Skip to Main Content

The Impact of COVID-19 on Kentucky's Tourism Industry

Host Renee Shaw and guests discuss COVID-19's impact on Kentucky tourism. Guests include: Mike Berry, secretary of the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet; Hank Phillips, president and CEO of the Kentucky Travel Industry Association; and Mary Quinn Ramer, president of VisitLEX, the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Season 27 Episode 31 Length 56:36 Premiere: 08/03/20

Reviving a Signature Industry During a Health Crisis

When your business model is built on the free flow of visitors to destinations across the commonwealth, the last thing you want is a world on virtual lockdown to avoid spreading a highly contagious virus.

But that’s what Kentucky’s tourism industry faces in the age of COVID-19 as millions of individuals and businesses have scaled back or cancelled travel plans since the pandemic hit in March.

“It was as though a figurative tornado came through and hit this industry,” says Hank Phillips, President and CEO, Kentucky Travel Industry Association. “We’re accustomed to talking about all the great things, all the great experiences, and to find ourselves talking about devastation in the travel and tourism industry in Kentucky, it is surreal as it gets.”

More than 94,000 Kentuckians are employed in the state’s tourism industry, from state park and fish and wildlife employees, to hotel, restaurant, and convention workers, to those who operate private attractions and cultural destinations. Kentucky Tourism, Arts, and Heritage Cabinet Secretary Mike Berry says the industry generates $11 billion in annual revenues for the commonwealth.

“Tourism is an incredibly important part of the Kentucky economy,” he says.

Pandemic Devastates Tourism Revenues

When the COVID-19 upended life in mid-March, Gov. Andy Beshear closed non-essential businesses, including most state park dining and lodging services. Stay-at-home orders in the commonwealth and many other states also meant the cancellation of most recreational and business travel. In all, Berry says some 30 events scheduled for the Kentucky International Convention Center and the state fair and exposition center in Louisville were cancelled. The Kentucky Derby was postponed to the first Saturday in September, and officials called off the annual Derby Festival for this year.

The closures also hit Lexington-area attractions. The Kentucky Horse Park lost dozens of events, says Berry, including the highly popular Kentucky Crafted Market that was scheduled to open just days after the governor’s initial state of emergency declaration. VisitLEX President Mary Quinn Ramer says 176 conventions and meetings scheduled for Lexington this year have been cancelled. She fears more cancellations could come in 2021.

“That’s significant revue for not just our hotels but our restaurants, our tour companies, our transportation companies, our airport,” says Ramer. “There’s just a huge travel ecosystem that has been gravely impacted by all these cancellations.”

Closures in other states have also hurt locally owned businesses. Lexington-based H&W Management operates hotels in Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia. President Don Howard says he only had to temporarily close one property but he’s laid off about half of his workforce. He also expects revenues to be less than half of what the company earned in 2019.

While bookings at his hotels have started to improve, Howard says the pandemic hit at the worst possible time. Under normal circumstances, hotels earn enough revenue during the busy spring, summer, and early fall months to carry them through the slower late fall and winter months. So without a profitable summer and fall, hotels may not have the cash reserves they need to survive through to next spring.

“It’s been tough up to this point but it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better,” says Howard.

Industry Says Federal Relief is Vital

H&W Management was able to secure some money from the federal Paycheck Protection Program. But Howard says it was only enough to cover payroll, which is about 20 percent of his total expenses, for two months.

“It’s helped,” says Howard. “It’s not going to save the day. It’s more of a Band-Aid.”

About $1 million of federal CARES Act money also went to 178 non-profit organizations around the state, according to Berry. But the rules did not allow relief aid to flow to local convention and visitor bureaus, which in Kentucky tend to operate as quasi-governmental agencies. Phillips says those entities normally receive appropriations from local hotel tax revenues.

“The destination marketing organizations, the unsung heroes of this industry because they work behind the scenes to bring in people and bring in conferences... most of their funding has evaporated,” says Phillips.

