Keeneland Racecourse, Lexington, Kentucky
To fathom just how experienced the Kentucky cities of Louisville and Lexington are at accommodating major events, consider Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby, which date to 1875, and the nearly 40-year-old Rupp Arena. More than college towns, the Bluegrass State’s largest cities have the facilities, infrastructure and teams in place to hold the big ones.
Besides the annual Kentucky Derby held each May, Louisville is blessed with venues such as Kentucky International Convention Center and nearby KFC Yum! Center, which create a versatile downtown combo for citywides.
This month, the eyes of the horse racing world will be on Lexington, where the Breeders’ Cup World Championships take place at Keeneland racecourse Oct. 30–31. Just a few days earlier, Taylor Swift will play at Rupp Arena.
The economic impact of tourism in Kentucky climbed to a record $13.1 billion in 2014, with Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau and VisitLEX spearheading the growth thanks to hosting major events. Such experience also bodes well for meetings.
“The largest sporting event ever held in Kentucky took place at the Kentucky Horse Park in 2010,” says Mary Quinn Ramer, president of VisitLEX. “The World Equestrian Games brought in more than half a million spectators as well as athletes and horses from more than 60 countries. This is a great example of how our hospitality community and local and state governments come together to effectively stage large events.”
The Breeders’ Cup will take over Lexington later this month in what is considered to be a coup for this horse-loving state. Keeneland is already well known among the equestrian set, with live racing in the spring and fall, and four thoroughbred sales. Racing and sales, including two of the world’s largest auctions, generated an economic impact of $590 million in 2014.
“We are delighted to have this opportunity to showcase Lexington’s unique brand of Southern hospitality and culture to the best horsemen and racing fans from around the world,” Ramer says. “We are incredibly fortunate to have Keeneland as a signature attraction in our destination.”
It’s easy to substantiate Lexington’s claim as the “Horse Capital of the World.” Keeneland annually draws thoroughbred buyers from more than 50 countries; just last year, 6,365 horses were sold for more than $534 million during four auctions. Keeneland also averages 32 days of live racing a year, and now will host the Breeders’ Cup, with as many as 45,000 spectators each day.
Swift, who also played Rupp Arena in 2010, is a reminder of the incredible array of musical acts that has performed at Rupp Arena, named after Adolph Rupp, the legendary former coach of the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team. The storied history of this entertainment venue includes performances by Lawrence Welk, the first act to take the Rupp stage in 1976. Fleetwood Mac, Marshall Tucker Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd followed in 1977, and the Rolling Stones played there in 1979.
The arena is undergoing $15 million in technology upgrades, including a new center-hung video, audio and scoreboard component, plus wireless Internet. The roof structure is also being reinforced to accommodate a demand for hanging heavy equipment during concerts.
For those meeting at Lexington Convention Center or attending an event at Rupp Arena, consider staying at Hilton/Lexington Downtown or Hyatt Regency Lexington, which have a combined 732 guest rooms and nearly 40,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Lexington’s walkable downtown is absolutely thriving, with places such as The Livery and Lexington Distillery District providing unique reception venues. Ideal for groups of up to 300, The Livery offers 7,200 sq. ft. of rustic, yet elegant space that harks back to the days of horses and carriages. The distillery district is a collection of old bourbon warehouses and buildings that have been renovated for trendy businesses, which are helping downtown sizzle with authenticity. This includes Barrel House Distilling Co., one of the original tenants, and Manchester Music Hall, which opened last month.
Alltech Arena, which opened in 2009 at Kentucky Horse Park, is used for equestrian events, concerts, high school sports and trade shows. Expanded seating can accommodate up to 8,500.
The big news out of Louisville is that the downtown Kentucky International Convention Center (KICC) will begin a $180 million expansion and renovation next summer. The project is scheduled to wrap up in 2018 and will increase contiguous exhibit space by more than one-third, from 146,000 sq. ft. to 200,000 sq. ft.
The project calls for larger, open spaces to accommodate bigger events. Additionally, there will be a new 40,000-square-foot ballroom and a 175-seat theater.
