Modernizing Kentucky’s State Parks

ROI for limited improvement budget showing promise, but there is $200 million more to do

By Debra Gibson Isaacs

Workers paint the exterior of the Carter Caves State Resort Park lodge as part of the Kentucky State Parks system’s Refresh The Finest update program.
Workers paint the exterior of the Carter Caves State Resort Park lodge as part of the Kentucky State Parks system’s Refresh The Finest update program.

Consider this true business scenario: Your assets include 49 properties with 1,800 buildings on 45,000 acres spread throughout Kentucky. Each of the properties has its own brand. Some include swimming pools and golf courses. All offer a multitude of indoor and outdoor events.

On the liability side of the ledger, your properties were designed and built in the 1960s, long before today’s online, technology-driven culture. The last big initiative to upgrade the properties was in 2004-05. Needed upgrades to bring your properties to today’s standards total approximately $240 million. Recently, you received $18 million to address these $240 million in needs.

Welcome to the world of Kentucky state parks and Commissioner Donnie Holland. It is no secret the system of state parks and resorts Holland oversees has been in need of repairs and refurbishing for decades. But it is also no secret that the competition for state funds is always intense, even more so today with the state’s worst-in-the-nation unfunded pension liability crisis looming.

Determining how to address the situation has been “an interesting process,” Holland said. He has chosen to address it from multiple perspectives, making changes not just in the physical properties but also in pivotal areas such as marketing, the parks’ online presence, and personnel.

Safety and geography first

“Our first priority is safety and aesthetics,” Holland said.

This work includes repairing railings and roofs, replacing cracked and uneven sidewalks and walkways, and re-doing swimming pools. Aesthetic improvements – mostly exterior and interior painting – are underway as well. The campgrounds at various parks also got some attention.

“These are basic things,” Holland said, “but they are also very important to increase the curb appeal of the parks and to make the parks safer.”

Geography also played into the decisions on what to do where.

“We spread the money evenly across the state,” Holland said, “but we put a lot into the big resorts. All the communities were pleased. It was equitable.”

There are 133 projects completed or underway. Approximately half of the $18 million was committed to safety and aesthetics, and much of that work is already done.

Of the 133 projects, 88 are being competitively bid for construction, according to LaDonna Miller, director of marketing and sales for Kentucky State Parks. State construction crews are completing the remaining work.

Going online

In addition to the renovations, Holland is making other changes. Online booking is proving to be among the most significant.

“One of biggest drawbacks for our sales force and for guests was that we did not have an adequate online booking service that allowed us to compete like other hotels,” Miller said. “We had a system before, but it didn’t work well. An online reservation system was a very important tool. In the spring of 2015 we put Natural Bridge on Expedia.com. That went exceptionally well. By August or September we had migrated all the parks.”

In 2015, the state booked $1.3 million online, according to Miller. During the 2016-17 season, that more than tripled to $4.95 million.

“The online system not only helped us increase revenue online,” Miller said. “We were exposed to new people. We’re hearing from our frontline staff that a lot of the people checking in now are first-time visitors.

“I was in Western Kentucky for the solar eclipse. The majority of license plates were out-of-state. People were shocked at how nice our park system is. The quality surprised them. They also remarked on the hospitality and attention they got there. They had a great experience.”

Online also has become an important factor in marketing. Miller could not offer a precise marketing budget, saying only that “the marketing budget is a lot less than you would think.” However, she said the Department of Parks is now doing a lot of marketing using Facebook, Instagram and other online methods.

But even with all the gains, technology remains the biggest issue the Parks Department must address.

“We are making improvements there to many parks,” Holland said, “but Wi-Fi is the single biggest issue. At Lake Barkley, we have added repeater towers and brought internet into the park. We have a plan in place, but the parks are so scattered we have to deal with individual providers. AT&T has given us a lot of help in that regard, but it is a catch-22. The farther out in the wilderness the park is, the better people like it, but the farther out into the wilderness it is, the harder it is to get good (internet) coverage.”

Alcohol sales boost business

Another recent plus is the addition of alcohol sales at parks in “wet” counties where alcohol can legally be sold at restaurants.

“We began alcohol sales at five parks in wet counties,” said Gil Lawson, public information officer for Kentucky State Parks. “It has grown steadily every year.” (See chart on next page.)

