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Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Regional Tourism Groups Battered But Determined, Excited for a Strong Future

Pat Crowley (l) welcomed (l to r) Julie Kirkpatrick of meetNKY, Abby Grewe of Ovation and Julie Calvert (Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau) to NKY Chamber's "Eggs 'n' Issues". LINK file.

by Robin Gee

On Tuesday, members and guests of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce (NKY Chamber) heard from representatives of three regional tourism and event organizations. They heard what one might expect—It’s been a rough couple of years for the industry—yet they also heard a message of hope, determination and excitement for the future.

Julie Kirkpatrick, president and CEO of meetNKY and her counterpart from across the river Julie Calvert, president and CEO of Cincinnati USA Convention & Visitors Bureau were joined by Abby Gerwe, director of special events at Ovation to discuss "Looking Forward to 2022," an installment of the chamber’s morning "Eggs 'n' Issues" forum.

Pat Crowley, a founding partner at Strategic Advisers, led the discussion with questions for the panelists.

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Covid takes its toll

Kirkpatrick spoke first on the impact of the pandemic. 

"We’ve gone through it. The last 20 months we’ve been in impacted in ways I can’t even describe. We received our economic impact report earlier this year. We lost $700 million during Covid, and that’s huge."

At the beginning of the summer, enthusiasm and relief was high, Calvert said. Things began to pick up quickly in the convention business and tourism, but the new variant brings with it new uncertainty and caution.

"Like Julie, I looked at some research this morning before I came and one in four travelers are delaying their trip because of the uncertainty. The Delta strain is still the predominant variant that’s still out there and is scary to people. People really don’t know how to relate to the new variant yet; that remains to be seen. But I think people are just taking the attitude, 'we’ll just wait a little longer,'" she said.

Gerwe said she’s noted the difference in tone during her weekly meetings with her national counterparts across the country. "Five weeks ago, our calls were feeling good. Our energy is coming back and our excitement is coming back. Contracts are getting signed. And then the outbreak. When you hear a new variant announced, you hear that Dolly Parton (singing), 'Here you come again.'"

Yet, all agreed, they expects business to come back strong.

Gerwe said venues are moving ahead preparing, putting into place the necessary cautions, but looking forward.

"It’s going to get better," said Kirkpatrick."...We’re going to raise our spirits, and we’re going to look forward, because that’s what we have to do."


Hope and excitement on the horizon

The mood is indeed hopeful. "Back in the summertime, when we brought conventions back they were strong...Then we saw the spikes start to happen, and we were back to 50 percent....They would book 2,000, and only 1,000 showed up—but they were still showing up, which gives us reason be optimistic," said Calvert.

All three representatives said they are excited for many new events and those returning to the area. Crowley asked about the potential of the World Cup.

"We’ll learn if we are successful in 2022...Just the impact of that event across this region in terms of people coming, the money being spent, the media exposure across the globe, really is a fascinating thing so we put everything we had as a region into that bid," Calvert said.

Crowley noted the excitement over the recent match between Mexico and the U.S.

"The impact of that game alone was on par with our Cincinnati Music Festival weekend, our Flying Pig weekend, and it was just one of the game one day," said Calvert. "It’s all about soccer. We know it’s the fastest growing sport in the whole world. And Cincinnati is a soccer city...It’s a keystone factor for us."

In the meantime, the speakers said they were excited about the return of some of the region’s favorite events.

Calvert noted the Cincinnati Music Festival will be back, and an impact study on the event a few years ago showed it brings $107.5 million to the region, making it the largest annual driver of tourism to the tri-state region.

Blink is coming back as well, scheduled for next October, she said. "You can talk about the impact, not just the dollars, but the way it makes us feel...a sense of normalcy and a sense of appreciation for those things even more....We’re getting more calls, more inquiries about the events that are coming."

An exciting Ovation lineup

When asked about plans for Ovation in the coming year, Grewe said she hated to bring up the "C word" again but in one way its impact has been helpful to Ovation. Because some of the larger acts cannot fill very large venues right now, they are looking at other options.

"We are getting some major people reaching out that would typically go somewhere like Las Vegas or another major city, and because their numbers are lower, they’re thinking of coming to Cincinnati this year, so that’s really helpful."

Ovation is sticking to its goal of 150 events a year—100 concerts and 50 special events, she said. For their first major event, Ovation and TQL will host a major league soccer event.

"We’re hosting an e-sporting tournament, really huge. I’m so excited. It’s going to be January 15 and 16...We’re going to be transforming Ovation, basically painting every single wall for major league soccer, covering everything, tricking it out for them."

Musical acts coming include Alt-J Portugal, Bon Iver and much more, she said.

