With the Kentucky Derby this week, the Bluegrass State is on the world's biggest stage. Millions of racing fans will watch races from Louisville's Churchill Downs on TV and thousands more will watch in person (many with a signature Mint Julep in their hand). Bourbon and Barns recently caught up with Kentucky Tourism Commissioner Kristen Branscum to discuss the impact bourbon and horse racing have on tourism in the state of Kentucky.
Bourbon and Barns: Thanks so much for taking the time to do an interview. I know this must be a busy time of year for Kentucky tourism. First, can you tell me what the Kentucky Department of Tourism does?
Kristen Branscum: The mission of KDT is to market Kentucky as a travel destination in order to generate revenue for Kentucky's economy. In 2015, tourism in Kentucky experienced the strongest overall economic impact growth in the last 10 years with a total economic impact of $13.7 billion. This was the third largest state economic driver behind the automotive industry and the healthcare industry.
BB: I love the Kentucky tourism tagline of "Unbridled Spirit," because it encapsulates both the thoroughbred and bourbon industries so succinctly and cleverly. How long has the state used that slogan? How did it come about?
KB: Unbridled Spirit does encapsulate both the bourbon and thoroughbred industry! The definition of Unbridled Spirit is, "Kentucky is a place where spirits are free to soar and big dreams can be fulfilled. We relish competition and cherish our champions for their willingness to push beyond conventional boundaries to reach new heights of success."
Unbridled Spirit was chosen by a popular vote. In the fall of 2004, the citizens of Kentucky got to vote their preference from among four choices. "Kentucky Unbridled Spirit" was the overwhelming choice. More than 55,000 people voted for it during the brand voting, and through each round, it was the runaway winner.
BB: Two of the first things out-of-staters think of when they think of Kentucky is horse racing and bourbon. How important are the thoroughbred and bourbon industries to tourism in Kentucky?
KB: Bourbon and Horses are two of the signature industries of the Bluegrass State, and they are often the ‘hooks’ that get people interested in visiting. We have tremendous attractions in these areas and people use distillery and farm tours to guide them throughout the state—and then they can branch off and see some of the other amazing attractions we are fortunate to have in Kentucky.
BB: The Kentucky Derby is coming up soon. What does your department do to promote the event? How important are Churchill Downs and, particularly the Kentucky Derby, to tourism in the Bluegrass State?
KB: The Kentucky Derby Festival has estimated there have been 1.5 million annual attendees in the past and they believe 20% of those come from outside the Louisville area, especially for events such as Thunder Over Louisville and the marathons. This is huge for the tourism industry in the Bluegrass. There are 75,000 in attendance at a typical Super Bowl – thus opening weekend at Churchill Down is like “four Super Bowls”. We have to put our best foot forward and make Kentucky shine for all our visitors!
BB: Keeneland is renowned for its high-quality sales and popular race meets. What impact does Keeneland have on tourism?
KB: Keeneland is one of Lexington’s premier attractions and draws visitors from around the region and across the country for their two annual race meets held each April and October. Throughout the year, Keeneland offers daily opportunities to witness some of the best Thoroughbreds in training during their morning workout program. A visit to the Track Kitchen is encouraged to experience a traditional Kentucky breakfast and perhaps rub elbows with famous trainers and jockeys. Keeneland also offers guided walking tours of the facility. Visit http://www.keeneland.com/calendar/tour-keeneland-april for more information.
BB: Bourbon is synonymous with Kentucky. How many people visit the state's distilleries each year? Is that number increasing? How important is the state's tradition of distilling to tourism?
KB: We were lucky to tally over 1 million total visits to our member distilleries in 2016 — the first time we reached that number. We have been fortunate to see visits increase as people become more interested in Kentucky Bourbon as a spirits category.
BB: The number of craft distilleries has exploded across the country in recent years. Have you seen an increase in tourism related to craft distilling?
KB: Yes, craft distilleries have popped up across the country and we are pleased to see our numbers rise, as well. In fact, they have become so popular to visit, a Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour was created to help guide visitors to our small Bourbon producers. It’s a great way to complement your Kentucky Bourbon Trail experience while in the Bluegrass.
To learn more about Kentucky tourism go to www.kentuckytourism.com.