Only a day’s drive from 60 percent of the country’s population, Louisville is a two hours’ drive from Indianapolis and Nashville, four hours from St. Louis and five hours from Chicago. It’s this easy access—combined with Kentucky Exposition Center with its 1.3 million square feet of exhibition space and reputation for hosting premier spectator events like the Kentucky Derby—that has helped build the city’s long-standing reputation for the convention market.
“Louisville has always been a convention destination, but everyone around us was growing and expanding their hotels and centers,” says Karen Williams, president and CEO of the Louisville Tourism. “Our community leaders understood that we needed to take tourism to the next level.”
The expanded facility allows Louisville, home of Connect 2019, to reach new groups that couldn’t consider the destination in the past due to space constrictions. Now able to accommodate up to 95 percent of groups booked in the United States with the expanded facility, Louisville is looking to draw more association groups from Washington, D.C., and Chicago, as well as expand its foothold in the medical education and sports markets.
The opening of the newly renovated and expanded Kentucky International Convention Center in August is the crowning jewel on a nearly $1 billion investment in Louisville’s downtown district. Part of a revitalization plan, the result is a modern convention facility surrounded by a walkable city highlighted by new hotels, a bustling bourbon and culinary scene, and museums that bring together visitors, delegates and the community to experience Kentucky pride.
Following a $207 million investment, the updated and expanded convention center now has 200,000 square feet of exhibit space as well as a 40,000-sq.-ft. ballroom, a 175-seat conference theater and 52 meeting rooms. With a contemporary, open-air feel, the new KICC visually connects inside and outside spaces with naturally lit lobbies and canopy skylights. The center’s latest technology includes high-capacity Wi-Fi and digital signage, along with LEED Silver certification.
To complement the larger venue, Louisville has been rapidly expanding its range of hotels with nearly 6,000 new guest rooms in the downtown district and more in development. In addition to upscale luxury brands, budget-minded and boutique hotel brands are addressing the varying desires of visitors and delegates.
In March 2018, the newly constructed 612-room Omni Louisville Hotel opened, serving as one of several convention properties in downtown Louisville and adding 70,000 square feet of flexible meeting space to the city’s portfolio. The luxury hotel celebrates Louisville’s heritage and culture with such touches as Pin + Proof, a speakeasy lounge with four professional bowling lanes and a selection of Kentucky bourbons; dining outlets serving top-rated American cuisine including a traditional steakhouse; and the Library Bar, slinging Kentucky-inspired cocktails. Other amenities include a rooftop pool and spa with sweeping city views and Falls City Market, a food hall where visitors and locals can dine or shop for freshly made food products as well as regional specialty coffees, craft ales and spirits.
Other recently opened hotels in downtown Louisville include the 175-room Aloft Louisville Downtown on Whiskey Row; Embassy Suites Louisville Downtown, a 304-room property with 15,000 square feet of meeting space; the 100-room Home2 Suites by Hilton Louisville NuLu Medical District, the first property to open in the trendy NuLu (New Louisville) neighborhood; and Vu Guesthouse, a 34-room boutique hotel located in a former tobacco warehouse.
“You have to be sensitive to the different demographics of conventions these days,” explains Williams. “A lot of people want to be in the headquarter hotel, but then you have attendees who want to be in a boutique hotel. Creating options for millennials and other demographics, that’s what you want from a city that’s growing.”
Other downtown properties in development include a 152-room AC Marriott in the NuLu neighborhood, a 205-room Hotel Distil located within the historic facades of original Whiskey Row buildings and a 110-room Moxy, also slated for Whiskey Row. In addition, Galt House Hotel, one of Louisville’s most well-known downtown properties, recently announced plans to undergo an $80 million renovation as part of a new partnership with the Wyndham Hotel Group.
The Downtown Experience
Beyond the new convention center and hotels, downtown Louisville is buzzing with a burgeoning culinary scene, a booming bourbon legacy and museums that celebrate the city’s sports and other traditions. In addition to downtown Louisville, the NuLu area with its art galleries, antique shops and upscale restaurants is also attracting visiting groups.
“People want neighborhoods; they want to come to your city and feel like they are part of the fabric of that community,” says Williams. “Of course, they want to come to their convention, but we want to offer that special experience and connectivity for delegates.”
For those who want to explore Kentucky’s bourbon beginnings, downtown’s Whiskey Row is steeped in distilling history. Originally home to more than 50 distilleries, the street is now a top spot along Louisville’s Urban Bourbon Experience.
Like a walkable wine trail, the Urban Bourbon Experience showcases Kentucky’s best-known spirit with 39 stops at places, such as Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse, Kentucky Peerless Distilling, and some of the city’s top-rated dining spots and historic hotels like The Brown Hotel. Many stops are available for private group events and functions, each serving at least 50 and up to 150 bourbons alongside the city’s official cocktail, the Old Fashioned.
Delegates can explore the city’s sports and other traditions at one of the distinctive Louisville museums that also offer meeting and reception space. At Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, visitors learn about the national pastime’s most-famed piece of sporting equipment, while Muhammad Ali Center celebrates the life of the Louisville boxer and the philosophy of personal greatness. At Frazier History Museum, visitors can explore Kentucky history through the people and events that shaped it.