NASCAR events highlight growth of Northern Kentucky tourism

This month’s NASCAR series at Kentucky Speedway underscores exciting regional efforts to spark a tourism boom that researchers say will continue gaining momentum for years to come.
In early 2013, NKY Thrives reported on a study commissioned by Cincinnati USA and meetNKY (formerly Northern Kentucky Convention & Visitors Bureau) that showed area tourism on the rise. At that time the region hosted an estimated 22.7 million visitors who spent $4.1 billion — money that accounted for approximately one in 10 direct and indirect jobs across the region.
Two years later the group shifts its data-collection focus to direct jobs, releasing a new report, Impact & Momentum: A Report on Cincinnati USA’s Travel and Tourism Industry and Its Influence on the Regional Economy.
The study confirms a multi-billion dollar tourism impact for the 15 counties in the three states that constitute Greater Cincinnati, with highlights that include:
• 24.1 million daytime and overnight visitors (4 percent increase from previous years)
• $4.4 billion spent on hotels, retail and food/beverage
• $492 million generated in state and local tax revenue
• $602 in tax burden relief per household
• 90 percent of visitors stated “leisure” as the purpose of their visit
• 40 percent of visitors stayed overnight
• 4.1 percent growth rate for tourism sales since 2009 (national average is 3 percent)
• 3.4 percent growth in total employment sustained by tourism
• 74,000 jobs sustained by the region’s tourism and travel industries
Those figures and year-on-year increases are no accident, according to Eric Summe, president and CEO of meetNKY.

His team collaborates with the region’s foremost hospitality players to continually emphasize and add to Northern Kentucky’s attractions. It's a growing list that includes longstanding fixtures like Newport on the Levee with its world-class aquarium and Covington’s historic MainStrasse Village. Cultural festivals, national concerts and unique traveling museum and art exhibits round out the area’s robust annual calendar.

‘Geography is our competitive edge’

Summe and his colleagues believe that the key to competing with similarly sized markets lies in Northern Kentucky’s unique ability to offer visitors the best of many worlds. Proximity to downtown Cincinnati and the Ohio River offers endless dining, nightlife and urban exploration, while a distinctly friendly outdoor vibe draws visitors south for a taste of bourbon, horseback riding and a treasure trove of both Civil War and natural history.
“Northern Kentucky doesn’t have just one hook,” Summe says. “Instead, we offer a number of diverse experiences. Geography is, by far, our competitive edge.”
The other thread that ties it all together is a common thirst for experiences.
“Visitors are more intuitive these days,” Summe says. “We travel smarter, checking eight or nine websites before booking a stay. We’ve done the coasts and the big cities, and now we want a more home-grown, natural experience when we travel.”
As a growing wave of retiring Baby Boomers and increasingly savvy, mobile Millennials makes its way inward from the coasts, the region’s travel and tourism leaders are busy making preparations — inviting top travel writers, training effective tour guides, modernizing hotel room designs and taking every possible measure to ensure a warm welcome and a memorable stay in Northern Kentucky. 
Venues like Newport Aquarium are also doing their part to welcome visitors.

“This year we added the world’s first and only Shark Bridge, where guests can walk across the open waters just inches above nearly two dozen sharks,” says Aquarium spokesperson Jeff Geiser. “Over the past few years, we’ve partnered with the Reds and B&B Riverboats to offer discounted combo tickets and themed cruises. It’s our mission to provide an experiential and meaningful way for families to connect with each other and to the wonders of the aquatic world.”

Economy gets boost from ‘NASCAR Nation’

In another fast-growing entertainment realm, Kentucky Speedway officials expect huge crowds Sept. 25-26 as it hosts the 2015 NASCAR Xfinity Series — and not just to the racetrack. According to Director of Communications Tim Bray, visitors to the Quaker State 400 in July arrived early and made a vacation of it, flocking to the Speedway’s 4,000 on-property campsites and booking hotel rooms from Cincinnati down to Louisville.
“For a big race like the Xfinity Series, fans will come into town on Wednesday and stay all week for music, food, lawn celebrations and other events like the (NASCAR feeder series) ARCA races that weekend,” Bray says.
He agrees that Northern Kentucky’s geography makes it ideal for visitors.
“This is a central meeting point for racing fans around the country,” Bray says. “We want their experience at Kentucky Speedway to inspire them to explore everything else the area has to offer.”
Partnering regionally is crucial in achieving that end, Bray says. Recent joint efforts like Cincinnati USA’s “Come for the Reds; Stay for the Race” campaign have been effective, so the Speedway hopes to leverage its dynamic space to accommodate much more than racing.

A massive infield inside the 1.5-mile asphalt track makes the venue an obvious choice for auto industry seminars and driver autograph sessions, but it also proves fitting for concerts, festivals and even an annual Tough Mudder fitness competition that raises millions for affiliated charities.
Other future plans for the Speedway include expanding ties with national Bluegrass acts and connecting to Louisville’s famed Bourbon Trail, both of which attract millions of visitors annually from as far away as the United Kingdom and Australia.

The future of NKY tourism

Visitor dollars spent in Northern Kentucky currently make up 18-20 percent of the region’s total, and leaders are excited to see that percentage grow — along with the influx of visitors and new residents alike.
Attracting transplants isn’t meetNKY’s primary focus, but leaders like Summe understand that such positive economic decisions often start with an enjoyable visit.
“We’re building on our existing assets like Newport Aquarium, Turfway Racetrack and the Creation Museum,” Summe says. “Those things will complement major-league sports in Cincinnati to create a truly encompassing experience for visitors, which is the key to attracting new residents and new businesses.”
As planners continue to monitor the trends and demands of today’s intuitive visitor, Northern Kentucky residents can expect to see their range of dining, retail and hotel options widen significantly. New offerings will emphasize the region’s signature craftsmanship and hospitality, while increased access and planned outdoor developments will draw young urban professionals and families to NKY’s natural sites, green spaces and riverfront entertainment districts.
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