By each measure, 2019 was a record-setter for Kentucky journey and tourism as some 74 million guests spent practically $eight billion, creating total enterprise gross sales of about $11.eight billion and driving dwelling the purpose that the business is likely one of the state’s main income producers.
The great instances continued till March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in shutdowns that hammered the sector across the globe.
Kentucky continues to grapple with a pandemic that as of March 2021 had claimed practically 5,000 lives; worn out—at the least briefly—an estimated 40,000 travel-related jobs; and shut down a whole lot of companies all through the commonwealth.
As spring 2021 approached, tourism and journey executives from across the state provided their views on the final yr and unveiled a coordinated technique to rebuild an business that ranks in Kentucky’s prime 5 for financial influence. They universally predict this yr can be higher than 2020, in the event that they keep concentrate on their objectives.
“We will’t let down our vigilance about well being and security,” mentioned Hank Phillips, president/CEO of the 900-member Kentucky Journey Trade Affiliation (KTIA), which in February unveiled a 40-point suggestion plan, Restoration Actions For Tourism (RAFT).
Two widespread threads had been woven by means of business executives’ feedback: Each indicator in late 2019 predicted journey and tourism in 2020 would have smashed 2019’s information. And each indicator for this yr brims with cautious optimism about restoring the business, though it might take at the least two years.
That trepidation displays many components, together with the likelihood that COVID numbers might spike once more, prompting one other set of enterprise restrictions.
“Their (state tourism) numbers for 2020 haven’t come out but, however clearly they’re going to be a fraction of the numbers for 2019,” Phillips mentioned. “Final yr for this business was devastating. That’s the phrase we use to explain it—at the least that’s the phrase that we are able to put into print.”
“I feel it’s secure to say our business has been one of many hardest hit nationally by COVID, as a result of our job is to convey folks collectively and you actually can’t do this proper now,” mentioned Mike Mangeot, commissioner of the Kentucky Tourism Division.
And sure, with out COVID, 2020 was on tempo to shatter 2019’s information, he mentioned.
Mangeot and different business insiders agree that lots of this yr’s vacationers are prone to be Kentuckians and residents of close by states who take brief journeys to “take a look at the journey waters.”
“Individuals need to journey and ‘street journeys’ are key for the subsequent 12 to 18 months. And we’ve obtained a terrific location for these,” mentioned Mangeot, noting that Kentucky is inside a day’s drive of two-thirds of the U.S. inhabitants.
Mary Quinn Ramer, president of VisitLEX, the journey and tourism company for Lexington and Fayette County, shared the view of 2020.
“We, as you may think, had a devastating yr final yr. What we skilled in Lexington was similar to what was taking place throughout the nation, and we had report lows throughout the board,” Ramer mentioned. “However clearly, what we do within the hospitality house was completely incongruent with what wanted to be executed for the protection and well being of oldsters in the course of the world pandemic, so it’s no shock that our business was so drastically devastated. By way of the nationwide influence, it was like 9/11 and the recession (of 2008-2009) instances 10.”
It makes for a steep climb again.
“We don’t suppose you possibly can robotically flip a change again on …we all know that 100% of our hospitality companions misplaced revenue because of the pandemic,” Ramer mentioned, including that three-fourths of the 12,000 in Fayette County who work within the business misplaced jobs final yr.
In 2019, journey and tourism had been value greater than $1.three billion to Fayette County.
Job loss additionally was a painful subject for Stacy Roof, president and government director of the Louisville-based Kentucky Restaurant Affiliation, whose 1,200 members symbolize about 7,700 restaurant areas within the state.
The business was cruising alongside in 2019, Roof mentioned, with report numbers of about $9.2 billion and even higher outcomes anticipated for 2020. Then issues crashed.
“We misplaced about $550 million in gross sales final April and 114,000 of our greater than 200,000 staff had been laid off,” she mentioned. “We don’t predict that almost all operators can be worthwhile for a yr or two. They’ve obtained such a big gap to dig to out of.”
Roof identified that for the reason that pandemic emerged, eating places had been impacted by each COVID-related regulation that was introduced. Roof mentioned with the business taking such a tough hit, the affiliation didn’t ship out invoices for annual dues or drop any members in the course of the disaster.
“We felt it might be impolite to ship them yet another invoice that they couldn’t pay,” Roof mentioned.
She did, nevertheless, categorical optimism for the long run, noting that because the climate warms “issues must be choosing up.”
Confidence in journey is vital
Some debate continues throughout Kentucky about carrying masks, social distancing, getting vaccinated and whether or not eating places and bars ought to get a inexperienced mild for full operations. However these are non-issues contained in the business.
“The largest a part of our job is rebuilding shopper confidence in journey,” Mangeot mentioned. “Even with vaccine distribution and every little thing else, I feel we should be particularly vigilant proper now and ensure we’re carrying our masks and taking all the protection precautions. It is a strategy to encourage journey within the state.”