Phillips says they are lobbying Congress to include language in the next relief package that would make federal assistance available to these tourism agencies. Berry says with the state budget facing cuts from 16 to 29 percent in fiscal year 2021, additional stimulus money from Washington will be critical.

Adjusting to a New Normal

As the summer has progressed, many destinations around the state have started reopen with requirements for masking, social distancing, reduced capacity, and hand sanitizing.

“We’ve got quite a few attractions that people absolutely love, and we’re so happy that they’ve been able to reopen responsibly,” says Sherry Murphy, executive director of the Bowling Green Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We want to make sure that our visitors, the ones that are out and about, are protected.”

Kentucky’s famed Bourbon Trail has also had to adjust to the new pandemic safety protocols. Jeff Crowe of Heaven Hill Distillery says their visitor centers in Louisville and Bardstown are open but operating at reduced capacity. Tours that once welcomed 20 people are now limited to six.

“We are still seeing requests for people who want to come,” says Crowe. “We’re just having to turn them away because they can’t come in past that capacity limit.”

That’s left the industry to explore other ways to connect with bourbon fans, including virtual tastings where people gather in their own home to sample bourbons under the guidance of a distillery representative who connects by internet video. Heaven Hill has gone from doing an occasional virtual tasting to hosting two or three a day, according to Crowe. He says when one distiller devises an innovative way to connect with consumers during this crisis, they’re likely to share that idea with their industry colleagues.

“None of us have the answer to the perfect storm,” that is the pandemic, says Crowe. “The good thing is in the bourbon world we all have the support of each other and we don’t hide our successes from each other… We’re standing strong as a unit and not as enemies.”

Another Kentucky tradition – the state fair – remains scheduled for the end of the August. (State law actually mandates an annual showcase of agriculture and other key industries in the commonwealth.) As with everywhere else in the state, masking, distancing, and limited capacity will comprise the new normal. Berry says he expects attendance for marquee events like the livestock competitions and the World’s Championship Horse Show will be down by 50 percent – or maybe more, if the current surge in cases gets worse.

“We realize that things aren’t as usual,” says Berry. “It could get even more unusual, depending on what the rate of [coronavirus testing] positivity numbers do in the next few weeks.”

Cautious Optimism for the Future

What’s ahead for the state’s tourism industry as the autumn travel season approaches? Murphy says she expects a few Bowling Green-area events to happen this fall, especially as people get more accustomed to wearing face masks and maintaining a proper distance from one another. She also says she and her colleagues will be watching to see how events like the Street Rod Nationals in Louisville this weekend and the Kentucky Derby in September will handle their spectators.

“They’re all going to look different,” says Murphy, “but our main priority is to keep people safe and stop the spread as much as possible.”

At VisitLEX, Ramer says she’s “cautiously optimistic” about what the coming months could bring.

“Fall in Lexington means football and Keeneland, so we’re eager to see some of those things return,” says Ramer.

Berry says his agency is already preparing a new marketing message to help lure visitors back to the commonwealth once the pandemic subsides: “When you’re ready to travel again, Kentucky will be here for you.” Until then, Berry and Phillips say people should focus on following the health guidelines issued by federal, state, and local authorities.

“We all know there’s a single path, short of a vaccine, to get to the other side, and that is do the right thing,” says Phillips. “Wear the masks, do the sanitizing, do the social distancing.”

“The quicker that we buckle down, the quicker we will be back to life as usual,” says Berry.

Sponsored by:

Host Dr. Wayne Tuckson in a dark shirt and gray jacket on the program set with a "Check Schedule" button.Host Dr. Wayne Tuckson in a dark shirt and gray jacket on the program set with a "Check Schedule" button.

