tyler Bourbon distillery officially joined the Kentucky Bourbon Trail last year and the new Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum opened late last year.
    Calitri says the new hotels will only add to the visitor traffic momentum.