“With the patron, traveler confidence can be a significant asset of the business’s restoration—feeling secure, feeling they will journey and keep wholesome. And positively, the first determinate of that would be the velocity and extent to which the vaccinations happen. And that’s trying good and getting higher. That’s necessary to traveler confidence,” Phillips mentioned.
Mangeot, Phillips and different journey and tourism executives all predict this yr can be higher than final.
“Everybody was doing effectively even in fiscal yr ’20 till the pandemic hit,” Mangeot mentioned. “We had been on monitor to raised 2019 by a fairly good margin when COVID hit and for our income numbers we took a fairly substantial hit within the final quarter of the fiscal yr,” Mangeot mentioned.
The commissioner hosted a webinar for journey and tourism insiders in early March that outlined a advertising technique for the yr: “Keep Shut. Go Far. Journey Secure.”
“Keep Shut” encourages Kentuckians and residents of close by states to take brief journeys within the commonwealth. “Go Far” suggests delving extra deeply into “your personal yard—all of the hidden gems which are round you,” a spokesperson for the division mentioned.
Majority say they need to journey
Mary Hammond, government director of the Paducah Conference and Guests Bureau, the place guests spent practically $190 million in 2019, is amongst those that anticipate extra folks to “Keep Shut” in smaller cities like hers.
“Among the many teams which are getting vaccinated, you possibly can inform that they’re extra snug getting out,” mentioned Hammond. “We’re down 15% versus final February and final February was a great February. It’s been a really laborious 51 weeks, however we hung in there. Individuals have been inventive.”
Though it didn’t essentially influence lodging numbers for February, the area obtained some flattering consideration from Journey and Leisure journal, which chosen Paducah—alongside the Caribbean vacation spot of Aruba and Florida’s Atlantic Coast—as one of many prime 10 locations to go to in February.
“Small cities have particular enchantment this yr, and this city of simply 25,000 presents each quaint environment and massive metropolis facilities,” the journal mentioned in its suggestion. Town’s Nationwide Quilt Museum obtained consideration in addition to a historic downtown that “options varied examples of classic architectural kinds in addition to working artists’ studios, galleries and public artwork. Guests can tour the realm on foot, bike or horse-drawn carriage, and so they might need to add a brewery, distillery, vineyard or barbecue restaurant to their itinerary for some native taste.”
“That reveals me,” Hammond mentioned, “that persons are focused on these smaller locations. That they’re focused on going the place folks can get out of their automotive and really feel secure and the place it’s walkable.
She is amongst these optimistic about 2021, however on a gradual, rolling foundation.
“It’s going to be fall earlier than we see huge numbers as in comparison with final yr,” she mentioned. “However I do every day see small numbers growing. It’s nonetheless a time of counting your pennies as a result of it’s not going to occur .”
A current survey of 1,000 folks executed by a analysis agency discovered 81% of respondents deliberate to journey within the subsequent six months, Mangeot mentioned, noting that this “able to journey” quantity had been hovering round 60% a short while in the past.
“I really feel higher day by day that good issues are coming,” Julie Kirkpatrick mentioned after Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine introduced the Cincinnati Reds might open their baseball season on April 1 at 30% capability of Nice American Ball Park, or about 12,700 of the 42,319 seats.
“There’s plenty of details about pent-up demand, and the No. 1 precedence is to see household and pals,” mentioned Kirkpatrick, who just lately took over as president and CEO of meetNKY, the Covington-based conference and guests bureau for Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties in Northern Kentucky. Her workplace is immediately throughout the Ohio River from Cincinnati and the favored baseball stadium.
Like different vacationer executives, Kirkpatrick was ecstatic about her 2019 numbers. They had been “the highest of the marketplace for positive by way of income, occupancy and openings for eating places and bars and experiences,” she mentioned, including that Northern Kentucky Conference Heart attendance additionally peaked that yr.
2019 increase grew to become brutal 2020
The influence of COVID-19 was brutal, although. Resort occupancy in Northern Kentucky dropped from a mean 73% in 2019 to 46% in 2020, and lodging revenues plummeted from $204 million to $108 million, with room charges falling 18% for the 7,500 resort rooms within the three-county market, Kirkpatrick mentioned. From 2019 to 2020, Northern Kentucky Conference Heart attendance dwindled from 136,000 to 18,000.
Kirkpatrick and several other different business insiders additionally identified that leisure/tourism journey and enterprise/conference journey are distinctly completely different and received’t bounce again in unison.
Kirkpatrick predicted that Northern Kentucky will recuperate about half the enterprise it misplaced final yr and acknowledges that she’s uneasy about “huge occasion journey”—conventions, conferences, live shows and festivals, for instance.
