It's a new year and a new era for Lexington tourism, with the appointment of Mary Quinn Ramer as president of the city's convention and visitors center, VisitLex.
Ramer, who has been with the bureau since 2007, knows there is one thing she probably won't have to worry about: getting people to come to the Breeders' Cup at Keeneland in October.
"I don't think it's going to be hard to sell tickets to the Breeders' Cup," she said, jokingly. Tickets are tentatively scheduled to go on sale March 1, and many horse racing fans have already signed up online to receive alerts and updates on availability. So they are coming.
VisitLex's task, she said, is getting people to come to Lexington early, rather than wait until Thursday of the meet.
"Our message is 'extend your stay ... Give yourself some time to explore our farms, our bourbon distilleries, soak up that true Lexington lifestyle before you head to the track,'" said Ramer, a Danville native and a 1998 graduate of Centre College.
To that end, fans who do get tickets will also be getting e-mail from VisitLex on other things to do.
"For folks that are fans of racing, there's no other place they can go that's like Lexington, all the way from birth through horse's life cycle. We think there will be a tremendous demand to be on our farms, to see our clinics at work, to appreciate all the lifestyle that comes with that," she said.
Clinics? Yep, Rood & Riddle and Hagyard veterinary clinics — where you can watch the world's best equine surgeons operating live, sometimes on multimillion-dollar animals — are hot tickets.
"Veterinary tours are more popular than you might imagine. If you have never seen a horse surgery, you need to," she said.
Beyond that, she said, "you're going to see a lot of programming that is above and beyond what typically happens, in conjunction with Breeders' Cup."
The city's host committee is working on a racing experience for downtown, which would give fans who can't be at the racetrack (where demand for tickets is expected to exceed availability) a place to wager and watch races, eat and drink, and hear music.
One possible template: last fall's Jefferson Street Soiree, which the visitors center, in conjunction with Keeneland restaurants and bars in the area, put on during the September yearling sale to draw sale patrons to the hot new dining district.
The restaurants and bars were overwhelmed with the turnout.
"I think we ended up with 7,000. We were going to call it a success with 1,500," Ramer said. "I think that goes to show that Lexington's usually ready for a good party, whenever there is one."
Whether to have the event again, or roll it into the Breeders' Cup festivities is being discussed, she said.
There may not be room in the 2015 calendar for many new events, but Ramer said that the visitors center intends to do all it can to build on previous successes, like Restaurant Week, Crave, LexEffect's Bourbon Social and the dinner series, called Chew.
"Food and drink are really huge right now, especially as it relates to travel," Ramer said. "And we are so fortunate that we have this tremendous heritage and tradition, as well as emerging innovative and new locally based productions and institutions and bars we can send people to. We really want to capitalize on that and continue to dial up our efforts as it relates to culinary experiences."
This year, VisitLex will introduce a Brewgrass Trail "passport" modeled on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail's very popular distillery passport, for craft beer breweries.
Obviously, a big part of culinary tourism in Kentucky is bourbon. In 2013, there were almost 750,000 tourist visits to at least one of Kentucky's distilleries.
Lexington hasn't had quite the major capital infusion from distilleries that Louisville has seen, where Heaven Hill built the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, Brown-Forman is building a new Old Forester Distillery and tourism center, Michter's is rescuing an historic building for a craft distillery, and so is Angel's Envy.
But, Lexington has seen the emergence of Town Branch Distillery and Brewery, as well as craft distillery Barrel House at the former James Pepper Distillery campus, and now Bluegrass Distilling is opening at the Bread Box where West Sixth Brewery is located, she said.
There is room for more, she said, and in December she and Lexington Mayor Jim Gray met with leaders in the bourbon industry on how the city can attract more bourbon tourism investment.
"We are trying to be mindful of those investments and to do what we can to show 'we're open for business, we'd love to have you here, we feel like can deliver visitor numbers to you just like Louisville can,'" she said. "I feel like they want Lexington in the mix, it's just figuring out how, and what that looks like."
Lexington has tourism opportunities that Louisville can't offer, which makes them complementary destinations, she said.
"If they need to show a horse farm, they have to come to Lexington," she said.
In coming weeks, Ramer said, officials with several Bluegrass horse farms are expected to announce a new initiative for a "horse farm trail" or tour.
Also, she will be working with Jamie Link, the new executive director of the Kentucky Horse Park, to find ways to better integrate the park into the city's recreational mindset.
"I know what a fabulous park we have. The level of competition that comes in and out is phenomenal," she said. Beyond equine events, "the sky's the limit. There are all kinds of ways they can integrate other programming and activities that would perhaps help connect Lexington the community with the Horse Park. There definitely seems to be a disconnect, which is a shame."
As for plans in the works to bid for the 2022 World Equestrian Games or other major equestrian competition, Ramer said the hospitality industry is enthusiastically supportive.
The Horse Park also hopes to figure into plans for the Breeders' Cup, which will happen on Halloween weekend, during the National Horse Show in the park's Alltech Arena and also on the same weekend that the University of Kentucky football team will play Tennessee here in Lexington, always a big draw.
Even before the Breeders' Cup announced in July that it would come to Keeneland for the first time, Lexington was riding a wave of tourism growth.
"We finished 2014 very strong, in terms of hotel occupancy and average daily rates, some of the metrics we use," she said. Fayette County hotel occupancy was above the national average, at 64.9 percent for most of 2014. And in October, occupancy hit all-time high of 75.9 percent, and average room rate was $110.76, a 5.7 percent increase in occupancy and an 8.8 percent increase in average daily room rate over October 2013, she said.
"We're very excited and looking forward to 2015. I feel like completely independent of the Breeders' Cup, we would have a great (year)," she said. "Outlook is very promising for 2015, but then you layer in Breeders' cup and it stands to be a banner year for us."
VisitLex has two goals for Breeders' Cup week: Roll out world-class hospitality for the visitors "and then secondly when it's all said and done, that Breeders' Cup will say, 'we can't wait to come back,'" she said.