“Bottom line, the hospitality industry could not be more thrilled about the expansion of KICC and the increased business potential it brings to our tourism economy,” says Karen Williams, president and CEO of Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We need to be on the same page with our hotels, attractions and small businesses in order to find real solutions to the challenges that lie ahead with our city and the industry itself.”
With two convention centers and a 22,090-seat arena, Louisville is a unique meeting and event city. Kentucky Exposition Center, the sixth-largest facility of its kind in the United States, hosts trade shows and annual events such as Kentucky State Fair and North American International Livestock Exposition. The expo center offers more than 1.2 million sq. ft. of indoor exhibit space and a 19,000-seat indoor arena.
The Fourth St. Live! entertainment district has several new hotels, including Hilton Garden Inn. Boasting 162 guest rooms, it’s the only downtown venue with an outdoor/indoor rooftop restaurant and bar. It is connected by skywalk to 6,000 sq. ft. of space at The Henry Clay historic venue. Omni Hotels & Resorts is developing a 600-room convention hotel that will open in early 2018.
One of the city’s biggest attractions is Churchill Downs, which began an extensive $18 million capital project in September. The upgrades to premium seating and areas will accelerate in November, when the fall racing schedule concludes. The project is scheduled to be completed in April, just before the Kentucky Derby will draw an estimated crowd of 165,000. Now that’s big.
Rupp Arena in Lexington is a famous 23,500-seat venue that hosts concerts, University of Kentucky basketball games and other events. It has the largest capacity of any indoor arena in the United States.
Lexington’s restored Shaker Village features 19th-century buildings, furniture, artifacts and crafts demonstrations. Kentucky River excursions aboard a paddle wheeler take place April through October.
Louisville Mega Cavern is great for group adventure, with ziplines, trail rides, tram tours and aerial ropes challenges located beneath the city in a 17-mile limestone quarry.
Churchill Downs in Louisville is the famous home of the Kentucky Derby, which takes place May 7. Groups can enjoy behind-the-scenes tours through Kentucky Derby Museum year-round.
High Spirits in Kentucky
How big is bourbon in Kentucky? Let’s just say that bourbon is to Kentucky what wine is to Northern California, from indulging in tastings to backdrops for unique offsites and receptions.
The statewide Kentucky Bourbon Trail features Louisville’s Evan Williams Bourbon Experience. The multimillion-dollar distillery offers immersive experiences along the city’s downtown historic “Whiskey Row.” The original Evan Williams’ distillery once stood across the street in the late-18th century. There are six private spaces available for rental, with room for up to 120. (See p. 58 for the Top 10 selfie submitted by Karen Williams, president and CEO of Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau.)
The trail also includes Louisville’s Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience at Stitzel-Weller Distillery that dates back to 1935. Known for iconic bourbon brands and bold thinking, the distillery has space for up to 100.
Louisville’s Urban Bourbon Trail includes properties varying from historic hotels to trendy lounges. Each stop on the Louisville trail features bourbon flights, specialty cocktails and at least 50 bourbon labels. Among the more than 30 stops on the urban trail is Bristol Bar & Grille−Downtown (pictured), which has banquet-room seating for 120.
Alltech Lexington Brewing & Distilling Co. is a key stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. It’s unique with both a brewery and distillery. The barrel-aged beers borrow from bourbon attributes, creating a distinct blend.
For beer lovers, Lexington features the Brewgrass Trail, which includes five downtown breweries. Ethereal Brewing moved into the Lexington Distillery District in November.
Major Meeting Venues
Countryside property features Rees Jones-designed golf course that completed a $1 million renovation in July; 28,000 sq. ft. of meeting space for up to 1,200 guests; outdoor pavilion has 5,400 sq. ft.; 409 guest rooms and suites.
Meeting centerpiece of vibrant downtown entertainment complex; 66,000 sq. ft. of exhibition space; 40,000 sq. ft. of meeting and event space, including a 17,000-square-foot ballroom that is connected to 8,800 sq. ft. of prefunction area; general session space for up to 6,500.
Largest hotel in Louisville; connected to KFC Yum! Center; 128,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including 23,331-square-foot ballroom and 13,133-square-foot exhibit hall; 1,300 guest rooms and suites; nine restaurants and lounges; spa, salon and barber shop.