Kentucky’s Authenticity is Key to Tourism Success

Experience-seeking travelers like traditional, hands-on culture of bourbon, horses, food — and an ark

By Debra Gibson Isaacs

Visitors here are participating in an educational tasting during a tour at Heaven Hill Distillery in Bardstown.
Visitors here are participating in an educational tasting during a tour at Heaven Hill Distillery in Bardstown.

The days of “stop, stand, and stare tourism” are over.

Enter adventure tourism; business, religious, culinary and sports tourism; virtual, space, medical and nautical tourism; ecotourism and agritourism. There’s even disaster, birth and slum tourism listed on websites offering travel opportunities.

“Travelers are no longer folks who want to simply do what I refer to as stop, stand and stare,” said Hank Phillips, president/CEO of the Kentucky Travel Industry Association. “They are more active. They want experiential opportunities. They want hands-on, sensory experiences. And they want authenticity.”

It’s an area in which Kentucky has succeeded. The industry, which is responsible for more than 190,000 jobs, clocked in at $14.5 billion for 2016, but in 2017 certainly went significantly higher with traditional mainstay sectors growing, new sectors showing strength and one-time events attracting visitors literally from across the nation and beyond.

The bourbon bellwether

In Kentucky, the bourbon industry has led the state into this new age of tourism.

Kentucky is the birthplace of bourbon, producing 95 percent of the world’s supply. That fact alone has long made it an economic engine – an $8.5 billion signature industry that generates some 17,500 jobs with an annual payroll of $800 million, according to the Kentucky Distillers Association. Bourbon production and consumption adds more than $825 million to federal, state and local tax coffers every year.

Meanwhile, KDA recently reported nearly 1.2 million people visited distilleries along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail in 2017, the second year in which the number has topped 1 million. Adam Johnson, senior director of the Bourbon Trail experience, said he “sees us cracking that number” in 2018.

Behind those burgeoning numbers is some innovative marketing fashioned by KDA members – individual distillers who have joined forces to help themselves and their industry through the nonprofit organization. Back in 1999, it was KDA members who created the idea of a “bourbon trail,” according to Johnson – a way to collectively market all the commonwealth’s distilleries and collaboratively create a memorable experience for visitors.

“The first thing they did was to create a brochure,” Johnson said. “Now there are websites, maps and additional marketing. The distilleries are standardizing their hours to make it easier for members. We are putting more and more resources into it.”


  • Sign up for The Lane Report business newsletter. Receive breaking Kentucky business news and updates daily. Click here to sign up

The payoff can be seen not only in the record number of visitors but in capital construction involving distilleries. In the past five years, more than $1.1 billion in capital projects have been completed or are planned and underway, Johnson said. New distilleries are being built, aging warehouses and bottling facilities are morphing into tourism centers, new revenue streams are being added.

There were 52 distilleries in Kentucky as of August 2016 with several more license applications in the pipeline, almost triple the number of distilleries in 2009.

Most of that growth is due to the emergence of craft distilleries, and these small-batch brands now are drawing tourists, too, to their Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour.

Distilleries are also adding new experiences to the mix.

Restaurants, for example, are providing a tourism win/win – a new revenue stream for the distillery and a new activity for the visitor. Johnson said four distilleries have added restaurants: Fred’s Smokehouse at Jim Beam; Glenn’s Creek Cafe at Woodford; Star Hill Provisions at Maker’s Mark; and Elkhorn Tavern at Barrel House.

Maker’s Mark in Loretto was one of the first. The nationally known bourbon distiller transformed a historic home on the property into Star Hill Provisions, a full-service restaurant and bar. The restaurant offers farm-to-table food, taking advantage of another big trend in culinary tourism: use of locally sourced ingredients.

Star Hill Provisions is taking advantage of a law passed in 2016 that allows the distilleries to offer their product for consumption on site. The restaurant offers handcrafted cocktails and meals designed to complement the spirits.

In 2017, the Jim Beam American Stillhouse in Louisville debuted a tableside cocktail experience for bourbon tastings and at-home mixology. A “cocktail concierge” creates The Stillhouse’s contemporary drinks, and Beam’s Louisville bourbon tour includes a small working distillery, a bottling line, tastings and a bottle-your-own bourbon experience.

None of this has gone unnoticed.

