By Kathie Stamps
The Tourism Arts and Heritage Cabinet released survey statistics in May 2017 showing yet another uptick in tourism for Fayette County for 2016, with just over $2 billion in total travel spending. The total for the 15-county Central Kentucky region was $3.1 billion, with tourism employing 27,364 people (15,339 of those in Fayette County).
“As far as general business, we are an economic driver,” said Patricia Knight, vice president of finance and operations for VisitLEX. “People come in and leave their money here. Because of the hospitality industry and revenues generated, each resident’s tax liability is reduced. When someone tells you ‘You will pay less in taxes every year because of tourism in your community,’ that’s a good thing.”
Knight also is current president of the Bluegrass Hospitality Association. As a founding member of BHA, VisitLEX has a standing position on the board. BHA members supported a room tax increase from 6 percent to 8.5 percent that took effect Sept. 1, 2016, with revenue from the increase earmarked to pay for expansion of the Lexington Convention Center.
The $250 million investment in the expansion and replacement project about to begin will create a new 25,080-s.f. ballroom (42 percent larger than the current 17,000 s.f.), a new 100,841-s.f. exhibit hall (more than 50 percent larger than now) and 26,493 s.f. of meeting space by September 2019.
“We never thought in 2004 that Bluegrass Ballroom would get too small too fast,” said Bill Owen, president and CEO of Lexington Center. “This project will allow Lexington to sustain its viability as a premier convention destination.”
He cited three different convention studies from 1986, 1996 and 2011, each of which recommended Lexington needed 100,000 s.f. of exhibit facilities. Lexington Center opened in 1976 with 36,000 s.f. of exhibit hall, and a subsequent 30,000 s.f. was added.
“But for 30 years we have had 66 percent of the size those studies recommended,” Owen said. “The expansion project will get it to the level Lexington Center needs to be.”
Phase 1 is scheduled to start in January 2018 and last 18 months. A solid construction wall will be put up in Heritage Hall to separate the construction area from meeting space in an effort to mitigate noise for conference attendees. Exhibit space will not be impacted initially, as the center expects to remain open for trade shows and conventions, and street closures are not anticipated. When Bluegrass Ballroom, Heritage Hall and West Hall are demolished, there will still be 65,000 s.f. of convention space, and during that time there will be opportunity for groups to exhibit on the floor of Rupp Arena.
For fiscal year 2016 (ending June 30, 2016) Lexington Center, Rupp Arena and the Opera House hosted 1,135,882 visitors. In May 2016, the original chandelier of speakers known as Big Bertha came down in Rupp. By October the sound system had been replaced with a 34-foot wide multimedia scoreboard array.
“It really became one of the stars of the show,” Owen said. “Patrons will find themselves watching the center-hung video rather than watching the floor itself.”
Effective in late February 2017, over 200 router antennas in the arena ceiling now make for strong-streaming wi-fi, another part of the $15 million technology upgrade. Rupp will continue to be home for UK basketball as the university signed a new 15-year lease that begins with the 2018-19 season, which will stretch the span the Wildcats have been playing in Rupp Arena to almost 60 years.
Within the next four years, expect to see construction for Town Branch Park behind Rupp Arena in the Manchester Street parking lot.
“Town Branch Park will be a privately funded, world-class park,” said Allison Lankford, special counsel at Bluegrass Community Foundation and executive director of the Town Branch Fund, which is incubating the park.
Town Branch Fund is a component of Blue Grass Community Foundation. The fund is overseen by a board of advisers chaired by Ann Bakhaus and will evolve into an independent nonprofit to operate and maintain Town Branch Park with a permanent endowment. The fund’s goal is to raise $30 million to build the park and implement its revenue model and governance structure.
“Blue Grass Community Foundation is committed to building generous, vibrant and engaged communities, and we are involved in the Town Branch Park project because it will strengthen Lexington in all three of these areas,” said Lisa Adkins, president and CEO of the Foundation. “We believe that Town Branch Park will have a transformative impact on not only downtown, but the city of Lexington and beyond.”
Town Branch Greenway is another project named for Lexington’s long-buried original water source in the 1770s. Thanks to a public-private partnership, the $40 million greenway project’s cost is already fully funded, from city, state and federal grants. It will again “daylight” the flowing waterway.
“The Greenway is a linear park and trail system through downtown Lexington that will connect 22 miles of protected bike and pedestrian paths, including the Legacy Trail and Town Branch Trail,” Lankford said. “For Lexington to be competitive, the question is not if Lexington grows but how. Infill development can reduce development pressure on the endangered and very finite Bluegrass farmland that is a huge economic engine for the community, the region and the state.