Donate to the NKY Community Journalism Fund, a component fund of Horizon Community Funds of Northern Kentucky.

The Northern Kentucky scene

Tours have been an important section of the industry here. "One thing we’re missing in Northern Kentucky right now is seeing a lot of tour buses. I don’t know if anyone here has been in a tour bus traffic jam, but I want to bring that back to Northern Kentucky!" Kirkpatrick said.

"I must absolutely recognize one of the biggest events in Northern Kentucky is coming back in 2022—'40 days and 40 nights' at the Ark Encounter and Creation Museum. It is a celebration of gospel music that brought in hundreds of thousands last year. I think it’s going to bring in even more this year, and it’s going to be a really big catalyst in our tour business," she said.

Turfway’s new $145 million facility will be a game changer for the region, said Kirkpatrick. "This is going to be a world-class facility. It’s going to have the largest simulcast area in the state of Kentucky. It’s going to have a beautiful new clubhouse and a beautiful bourbon bar. It’s going to be another gem in this region that brings in new visitors. We’re very excited about that!"

Now that the legal path may be cleared for the state to offer sportsbooks (betting facilities), Crowley asked about the potential for Turfway.

"I really think the size and the scope of the build at Turfway is with an eye toward the future...We are surrounded by every state around us that has this. The money that would flow outside of the commonwealth is not good for us; that is not good business. We need to keep it here in the state...It could be a big game changer, and we’ll be right at the forefront," said Kirkpatrick. 

On the bourbon trail

No discussion of Northern Kentucky tourism can fail to mention the growing bourbon scene and the B Line.

"We started to look at the emerging bourbon industry we had in the region with New Riff, Boone County Distilling and Old Pogue Distillery and knew that we had something, along with major international airport and a major metropolitan area. So we built an experience around it called the B Line," Kirkpatrick explained.

The B Line includes Bourbon Trail craft distilleries in our area, bourbon bars and bourbon restaurants. The success of the venture has put Northern Kentucky on the bourbon map garnering a recent write up in the Wall Street Journal and other media as well as legions of bourbon fans.

Kirkpatrick also noted, "We have one of the foremost vintage whiskey experts in the country here. Revival [Revival Vintage Bottle Shop] in Covington is a vintage whiskey library. One of the guys involved in it Brad Bonds. He is the foremost expert on vintage whiskey in the United States of America,” she said. “People are coming in from all over the world to see what they are doing in Covington."

Working together for the entire region

Crowley asked about the strength of collaboration across state lines. Grewe has worked in Nashville and other cities and said the cooperation in our region is unique and a key to the region’s strength in the market. That success, she said, is a direct result of her colleagues’ leadership, their shared passion for the city and their unparalleled collaboration.

"We’re always better together," agreed Calvert. "I would say with regard to how Julie and I work together it’s a very active collaboration, it’s not just a shake your head collaboration and then go your own way."

At trade shows now, people often see one booth for the region, instead of separate meetNKY and Cincinnati USA booths, she said. Their teams cooperate to bring clients to the entire region. The organizations will be doing joint advertising and traveling together more often.

"One of the exciting things this region is going see from a tourism perspective is the rollout of a new tourism brand that really revolves around the idea of culture... all these really great things that come together and make this region so dynamic, so exciting," Calvert said.

Kirkpatrick noted that nearby competitors are getting nervous about the region’s strong cooperation. "They figured out we’re getting it together. So instead of actively trying to push against each other, working together is smart. And, Indy and Columbus and Louisville are going to pay the price. We’re going to take their business."

Economic impact

Some numbers tell the story of how strong that business is or will be again. Pre-covid, 26 million visitors a year came to our region, said Kirkpatrick, bringing five billion dollars in economic impact. While tourism took a hit, all three speakers said they are confident things will come back even better.

Calvert said the visitors bureaus have hired a Chicago firm to help them bring their story to visitors. "We know who they are, we know why they’re traveling, we know what we have, and we can match them up here and really tell our story."

Crowley noted the city of Newport just passed one of the biggest bond issues he’s seen for $660 million. Plans for growth and development around what Grewe calls the "Ovation neighborhood" is promising.

"My focus is, of course, the music venue, and the music venue itself grows every day," said Grewe. "We are firming up new shows, firming up private events, growing those budgets, growing those visitor numbers. The addition of the hotel, the retail out front, the condos across the street...all that is only going to drive people into my concert venue and more people back into Newport, Covington, the Levee," she said.

Kirkpatrick said she and her colleagues are excited for the future and the role they will play in replenishing the local economy. "We’ve really solidified this idea that tourism is the front door to economic development."

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