In February 2018, travel website Lonely Planet named Kentucky Bourbon Country eighth in its top 10 destinations in the United States: “The state’s distilling heritage runs deep, and those looking for a taste should head straight for Kentucky Bourbon Country, the golden triangle between Louisville, Lexington and Elizabethtown where this seasoned spirit comes to life. You’ll find an enticing network of the country’s most well-known distilleries and top-notch restaurants with bourbon-inspired menus.

“But this industry isn’t so steeped in tradition that it forgets progress – craft distillers are opening their doors, long-defunct bourbon districts are being revitalized, and in 2018 the Frazier Museum (on Louisville’s West Main Street) was named the official starting point of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.”

2018: The year of Kentucky food

Adding restaurants at distilleries is yet another way the bourbon industry continues to keep itself at tourism’s forefront. Food experiences have become an important means of attracting visitors around the world.

“Research has shown that when you take the overall traveling public, 77 percent consider the food culture when making a travel choice,” said Kristen Branscum, commissioner of the Department of Travel and Tourism.

“That is why the Department of Tourism decided to deem 2018 as the ‘Year of Kentucky Food.’ We have the greatest farmers and producers in Kentucky and very talented chefs, cooks and pit masters who create masterpieces with these products. Not to mention that food and drink go hand-in-hand, which is a natural fit for our Kentucky bourbon. We have already seen fantastic results and interest by focusing on the entire sphere of Kentucky food as an anchor and driver to visit.”

In fact, although the “Year of” designation is new, the Department of Tourism has been promoting the state’s culinary assets for years, beginning with the launch of its KentuckyCuisine.com website back in 2014.

Kentucky traditions attract attention

In fact, one of Kentucky’s most recognizable traditions involves a culinary experience. The mint julep has been the iconic beverage of Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby for nearly a century. Each year, almost 140,000 mint juleps are served during the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby weekend at Churchill Downs Racetrack. That means a lot of bourbon.

Bourbon and horses are virtually always at the top of any list of the commonwealth’s tourism draws, and the Derby, the crown jewel of Kentucky tourism, combines both.

A 2001 study by Wilkerson & Associates, the most recent such report, found the Kentucky Derby and events during the two weeks leading up to it have an estimated $400 million economic impact on the region. Statewide, the equine industry has a $4 billion impact, generating more than 55,000 jobs.

The Derby is always monstrously huge from multiple perspectives – television coverage, visitors, perception of the state and, of course, revenues.

Birthdays are also a tradition, and Kentucky celebrated its 225th in 2017.

“While our official birthday of statehood was June 1, there were 225 celebrations throughout the year,” Branscum said. “These events ranged from special dinners highlighting Kentucky foods, 225 themed art and sand sculptures at the Kentucky Artisan Center (in Berea) to listening tours conducted by the Kentucky Historical Society to capture the voices of all our citizens. Many communities created their own 225 events, but there were so many communities that incorporated this Kentucky celebration into their existing events.”

The Ark makes a splash

While Kentucky’s traditions such as the Derby provide “bird in the hand” revenues, a less-discussed brand of tourism – religious tourism – has emerged and proven it can bring in significant revenues as well.

One of the newest and biggest examples is the Ark Encounter, a visually arresting, full-sized reconstruction of the biblical Noah’s Ark in Williamstown. More than 500 feet long and 51 feet tall (1.5 football fields long and rising higher than a modern four-story house), the structure cost some $100 million to create.

The Ark drew more than 1 million visitors in its first year, according to Mark Looy, co-founder and chief communications officer at Answers in Genesis, the Ark’s owner. Looy projects 1.4 to 2.2 million visitors per year beginning in 2018.

“We are predicting that because our first year would not be described as a ‘typical’ year – that is, we did not see many motorcoach tour buses, which are now accelerating. 2017-2018 will exceed our excellent first-year figure, when we drew over 1 million guests,” Looy said. “So, 2018 is shaping up to be another excellent year, especially with a 20 percent growth of motorcoach tours bringing people to the Ark from all over America and Canada.”

Nearly 95 percent of the Ark’s visitors are from outside Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana, he said, and new hotels are under construction in Grant County and Boone County to meet the demand.