Season 27 Episodes

The Economic State of the State

S27 E44 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 12/14/20

Reopening Kentucky Classrooms During a Coronavirus Surge

S27 E43 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 12/07/20

COVID-19's Impact on Kentucky's Health Care System

S27 E42 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 11/23/20

Understanding the Grand Jury System

S27 E41 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 11/16/20

Analyzing the 2020 Election and State Politics

S27 E40 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 11/09/20

2020 Election Eve Preview

S27 E39 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 11/02/20

Kentucky's U.S. Senate Race

S27 E38 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 10/26/20

Legislative Leaders Preview the 2020 General Election

S27 E37 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 10/19/20

Issues Affecting Kentucky's 4th Congressional District

S27 E36 Length 26:33 Premiere Date 10/12/20

Issues Affecting Kentucky's 3rd Congressional District

S27 E35 Length 26:31 Premiere Date 10/05/20

Previewing the 2020 General Election

S27 E34 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 09/28/20

Special Education, Student Mental Health and COVID-19

S27 E33 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 09/21/20

Challenges and Benefits of Remote Learning in Kentucky

S27 E32 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 09/14/20

The Impact of COVID-19 on Kentucky's Tourism Industry

S27 E31 Length 56:36 Premiere Date 08/03/20

COVID-19's Impact on Higher Education in Kentucky

S27 E30 Length 56:35 Premiere Date 07/27/20

Reopening Kentucky's Schools

S27 E29 Length 56:36 Premiere Date 07/20/20

Racial Disparities in K-12 Public Education

S27 E28 Length 56:27 Premiere Date 07/13/20

Police Reform Issues

S27 E27 Length 56:36 Premiere Date 06/29/20

Previewing the 2020 Primary Election

S27 E26 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 06/22/20

Kentucky Tonight: State of Unrest

S27 E25 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 06/15/20

2020 Primary Election Candidates, Part Four

S27 E24 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 06/08/20

2020 Primary Election Candidates, Part Three

S27 E22 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 06/01/20

2020 Primary Election Candidates, Part Two

S27 E21 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 06/01/20

2020 Primary Election Candidates, Part One

S27 E20 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 05/27/20

Reopening Rules for Restaurants and Retail

S27 E19 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 05/18/20

Debating Steps to Restart Kentucky's Economy

S27 E18 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 05/11/20

COVID-19's Impact on Primary Voting and Local Governments

S27 E17 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 05/04/20

Reopening Kentucky's Economy

S27 E16 Length 56:36 Premiere Date 04/27/20

Wrapping Up the General Assembly and a COVID-19 Update

S27 E14 Length 56:36 Premiere Date 04/13/20

Health, Legal and Voting Issues During the COVID-19 Outbreak

S27 E12 Length 57:23 Premiere Date 03/30/20

Kentucky's Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic

S27 E11 Length 58:03 Premiere Date 03/23/20

Finding Agreement on State Budget Issues

S27 E10 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 03/16/20

Election and Voting Legislation

S27 E9 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 03/09/20

State Budget

S27 E8 Length 56:36 Premiere Date 02/24/20

Debating State Budget Priorities

S27 E7 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 02/17/20

Medical Marijuana

S27 E6 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 02/10/20

Sports Betting Legislation

S27 E5 Length 56:36 Premiere Date 02/03/20

2020 Kentucky General Assembly

S27 E2 Length 56:37 Premiere Date 01/13/20

2020 Kentucky General Assembly

S27 E1 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 01/06/20

See All Episodes

caret down

TV Schedules

Jump to Recent Airdates

Upcoming

Kentucky Tonight

  • Monday February 6, 2023 8:00 pm ET on KET
  • Monday February 6, 2023 7:00 pm CT on KET
  • Tuesday February 7, 2023 6:00 am ET on KETKY
  • Tuesday February 7, 2023 5:00 am CT on KETKY
  • Tuesday February 7, 2023 2:30 pm ET on KETKY
  • Tuesday February 7, 2023 1:30 pm CT on KETKY
  • Tuesday February 7, 2023 11:00 pm ET on KETKY
  • Tuesday February 7, 2023 10:00 pm CT on KETKY
  • Wednesday February 8, 2023 1:00 am ET on KETKY
  • Wednesday February 8, 2023 12:00 am CT on KETKY
  • Wednesday February 8, 2023 1:00 am ET on KET
  • Wednesday February 8, 2023 12:00 am CT on KET
  • Wednesday February 8, 2023 9:30 am ET on KETKY
  • Wednesday February 8, 2023 8:30 am CT on KETKY
  • Wednesday February 8, 2023 6:00 pm ET on KETKY
  • Wednesday February 8, 2023 5:00 pm CT on KETKY