“It is another amenity we can offer our guests,” Lawson said. “People used to bring alcohol for use in their rooms. Having a license allows us to do upscale booking for weddings and business retreats. Typically, they are out-of-town guests. We can provide the whole array of services.”

Being able to sell alcohol has particularly helped at the parks with golf courses, Lawson said.

The park managers have also used this new asset creatively to increase bookings. Many have created Friday- or Saturday-night events such as music concerts on their patio where people can listen to music and have a drink.

Learning from the pros

Personnel are always a key factor in business success, no less so when the business is run by the state.

“We brought in hotel professionals and put them in key positions,” Holland said. 

Miller elaborated: “As with any industry, when positions come open, as resort park managers retire, we have been looking to fill those positions with hoteliers. Managers at the state parks have to know more than just hotel management; they have to know golf courses and restaurants and alcohol sales. This is a newer skill set, but these individuals will help us move to the next level.”

Economic perspective

Hank Phillips is now president of the Kentucky Travel Industry Association, an industry trade group of which the Department of Parks and the Department of Tourism are members. Phillips served for five years as the deputy commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Travel and Tourism, and had several roles with the National Tour Association, including the association’s president.

Phillips said the spectrum of assets for Kentucky includes bourbon visitor experiences; horses and all things equine-related; outdoor adventure and recreation; and culture, history and the arts.

“Although Kentucky’s spectrum of tourism assets is very diverse, the parks continue to be an important part of that diverse spectrum,” Phillips said. “The parks are not just attractions in their own right but also reflect some of the most important assets Kentucky has and some of the most important drivers of visitation to Kentucky.”

Back in Frankfort, Commissioner Holland hopes to commission a new economic impact study this year to demonstrate just how important the parks are to attracting tourism dollars. The last study, done 21⁄2 years ago, showed that the system had an $889 million annual impact.

Sales grew last year. In fact, the parks sold 10,000 more rooms this year last, according to Holland.

“A lot of our other food sales are coming along with that, he said. “Our customer service scores improved nearly 90 percent.”

Meanwhile, Holland plans to ask the General Assembly to appropriate more funds to continue refurbishing the parks.

“Our priority continues to be the refreshing process,” Holland said. “We don’t have any plans to expand the parks system until we get what we have under control. We aren’t planning any expansions.”

Refreshing the Finest

The “Refreshing the Finest” campaign to update safety and appearance includes these projects, and many others.

• Painting exteriors of buildings (Carter Caves State Resort Park, Pennyrile Forest State Resort cottages, Kenlake State Resort Park tennis center, Pine Mountain State Resort Park cottages)

• Concrete walkway repairs (Lake Cumberland State Resort Park, Rough River Dam State Resort Park, Natural Bridge State Resort Park)

• Siding repair (Lake Barkley Convention Center)

• Swimming pool repairs (Cumberland Falls State Resort Park)

• Campground improvements (bath houses and electrical upgrades)

• Electrical repairs (General Butler State Resort Park)

Experience the Parks for Yourself

Fall and winter offer many opportunities at the state parks. Here are two seasonal events at the state parks.

Nature Watch Weekends

Each year thousands of sandhill cranes make Barren River Lake a stop as they congregate to migrate. The lake’s exposed mud flats in winter provide the birds with a perfect spot to rest, socialize and eat.

Barren River State Resort Park

Jan. 20-21

Jan. 27-28, 2018

Registration is $45 per adult and $30 per child 8-12 years old (must be at least 8 years old to go on van tours). The fee includes an educational session, a box lunch and a T-shirt. For more information call (800) 325-0057.

Elk Tours

Naturalists scout the area every year to determine where the elk are gathering, and the park provides a van to go to the various locations to see these magnificent animals.

Jenny Wiley State Resort Park at Prestonsburg

September to Dec. 2. Tours resume in January.

$30 per person or $15 per child, 12 and under. Includes transportation by van to the viewing sites and a continental breakfast. Guests should register for the trips.

Call (606) 889-1790 for information and reservations. For a list of dates, visit parks.ky.gov/calendar/details/appalachian-elk-viewing-tour/21209/.

 Overnight tour packages available that include lodging, dinner and an elk tour with continental breakfast for $160 per couple.  Special group and business tours are available.


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

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