She is just not alone with that concern.
“All people has been damage badly, however the lodges and the communities which have been damage the worst are these which are depending on assembly and conference enterprise—these downtown lodges cater to that market,” the KTIA’s Phillips mentioned. “There’s concern that (assembly and conventions restoration) can be slower than the leisure half as a result of employers could also be extra reluctant to place staff again on the street. Individuals may proceed to get collectively nearly.”
A lot rides on profitable administration of COVID an infection charges again towards regular.
“If there aren’t any unfavorable surprises, I feel by late summer time and into the autumn we’re going to see a really vital uptick in journey. Not so good as 2019, however much better than 2020. That’s so far as I’ll go (with any predictions),” Phillips mentioned, acknowledging that “higher than final yr” is a low bar to clear.
“We’re positioned effectively for restoration as soon as it’s time to show the spigots on full blast. It’s a well being disaster not an financial disaster,” Mangeot mentioned. “I’m optimistic concerning the bounce again. The query is when that can occur.”
With 2020 numbers not accessible in March as interviews had been happening, the commissioner wouldn’t make predictions about 2021.
In Louisville, two months earlier than the long-lasting Kentucky Derby—the state’s greatest single vacationer and journey occasion—Stacey Yates mentioned the heart beat fee for hospitality is enhancing.
“We anticipate the leisure enterprise to rebound first due to the pent-up demand,” mentioned Yates, vice chairman of promoting communications for GoToLouisville.com, the guests bureau for metropolitan Louisville. “We’re seeing some indicators of life, particularly downtown on the weekends.”
Yates was inspired by rising numbers for upcoming conferences and conventions, although they’re nonetheless effectively under the 2019 increase.
Questions stay, although, about how capability allowance may develop and whether or not enterprise may determine to chop again.
“That’s a giant unknown,” Yates mentioned.
Louisville is bracing for a second yr through which the Derby—usually a $400 million-impact occasion—will happen with restricted box-office. Most attendance can be about 40,000, barely greater than a fourth of the 151,000 that attended in 2019.
Yates mentioned she hopes most of that 40,000 are from out-of-state to assist drive up resort occupancy numbers.
Out of doors recreation was a vivid spot
The pandemic put a premium on outside recreation, the place masks carrying and social distancing aren’t tough, Kentucky journey business leaders mentioned.
The multicounty area branded as Kentucky’s Southern Shoreline fared higher than most final yr, mentioned Michelle Allen, government director of the Somerset and Pulaski County Conference and Guests Bureau.
“The Somerset space was means higher than most. We’d not have had the success that we had in the course of the COVID yr if it was not for Lake Cumberland and our outside recreation,” Allen mentioned.
“People had been trying to do issues open air as a result of it’s straightforward to social distance. Plus, in the event that they had been caught at dwelling, they wished to get exterior. They had been in a position to do this within the Lake Cumberland area and Somerset, whether or not it was tenting, canoeing, kayaking, houseboating, no matter you discover on the lake. Mountain climbing was enormous for us.”
It was nonetheless a decline from 2019, nevertheless.
“Did we’ve a loss? Completely. However did we’ve as a lot as the remainder of the state? No. We did fairly effectively,” she mentioned. Allen additionally identified that her area, like others within the state, misplaced special-event and competition enterprise final yr.
In 2019, Lake Cumberland and close by locations hosted four million guests, together with 2.2 million in Pulaski County, Allen mentioned. The general financial influence was proper round $126 million, a determine that excludes marina revenues.
Japanese Kentucky additionally loved some 2020 success from outside recreation, together with a dedication from native residents “who determined to grow to be yard vacationers … to find their very own backyards. They determined to hike our trails and get out in our parks once more,” mentioned Brandon Pennington, government director of the Metropolis of Harlan Vacationer and Conference Fee.
A few of the extra standard sights in and round Harlan are the Black Mountain Offroad Journey Space, Kingdom Come State Park close to Cumberland, Black Mountain Thunder Zipline, and Blanton State Nature Protect, the one old-growth forest in Kentucky.
Most of Japanese Kentucky was on an upward trajectory in 2019 earlier than the pandemic struck. The lodging sector in Harlan misplaced about 35% of its enterprise, mentioned Pennington, who additionally volunteers because the president of an 18-county vacationer area that features a lot of Japanese Kentucky.
Nonetheless, he mentioned, different components of the area had been hit even tougher as guests vanished in the course of the pandemic.
“One of many issues we’re seeing in our business is, persons are craving to get out and journey,” he mentioned. “And one of many nice issues about being in Japanese Kentucky is most of our sights are socially distanced, are uncrowded, and folks can come for the expertise and keep secure.”
Greg Paeth is a correspondent
for The Lane Report. He might be
reached at [email protected]