Kentucky Tonight

  • Monday February 13, 2023 8:00 pm ET on KET
  • Monday February 13, 2023 7:00 pm CT on KET
  • Tuesday February 14, 2023 6:00 am ET on KETKY
  • Tuesday February 14, 2023 5:00 am CT on KETKY
  • Tuesday February 14, 2023 2:30 pm ET on KETKY
  • Tuesday February 14, 2023 1:30 pm CT on KETKY
  • Tuesday February 14, 2023 11:00 pm ET on KETKY
  • Tuesday February 14, 2023 10:00 pm CT on KETKY
  • Wednesday February 15, 2023 1:00 am ET on KETKY
  • Wednesday February 15, 2023 12:00 am CT on KETKY
  • Wednesday February 15, 2023 1:00 am ET on KET
  • Wednesday February 15, 2023 12:00 am CT on KET
  • Wednesday February 15, 2023 9:30 am ET on KETKY
  • Wednesday February 15, 2023 8:30 am CT on KETKY
  • Wednesday February 15, 2023 6:00 pm ET on KETKY
  • Wednesday February 15, 2023 5:00 pm CT on KETKY

Kentucky Tonight

  • Monday February 20, 2023 8:00 pm ET on KET
  • Monday February 20, 2023 7:00 pm CT on KET
  • Tuesday February 21, 2023 6:00 am ET on KETKY
  • Tuesday February 21, 2023 5:00 am CT on KETKY
  • Tuesday February 21, 2023 2:30 pm ET on KETKY
  • Tuesday February 21, 2023 1:30 pm CT on KETKY
  • Tuesday February 21, 2023 11:00 pm ET on KETKY
  • Tuesday February 21, 2023 10:00 pm CT on KETKY
  • Wednesday February 22, 2023 1:00 am ET on KETKY
  • Wednesday February 22, 2023 12:00 am CT on KETKY
  • Wednesday February 22, 2023 1:00 am ET on KET
  • Wednesday February 22, 2023 12:00 am CT on KET
  • Wednesday February 22, 2023 9:30 am ET on KETKY
  • Wednesday February 22, 2023 8:30 am CT on KETKY
  • Wednesday February 22, 2023 6:00 pm ET on KETKY
  • Wednesday February 22, 2023 5:00 pm CT on KETKY

Kentucky Tonight

  • Monday February 27, 2023 8:00 pm ET on KET
  • Monday February 27, 2023 7:00 pm CT on KET
  • Tuesday February 28, 2023 6:00 am ET on KETKY
  • Tuesday February 28, 2023 5:00 am CT on KETKY
  • Tuesday February 28, 2023 2:30 pm ET on KETKY
  • Tuesday February 28, 2023 1:30 pm CT on KETKY
  • Tuesday February 28, 2023 11:00 pm ET on KETKY
  • Tuesday February 28, 2023 10:00 pm CT on KETKY
  • Wednesday March 1, 2023 1:00 am ET on KETKY
  • Wednesday March 1, 2023 12:00 am CT on KETKY
  • Wednesday March 1, 2023 1:00 am ET on KET
  • Wednesday March 1, 2023 12:00 am CT on KET
  • Wednesday March 1, 2023 9:30 am ET on KETKY
  • Wednesday March 1, 2023 8:30 am CT on KETKY
  • Wednesday March 1, 2023 6:00 pm ET on KETKY
  • Wednesday March 1, 2023 5:00 pm CT on KETKY
Jump to Upcoming Airdates

