The state famous for its thoroughbred horses, bourbon and bluegrass music is also a land of lakes, rivers, rolling hills, mountains and historic towns.
Kentucky's tourism slogan is "Unbridled Spirit," and groups will find a wealth of ways to free themselves in the destination—from meetings-friendly state parks with lodges to the Bourbon Trail, equestrian events and exhilarating car races.
Tagged "Possibility City," the Bluegrass State's largest city and metro area has more than 120 parks and 2,500 restaurants. It claims the country's largest Victorian neighborhood and, with over 30 hiking trails, the country's largest urban forest, the Jefferson Memorial Forest.
Louisville is also famous for Bourbon. Two of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail's six distilleries are within 45 miles of the city—Jim Beam and Heaven Hill—and Louisville also boasts its own Urban Bourbon Trail.
In May, the Louisville CVB announced the expansion of the 3-year-old trail from nine to 14 bars and restaurants, most of which are located downtown. All must serve at least 50 different kinds of bourbon and hold at least one bourbon-related event each month.
The city's Churchill Downs is home to the Kentucky Derby, which is still billed as the "fastest two minutes in sports" and held annually the first Saturday in May.
The Kentucky International Convention Center (KICC), located downtown, has 300,000 square feet of space, a 30,000-square-foot ballroom and 52 meeting rooms, all under one roof.
Close to Louisville International Airport is the 1.2 million-square-foot Kentucky Expo Center, which accommodates a wide range of events and is the permanent home of the Kentucky State Fair, the National Farm Machinery Show and the North American International Livestock Exposition.
A third major meeting venue, KFC Yum! Center, opened last October one block from KICC. The 721,000-square-foot multipurpose arena seats 22,090 for University of Louisville basketball games and is just a few blocks west of Slugger Field, home of the Triple-A Louisville Bats.
"It is spectacular. We're positioned very well, especially for the religious market that needs the seats, and the sports market, and top concerts passing through it have had a huge impact," says Jim Wood, president and CEO of the Louisville CVB, who adds that the new arena has also given rise to a new restaurant district.
More than 4,300 rooms are within a six-block radius of KICC. A skywalk system connects KICC with downtown buildings, including the Fourth Street Live! Entertainment area. Three hotels with a total of 2,300 guest rooms are also on the skywalk: Galt House Hotel & Suites, Marriott Louisville Downtown and Hyatt Regency Louisville.
Galt House renovated its 16,200-square-foot ballroom early last year and completed a $60 million renovation in 2008. Downtown's historic Seelbach Hilton completed a $12 million renovation two years ago.
Crowne Plaza Louisville also recently finished a major renovation.
Another top meetings property is the historic Brown Hotel.
Meanwhile, groups can charter the 750-passenger Belle of Louisville, America's oldest operating steamboat, or her sister 150-passenger Spirit of Jefferson riverboat.
Another event option is the Louisville Zoo, which in April unveiled a new polar and grizzly bear habitat.
An impressive collection of museums and attractions—all with off-site function facilities—are found a few blocks west of KICC at Museum Row on Main. Choices include the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts, the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft, the Muhammad Ali Center, the renovated Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, the Frazier International History Museum, Glassworks and the Louisville Science Center.
Lexington, Kentucky's second-largest city, is the "Horse Capital of the World" and the hub of the Bluegrass Region.
"We're ideal for meetings. Planners are looking for something different and we're a unique destination. No other place has the bourbon, the horses, the history," says Dennis Johnston, vice president, sales at the Lexington CVB.
Lexington's tourism industry received a boost last year when 507,022 attended the 16-day Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games at the city-owned Kentucky Horse Park Sept. 25 to Oct. 10. Held every four years, the games were hosted for the first time outside Europe. Competing were 632 athletes from 58 countries and 752 horses.
The 1,200-acre, state-owned park underwent a $100 million renovation before the games, including the opening of a new $45 million indoor arena. Additionally, a 12-mile recreational pedestrian and biker trail, the Legacy Trail, was completed, connecting the park with downtown.