“We have so many assets that we forget about then a lot of time as residents,” BHA’s Knight said. “Invite people to your hometown and see where you live. If we can get someone to come here, they love it and they will come back.”
Each summer BHA hosts a day of competitive fun at Triangle Park. Known as the Bluegrass Hospitality Games, the event raises funds for scholarships that go to hospitality students at Sullivan University, Transylvania University and UK.
To prepare future professionals, UK now offers an online master’s degree in retailing and tourism management. Starting in the fall of 2017, the program is part of UK’s School of Human Environmental Sciences within the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment.
Elsewhere in Central Kentucky, the Frankfort Convention Center is scheduled for demolition in December, but Capital Plaza Hotel will not be impacted.
Boone Tavern, part of Berea College, was built in 1909 and has since become a LEED-certified green hotel with 63 guest rooms. Adjacent to the hotel on College Square, the Boone Tavern Event Center opened in fall 2016; the multipurpose space accommodates up to 150 attendees for receptions, meetings and conferences. Around 10,000 guests generated $400,000 in revenue for Boone Tavern in the first nine months of the event center’s opening, creating 10 new full-time positions for employees from the community, along with additional student workers from Berea College.
In more rural parts of Central Kentucky, rural attractions abound – from hiking trails to scenic byways, rivers and streams, historical sites like Camp Nelson and nature preserves are within easy travel distance of urban centers making for fantastic day trips around the region.
Back in the heart of downtown Lexington, a consolidation is underway. Lexington Downtown Development Authority (formed in 2001) and the Downtown Lexington Corp. (founded in 1988) are coming together to form the Downtown Lexington Partnership. By fall 2017, the new organization will have a president instead of two executive directors and new office space, but existing events and programs will continue.
DLC has been a membership- and sponsorship-driven organization, sponsoring such events as Thursday Night Live and the Fourth of July Festival, while the LDDA has been an arm of government, spearheading the old history courthouse renovation, getting involved with the Town Branch Commons project, and working with Bluegrass Community Foundation and Gehl Institute to create SplashJam, a summertime popup water-splashing pad at Northeastern Park in downtown Lexington.
VisitLEX promotes Lexington as a destination for both the meeting and convention sector and leisure travelers. In 2016 the market ran a 63.1 percent occupancy, which was down 2.1 percent from 2015. Year-to-date through June 2017 is up 3.3 percent over last year, though.
“Demand is also up this year by 4.1 percent,” said Marci Krueger-Sidebottom, vice president of sales and services for the convention & visitors bureau. “Based on group business booked by VisitLEX, 2017 is a stronger year than last year and is up 13,800 group rooms over the last three-year average.”
Several factors are at play for the increased interest in the Bluegrass. The VisitLEX sales team participated in 20 trade shows and events for meeting planners. They also hosted a three-day Lexington Experience FAM (familiarization) event in April 2016 for 20 meeting planners to tour the Kentucky Horse Park, Keeneland, Taylor Made Horse Farm and the Lexington Convention Center, among other destinations.
“Lexington is the right size and is a unique destination, which the meeting planners are seeking out,” Krueger-Sidebottom said. “They have been to the top tier cities several times and now want variety.”
MEETING & CONVENTION VENUES
Apiary Catering & Events
Blue Grass Airport
Boone Tavern Event Center
Buffalo Trace Distillery
Frankfort – buffalotracedistillery.com/events
Georgetown College Conference Center
Hilary J. Boone Center
Lexington Convention Center
Lexington Opera House
Venues of the Grand Reserve
Harrodsburg – beaumontinn.com
Bluegrass Extended Stay
Berea – boonetavernhotel.com
Bright Leaf Golf Resort
Harrodsburg – brightleafgolfresort.com
Campbell House Lexington,
Curio Collection by Hilton
Capital Plaza Hotel
Frankfort – capitalplazaky.com
Clarion Hotel Conference Center North
by Hilton Hotel Lexington
Embassy Suites Lexington
Griffin Gate Marriott Resort & Spa
Gratz Park Inn
Hyatt Regency Lexington
Lyndon House Bed & Breakfast
Ramada Lexington North
Hotel & Conference Center
21c Museum Hotel
Arboretum State Botanical
Garden of Kentucky
Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate
Paris – duncantavern.com
Paris – hopewellmuseum.org
Richmond – planetarium.eku.edu
Kentucky Artisan Center at Berea
Berea – kentuckyartisancenter.ky.gov
Kentucky Horse Park
Mary Todd Lincoln House
Old Fort Harrod State Park
Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill
Harrodsburg – shakervillageky.org