The Final Piece of the Puzzle

After two years of renovation, the Kentucky International Convention Center takes its place – bigger and better – in Louisville’s gleaming and growing downtown

By Steve Kaufman

Courtesy renderings

On Aug. 6, roughly two years from the day the Kentucky International Convention Center (KICC) closed for a $207 million renovation, it will officially reopen.

The cranes, barricades and construction equipment will be gone, and Fourth Street will be reopened. The massive building, which runs from Second to Fourth streets and Market to Jefferson streets, will convert from a hindrance clogging up the middle of the city into one of Louisville’s most sparkling assets.

Stacey Church, general manager of KICC, said the renovation will come in on schedule and on budget, which is in and of itself a pair of remarkable achievements.

And not a moment too soon, because the day after the official opening, the first group to use the new facility – the University Bible Fellowship – will load in for a week-long program that runs Aug. 8-15, with 3,000 attendees. (On average, Church said, meetings ranging from 550 attendees to 8,000 are already booked for 2018-19. And, in fact, groups are talking to KICC for meetings as far ahead as 2024.)

According to Stacey Yates, vice president of marketing for Louisville Tourism (the new name of the Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau), the economic impact of this group on the city – hotel rooms, meals, events, tourism and transportation, plus the cost of renting the center – will be $6.03 million.

While the city has missed a thriving convention center in its midst, and all that economic impact it produces, it hasn’t been sleeping.

There has been a 54-percent growth in downtown hotel sleeping rooms since 2010, and Yates said it will reach 6,193 rooms next year with the opening of Hotel Distil/Moxy Hotel at First and Main.

City-wide, there has been a 20-percent growth in that same time period, soon to be 22,000 rooms by next year.

“Hotel growth is in a symbiotic relationship with the convention center’s expansion,” said Yates. “We needed an expanded, modern convention space, but we also needed the added support of plenty of hotel rooms.”

Omni Hotels & Resorts made it clear early this year with the opening of its massive Omni Hotel Louisville – located just a couple of blocks down from the new convention center – that the renovation of the convention facility was a major motivator in its decision to build in Louisville.

As for what KICC offers to the city’s conventioneers, the numbers speak for themselves:

A 34-percent increase in contiguous meeting space to 200,000 square feet (from 140,000). Much of that comes from a new cantilevered overhang on the Market Street side of the building. “We have already booked groups as large as 10,000 people,” said Church.

52 separate meeting rooms.

A 25 percent increase in the number of convention groups the Louisville Tourism sales team can go after, according to its own estimates.

A significant addition of natural light through walls of glass and skylights. “That’s important to addressing customers’ needs,” said Yates. “Today’s attendees don’t like to meet in a windowless, concrete box. Everyone knows natural light improves people’s mood and alertness.”

A 40,000-square-foot, column-free ballroom on the ground level, 33 percent larger than the former ballroom, and with what Yates called “an entire high-tech, color-changing LED wall, so the conventions can theme out the venue in any way they choose in a very cost-efficient way.”

And, she added, “the beauty of that space is how multifunctional it can be. It can be used for proms and local groups and dinners, as well as formal ballroom space for conventions. Plus, because of its size and lack of columns, it could accommodate a trade show inside its four walls, as well.”

But the large exhibit floor on the uppermost level can also accommodate 14,000 persons for a large meal function.

“These two meal options are a business attraction in several ways,” said Yates. “KICC can handle larger meal events than it could before, which keeps an on-site dining-in option. That’s especially important with trade shows, where exhibitors want to keep attendees in the building as much as possible. If they’re going elsewhere in the city for their major show dinners, they’re not mixing with exhibitors’ booths.”

One of the buzzwords of the convention-planning industry is “sightlines.” Ideally, every trade show booth ought to be visible from every corner of the room. If not, no exhibitor wants a far corner in the back, which cuts down on the number of exhibitors a convention can attract. And then they begin looking to other cities for their meetings.

To that last point, Louisville still trails some other nearby cities – at least in the number of hotel rooms.

“Columbus has 28,000 sleeping rooms; Indianapolis has 32,000; Nashville, 42,000,” said Yates. “These are the things meeting planners look at. They prefer to put their attendees in fewer hotels. Otherwise, it can become a hassle to move attendees to and from the main convention facility.”

She said the industry refers to that as a “tight package. … How close is the convention center to your main hotel blocks? How close is it to dining, attractions, other amenities?”

As for transportation, she said, Uber and Lyft have filled the gap in getting around town. Louisville is not, like Chicago and New York, a city where you can step out on the curb and hail a cab. But here, today, you can easily order a ride with your phone.

Convention attendees will always want to get out into the city, and fortunately, said Yates, “In downtown, we now have dining districts we didn’t have before. And we have attractions – a dozen within four walkable blocks, many of those bourbon-related.”

All of this makes Louisville a more-than-vanilla experience for the city’s visiting conventioneers.

“That’s right,” affirmed Yates. “It’s now a vanilla-and-caramel experience.” VT