The city's primary venue, the Lexington Center, has 130,000 square feet of meeting and convention space. The complex includes the adjacent 23,000-seat Rupp Arena, home of University of Kentucky basketball; the historic 1,000-seat Lexington Opera House; two levels of shopping; and Triangle Park, which is used for events.
The center is connected to the 366-room Hyatt Regency Lexington and steps from the 367-room Hilton Lexington/Downtown. In 2009, the Hilton was reflagged and completed a $13 million renovation, and the Hyatt completed a $16.4 million renovation. Meanwhile, Lexington's Griffin Gate Marriott, located off Interstate 64, recently unveiled the newly renovated, 5,400-square-foot Paddock Pavilion.
The Lexington area also has more than 20 of the state's 50-plus wineries and is on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Within 25 miles of the city are four of the trail's six distilleries: Four Roses, Wild Turkey, Woodford Reserve and Buffalo Trace. Tours and tastings are popular with groups, and some distilleries are available for events, including Buffalo Trace, which features the historic Elmer T. Lee Clubhouse.
Home to the Corvette assembly plant and Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green is Kentucky's third-largest city and hub of the south-central region.
"We've been increasing our meeting facilities. Bowling Green continues to grow," says Marissa Butler, public relations director at the Bowling Green Area CVB. "Groups will find it a vibrant, progressive area with first-class attractions and a bustling yet quaint downtown district."
The city's Sloan Convention Center, located midway between historic downtown and Interstate 65, has 35,500 square feet of meeting and convention space, and the connected 218-room Holiday Inn University Plaza has 4,000 square feet. Across the street are a Courtyard by Marriott and a Hilton Garden Inn with a total of 226 rooms.
Bowling Green has more than 2,500 hotel rooms. The newest hotel, a Country Inn & Suites, opened near Bowling Green Regional Airport last year.
Another major venue, Western Kentucky University's Knicely Conference Center, expanded last fall. It unveiled a new ballroom seating 700 for banquets and several new breakout rooms, bringing the center's total meeting space to 70,000 square feet.
Meanwhile, the Brown Agricultural Exposition Center is a 68,000-square-foot multipurpose facility that includes a 2,075-seat show arena, and the 2-year-old Bowling Green Stadium is a 4,600-seat venue that is the home of the minor-league Hotrods.
General Motors has assembled the Corvette in Bowling Green since 1981. Its National Corvette Museum recently unveiled a $10 million, 47,000-square-foot expansion that included a new gift shop, a '50s-themed restaurant and a conference center that can host 470 for banquets.
The new Southern Kentucky Performing Arts Center will open in spring 2012. It will feature an 1,800-seat main hall, a black box theater, rehearsal halls, a small amphitheatre, an art gallery and other rental spaces.
The 150th anniversary of the Civil War gets under way this year, spearheaded by the Kentucky Historical Society, and Bowling Green will take part in the anniversary. Events will be held beginning in September, the anniversary of Confederate troops taking over Bowling Green and making it their state capital for a time. Special events and exhibitions will take place at venues such as the Historic Railpark & Train Museum, where meeting spaces range from a vintage dining car to a lobby taking 200 for receptions.
Another gathering option is located three miles from downtown: the Lost River Cave and Valley, a 68-acre wildlife sanctuary with underground boat tours. The cave can seat 300 for banquets. Additionally, Mammoth Cave National Park, the world's largest known cave network, is 30 miles away.
Paducah, located in the western part of the state at the confluence of the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers, promotes "Art, Rhythm and rivers."
In February, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named it one of its 2011 Dozen Distinctive Destinations. Paducah has also been named one of nine "Time Warp Towns" by CNBC.
According to Rosemarie Steele, marketing director of the Paducah CVB, the new tagline, "Distinctively Creative," will be coming out soon.
"We're evolving and we want to show that. We are unique," she says. "We have a small-town feel with a first-class performing arts center and a huge arts area. It is wonderful for spouses with opportunities for hands-on workshops."
