Taste of the town: Group business travel thrives in Kentucky

LOUISVILLE, KY—Business travel is on the rise, and while more and more people are spending time in meeting spaces, not all boardrooms have to leave travelers bored or without a taste of local culture.

The Kentucky market, specifically Louisville, is ramping up its game when it comes to group travel. With convention centers and hotels offering business-related options in the area, the state is living up to its reputation for Southern hospitality.

A large part of this market’s appeal is the $200-million update to the Kentucky International Convention Center (KICC) with 200,455 sq. ft. of contiguous exhibit space, a 40,000-sq.-ft. ballroom and 52 meeting rooms.

In addition to these modern updates, however, historic charm still creeps into both hospitality and meeting and event spaces, offering business groups a sense of place and Kentucky culture.

“Kentucky is the front porch to the South,” said Kristen R. Branscum, commissioner of Kentucky Travel & Tourism. “But what sets Kentucky apart from other meetings markets is the array of activities attendees have available to them.”

The KICC offers a tasting kitchen to experience authentic Kentucky cuisine from local farmers and culinary partners with everything from coffee to bourbon. The convention center’s design also reflects Kentucky culture.

“The convention center is filled with natural light, as well as a great view of the bustling Fourth St. Corridor. The new design has floor-to-ceiling windows, bourbon-inspired wood elements and local artwork,” said Rosanne Mastin, marketing communications manager for Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Alongside the KICC is the Kentucky Exposition Center (KEC), which is adjacent to the Louisville International Airport and is the sixth largest in the country with 1.3 million sq. ft. of meeting space and 400 acres of outdoor event space, according to Mastin.

The Lexington Convention Center is also an option, which is currently undergoing an expansion to include 100,800 sq. ft. of exhibit halls, a 25,185-sq.-ft. ballroom, 30,270 sq. ft. of flexible meeting spaces and 110,234 sq. ft. of pre-function and circulation space. The project is estimated to complete in late 2021.

“Louisville’s location makes it attractive to travelers since it is within a day’s drive of two-thirds of the U.S. population, and the airport is less than seven miles from downtown,” said Jessica Dillree, marketing communications manager for Louisville Tourism. “It’s also easy to get around once you’re here. The downtown area, where the Kentucky International Convention Center is located, is very walkable.”

Traditional professional venues aren’t Kentucky’s only business outlets, however. Smaller—and possibly a bit more adventurous—meeting venues include horse racing tracks, riverfront facilities, aquariums and even bourbon distilleries.

“Guests are coming from around the globe to attend a meeting, convention or special event as a business guest, leisure traveler or a combination of the two as a bleisure visitor,” Mastin said. “More than 16.4 million annual visitors are experiencing Louisville’s authenticity, bourbon and culinary scenes and our unique brand of Southerness.”

Kentucky’s “brand” filters into its hotels as well, with more than 100 hotels—13 currently under construction—and nearly 20,000 hotel rooms with more than 6,000 located in downtown Louisville. These properties include everything from boutique and contemporary to Jazz Age hotels with a historic flair, Mastin said.

Adjacent to the KICC, and with just as much Kentucky culture, is the Omni Louisville hotel, opened in March 2018. Food and beverage outlets, in-room offerings and even an expansive meeting space of its own all contribute to the already robust hospitality options in the area, which also include the 21c Museum Hotel, The Brown Hotel and others.

“Louisville just feels like home—it’s got this unique ability to feel like both a big city and a small town,” noted Scott Stuckey, general manager of the Omni Louisville.

That small town charm extends throughout the property from its bowling alley speakeasy to its library bar, and all the way into its in-room full-sized bourbon bar, an upgrade from the usual miniature bottles, and a tribute to the local libation.

“Every Omni is a unique part of the community in which it is built. The architecture of Omni Louisville, the art exhibited here, the menus created here—they all reflect Louisville,” Stuckey said.

According to Stuckey, Omni Louisville sees an even split of business and leisure travelers, but around the holidays, there’s always an influx of leisure travel. As the new year begins, however, there’s an increase of convention and business travel, which the hotel accommodates.

Although the Omni is just one block away from the KICC, it houses 70,000 sq. ft. of meeting space of its own, but it isn’t all work without play.

“Unfortunately, our business travelers often don’t have the free time to enjoy all of what the city has to offer. That’s one reason why we made sure that we have authentic Louisville experiences on-site, so even if you never leave the building, you feel like you’ve been someplace unique and special. If you find the secret door, you can visit a speakeasy just off of the main lobby, for example,” Stuckey said.

Attractions outside of the hotel walls include The Kentucky Derby Museum/Churchill Downs, the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, and the Muhammad Ali Center, among others, but still, bourbon seems to be the rising star.

According to Stuckey, in the last five years, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail has attracted 2.5 million visitors from all 50 states and 25 countries.

“Ironically, there was a long period after Prohibition until the last decade that Louisville had lost its reputation as an epicenter of bourbon. While once thriving as a ‘Wall Street of Whiskey,’ America’s grand experiment altered the reputation of Louisville quite a bit and left the once-booming ‘Whiskey Row’ a memory until the resurgence of American whiskey in the last 10 years,” Mastin said. “Bourbon gives many people their first ‘taste’ of the city’s culture, and Louisville’s spirit in a hospitality sense helps them dig deeper into everything she has to offer.”

Also the epicenter of many group meetings and functions, not only bourbon but Louisville culture itself is ever-present. Whether it’s coordinating with colleagues at a hotel bar, indulging at a local restaurant, meeting at museums or even sampling local flavors at a convention center, the area is attracting groups of all sizes.

“We took great pains in ensuring that every detail of the hotel speaks to a unique Louisville experience,” Stuckey said. “Our carpet is custom-designed to look like a bourbon splash. Our lamps subtly pay tribute to Louisville Slugger bats. Our interior architectural details pay tribute to Louisville’s many beautiful bridges. And did I mention the in-room bourbon bars?” HB

To see content in magazine format, click here.