Does Lexington need a signature festival to bring in more tourists and more money?
Developing a top-notch festival is one of many recommendations in Lexington’s Destination Development Plan that will be used to guide tourism planning and development in years to come. The last time Fayette County had such a plan was in the late 1990s.
Tourism has become big business in Lexington in recent years. A state-wide study showed tourism generated $2 billion in Fayette County in 2015. But it could generate more money with a focused and ramped up tourism plan, said Mary Quinn Ramer, president of VisitLex, the city’s tourism and visitor’s bureau.
“It took collaboration and a concentrated effort to achieve that milestone. But we believe even greater things are in store for Lexington – with the proper planning,” Ramer said.
The study by Conventions, Sports and Leisure International and paid for by VisitLex said Fayette County needs to build on its unique assets, ramp up its infrastructure and better market the variety of activities the area has to offer visitors.
“This is not about building something new,” said Ramer. “We are very fortunate that we do have so much to offer but it’s about building on those good fortunes.”
Lexington and Fayette County needs to build on its geographic proximity to the Bourbon Trail, the popular Kentucky Distilleries’ Association-run tour of Kentucky’s famous bourbon distilleries, the study found. After developing its own tourism development plan nearly seven years ago, Louisville capitalized on the Bourbon Trail. The city developed an urban bourbon experience and marketed itself as the start of the Bourbon Trail.
It worked. The number of tourists that come to Louisville has exploded over the past five years. In 2011, just over 12 million people came to Louisville. In 2016, that number topped 16 million, according to a report by the Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Horse farms and equine tourism are also another key draw to the area that should be expanded and part of the overall marketing plan, said John Kaatz, a consultant with Conventions, Sports and Leisure. Kaatz presented the study’s initial recommendations to the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council during a Tuesday meeting.
Outdoor adventure activities and eco-tourism is a growing subset of tourism, Kaatz said. The Red River Gorge and the Kentucky River Palisades in southern Fayette County have a lot to offer. Ziplining, rock climbing, hiking, mountain biking and kayaking should be developed and marketed, Kaatz said.
Other cities have also developed festivals that last several days and bring tourists from around the country, said Kaatz.
Scottsdale, Ariz., has an art and music festival called Canal Convergence that has been a boon to that town, Kaatz said.
“It’s 10 days and brings in tens of thousands of people,” Kaatz said. Lexington could do something similar. “It’s low-hanging fruit.”
Lexington could easily build a festival around a horse event — such as the Keeneland spring or fall meet — or around bourbon, Kaatz said.
Ramer said Lexington is also blessed with a unique art and music scene that could support a much larger festival.
Another big draw and way to distinguish and market a city is “monumental” public art, the report found. Louisville’s six-story Louisville Slugger bat outside the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory has become a must-see in Kentucky’s largest city.
“It’s surprisingly impactful,” Kaatz said. “You see people taking pictures in front of it. It’s free publicity.”
Better defining downtown and the various districts through clear wayfinding is also a small but easy fix that helps visitors understand how to navigate downtown, the study found.
There are other challenges.
Lexington lacks a big draw or marquee museum such as the Slugger Museum in Louisville. It also doesn’t have a downtown tourism experience that can give visitors a one-stop shop to see all that the region has to offer.
Lextran provides transportation to locals but the city still needs to figure out how to provide transportation to tourists. Lexington’s burgeoning Distillery District on Manchester Street is not far from downtown but is not easy to walk to. Other cities have partnered with for-profit companies such as Joy Ride and Hopper Carts to provide transportation to tourists. Bike-share programs are also popular in other cities but have never taken off in Lexington.
Ramer said the final report will be finished in late December. Starting in January, the staff and VisitLex board will begin to look at the recommendations and develop priorities. It will be a city-wide effort, she said.
“We will be looking at the priorities and trying to determine the price tag,” Ramer said. “We will not be doing this in a vacuum. It will take a lot of partnerships with a lot of different groups.”