“A group from France recently had to book their hotel rooms in Louisville because hotels in Northern Kentucky did not have enough available rooms to accommodate them, due to the Ark demand,” Looy said. “Meanwhile, the Ark’s sister attraction, the Creation Museum, experienced its best year of attendance since it opened in 2007, when it drew 404,000 guests its first year.”

Kentucky’s massive new ark replica “is revolutionizing religious tourism,” according to an article in Harvard Divinity School’s Theological Journal.

The article quotes Answers In Genesis founder and President Ken Ham: “If you do something in a first-class, professional way, with the quality you’d see at Disney, Universal or the Smithsonian, it will give you a reputation such that people will talk about it, come back and, by word of mouth, encourage others to come.”

Eric Summe, president and CEO of meetNKY, the Northern Kentucky Convention and Visitors Bureau, agrees.

“Whether you are religious or not, seeing the largest wooden structure anywhere is compelling,” he said.

The economic impact of the Ark Encounter on the area has been equally significant, according to Summe, who said the attraction has been “terrific for the region.”

Numbers for “hotel stays have increased double digits,” he said. “People stay and make a week or a weekend out of it. They go to other attractions, too, such as the (Newport) Aquarium, Turfway Park and MainStrasse Village. They go to see the Florence Freedom (baseball team).”

Although Northern Kentucky represents only 10 percent of Kentucky’s population, the area attracts 20 percent of the state’s tourism dollars, Summe noted.

One-time events shine

Each year brings not only new venues but new opportunities as well. In 2017, the U.S. saw its first total solar eclipse in years, and (pun intended) it eclipsed most any Kentucky event before it in terms of economic impact.

NASA declared Hopkinsville to be the world’s Point of Greatest Eclipse, the location during full sun blockage where the moon was closest to the Earth, creating the longest “totality” experience.

The natural phenomenon on August 21 drew 116,500 visitors to Hopkinsville and Christian County, according to Hopkinsville Mayor Carter Hendricks. Visitors traveled to Hopkinsville from 25 foreign countries, three U.S. territories and 47 states, he said. Officials estimated the economic impact on the community at $28.5 million (based on a Kentucky Department of Tourism calculator modified to reflect the spending of eclipse visitors).

“Eclipse weekend brought many emotions and moments that transcended my expectations,” Hendricks said. “For instance, while standing on 9th and Bethel I had a surreal moment where in less than a minute, I met an individual from Belarus, a family from Spain, and then began an interview with the Tokyo Broadcasting System. We truly welcomed the world to ‘Eclipseville,’ and couldn’t be prouder of the hospitality that our residents offered visitors.”

Mayor Hendricks is determined that the community’s success drawing and entertaining eclipse visitors will not end with that event.

“First and foremost, preparation for the eclipse got us to look beyond the way we thought about an event and challenged us to be innovative,” Hendricks said. “We took pride in working harder than ever before. It changed us culturally that we could entertain this large of an audience from all over the world.”

The result? Hopkinsville is now host to an annual music festival the third weekend of August every year. Launched the year before the eclipse, the festival already now draws “tens of thousands,” according to Hendricks. There also now is a barbeque festival.

The city’s Pennyroyal Area Museum, a 1915 post office turned regional museum for African-American heritage and military history, is getting a $1.5 million update, and the arts center is getting a $1 million update. Construction of a new multipurpose sports venue will be complete in late October.

“This is all part of our vision of being a destination city with historical tourism, sports tourism, and arts and culture,” he said.

Investing in the future

Hopkinsville is not the only community planning big.

“Tourism is big business in Kentucky, and it is becoming more so every year,” Commissioner Branscum said. “But what we at the Kentucky Department of Tourism have focused on over the last two years is moving Kentucky into the top tiers of travel destinations. With that goal in mind, it requires that we approach our marketing and advertising with a global perspective.

“As we look to aggressively attract visitors internationally and domestically, it puts us in competition with all destinations for traveler dollars – destinations like New York City, Paris, Fiji, etc. We have to plan and execute marketing like these larger destinations, and that requires us to utilize our budget efficiently and invest in the research that allows us to focus our approach.”

The 2017 Tourism Economic Impact Report will be released the week of May 7 as part of Kentucky Tourism Week. Look for an article in a future issue of The Lane Report about how Kentucky is faring in this important economic sector. 


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

Please wait...

Subscribe to the FASTER LANE business newsletter.

Subscribe and receive breaking Kentucky business news and updates daily.