Home to the National Quilt Museum, Paducah is also known as Quilt City USA. Each April, it hosts the American Quilter's Society's Annual Quilt Show & Contest, which brings in more than 30,000 attendees.
The Paducah Expo Center and adjacent Julian Carroll Convention Center together have 110,000 square feet of function space. Before last year's 26th annual show, the city added an adjacent 38,000-square-foot, $1.7 million inflatable dome pavilion that can be used as temporary exhibit space.
The adjacent, 434-room Executive Inn closed last year. It was acquired by the city and demolished early this year. The city is seeking a new convention headquarters hotel developer.
At press time, Fairfield Inn & Suites Paducah, with 82 rooms and meeting space holding 40 for banquets, was expected to open this month at Coleman Crossing Circle.
Steele also points out that Paducah is a very walkable city. The convention center is a block from the Lower Town Fine Arts District, which has more than 30 galleries, studios and stores in a historical residential area. The attraction results from the city's 10-year-old nationally recognized Artist Relocation Program, in which it has provided incentives to encourage artists nationwide to settle there.
Paducah's downtown off-site choices include the 1,800-seat Carson Center, its performing arts facility and the River Discovery Center, formerly called the River Heritage Museum.
Across the Ohio River from downtown Cincinnati, the Northern Kentucky CVB promotes itself as the "Southern Side of Cincinnati." The area encompasses the cities of Covington, Newport and Florence in the Cincinnati metro area and the counties of Boone, Kenton and Campbell.
"If you want your group to be the center of attention, we can take care of you. We have great attractions and are within an hour-and-a-half flight of 65 percent of the population," Caradonio says.
This year, the Northern Kentucky spotlight is on the Kentucky Speedway at Sparta, 40 miles southwest of Cincinnati. The speedway will host its inaugural NASCAR Sprint Cup race July 9. It will be the first new Sprint Cup speedway since Chicagoland and Kansas were added a decade ago.
"The Sprint Cup will be the equivalent of the [Kentucky] Derby for our region," says Tom Caradonio, president and CEO of the Northern Kentucky CVB.
The riverfront Northern Kentucky Convention Center is in the heart of Covington's business and entertainment district, and with more than 110,000 square feet of available space, it can accommodate groups of 3,900. About 1,300 rooms are within walking distance, a 227-room Embassy Suites is across from it, and the 322-room Cincinnati Marriott is connected by skywalk.
In addition to Kentucky attractions, those of downtown Cincinnati also aren't far away. Delegates can walk across a suspension bridge from the center to take in a Bengals or Reds game.
According to Caradonio, last year hotel occupancy grew by 4.5 percent and the bureau generated an increase of 9.5 percent in total room nights booked or consumed over 2009.
"Business has been looking up and is moving in the right direction. We may exceed 2008 in revenue levels this year," he says.
In March, the CVB came out with the NKY 24/7 Destination Selection & Planning Assistance, a program providing meeting planners with 24-hour assistance through a call center—877.659.8474—and CVB executives.
"We were looking at ways to differentiate ourselves from the competition," Caradonio says. "With the program planners can put a meeting in motion during non-working hours"
The destination's newest major venue is the Bank of Kentucky Center, a 9,400-seat multipurpose basketball arena on the Northern Kentucky University campus, less than five miles from the convention center.
"It has had two years of full operation and has helped us with sports and religious groups—markets we have focused on and with which we've had success," Caradonio says.
Two new suburban hotels opened last year: a Hampton Inn in Wilder near the University of Northern Kentucky and a Holiday Inn Express at Richwood off Interstate 75.
Off-site meeting options include the Newport Aquarium, which can handle banquets for 220, and the Belle of Cincinnati riverboat, which can host receptions for 1,000. Among other venue space is Covington's 10,000-square-foot Drees Pavilion in the hills above the city; GameWorks in the Newport on the Levee entertainment area; and Turfway Park raceway in Florence, which has space for 4,000 in an enclosed facility.
Another option is the METS Center, a high-tech conference and training facility that has 43,000 square feet of function space and is close to Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.
Tony Bartlett has been writing about the travel trade industry for more than 20 years.