Recent

Medical Marijuana - S29 E47

  • Wednesday February 1, 2023 6:00 pm ET on KETKY
  • Wednesday February 1, 2023 5:00 pm CT on KETKY
  • Wednesday February 1, 2023 9:30 am ET on KETKY
  • Wednesday February 1, 2023 8:30 am CT on KETKY
  • Wednesday February 1, 2023 1:00 am ET on KETKY
  • Wednesday February 1, 2023 12:00 am CT on KETKY
  • Wednesday February 1, 2023 1:00 am ET on KET
  • Wednesday February 1, 2023 12:00 am CT on KET
  • Tuesday January 31, 2023 11:00 pm ET on KETKY
  • Tuesday January 31, 2023 10:00 pm CT on KETKY
  • Tuesday January 31, 2023 2:30 pm ET on KETKY
  • Tuesday January 31, 2023 1:30 pm CT on KETKY
  • Tuesday January 31, 2023 6:00 am ET on KETKY
  • Tuesday January 31, 2023 5:00 am CT on KETKY
  • Monday January 30, 2023 8:00 pm ET on KET
  • Monday January 30, 2023 7:00 pm CT on KET

Kentucky's Juvenile Justice System - S29 E46

  • Wednesday January 25, 2023 6:00 pm ET on KETKY
  • Wednesday January 25, 2023 5:00 pm CT on KETKY
  • Wednesday January 25, 2023 9:30 am ET on KETKY
  • Wednesday January 25, 2023 8:30 am CT on KETKY
  • Wednesday January 25, 2023 1:00 am ET on KETKY
  • Wednesday January 25, 2023 12:00 am CT on KETKY
  • Wednesday January 25, 2023 1:00 am ET on KET
  • Wednesday January 25, 2023 12:00 am CT on KET
  • Tuesday January 24, 2023 11:00 pm ET on KETKY
  • Tuesday January 24, 2023 10:00 pm CT on KETKY
  • Tuesday January 24, 2023 2:30 pm ET on KETKY
  • Tuesday January 24, 2023 1:30 pm CT on KETKY
  • Tuesday January 24, 2023 6:00 am ET on KETKY
  • Tuesday January 24, 2023 5:00 am CT on KETKY
  • Monday January 23, 2023 8:00 pm ET on KET
  • Monday January 23, 2023 7:00 pm CT on KET

2023 Kentucky General Assembly - S29 E44

  • Wednesday January 11, 2023 6:00 pm ET on KETKY
  • Wednesday January 11, 2023 5:00 pm CT on KETKY
  • Wednesday January 11, 2023 9:30 am ET on KETKY
  • Wednesday January 11, 2023 8:30 am CT on KETKY
  • Wednesday January 11, 2023 1:00 am ET on KETKY
  • Wednesday January 11, 2023 12:00 am CT on KETKY
  • Wednesday January 11, 2023 1:00 am ET on KET
  • Wednesday January 11, 2023 12:00 am CT on KET
  • Tuesday January 10, 2023 11:00 pm ET on KETKY
  • Tuesday January 10, 2023 10:00 pm CT on KETKY
  • Tuesday January 10, 2023 2:30 pm ET on KETKY
  • Tuesday January 10, 2023 1:30 pm CT on KETKY
  • Tuesday January 10, 2023 6:00 am ET on KETKY
  • Tuesday January 10, 2023 5:00 am CT on KETKY
  • Monday January 9, 2023 8:00 pm ET on KET
  • Monday January 9, 2023 7:00 pm CT on KET
Top

About

Kentucky Tonight, hosted by Renee Shaw, is a public affairs discussion program broadcasted live on Monday nights at 8/7c on KET and KET.org/live.

Viewers with questions and comments may send e-mail to kytonight@ket.org or use the message form on this page. All messages should include first and last name and town or county. The phone number for viewer calls during the program is 1-800-494-7605.

After broadcast, Kentucky Tonight programs are available on KET.org and via podcast (iTunes or Android). Files are normally accessible within 24 hours after the television broadcast.

Kentucky Tonightwas awarded a 1997 regional Emmy by the Ohio Valley Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. The series was also honored with a 1995 regional Emmy nomination.

To purchase a DVD:

Call 1-800-945-9167 or e-mail shop@ket.org.

Contact

Explore KET