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Kentucky loves its bourbon, and 95 percent of the world’s bourbon is produced right in the commonwealth. Kentuckians enjoy making it, and visitors love drinking it. Bourbon has enjoyed surging popularity in recent years as mixologists, chefs and distillers rediscover the flavors and heritage of “America’s spirit.” Louisville, the largest city in Kentucky, is jumping aboard this speeding train.

“You cannot come to Kentucky, especially not to Louisville, without talking about bourbon,” said Saundra Robertson, tourism sales manager for the Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Bourbon is made right in downtown Louisville, on Main Street no less. The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience is a cool artisanal distillery and museum that celebrates Kentucky’s first commercial distiller. In 2013, it was the first to open downtown. Now, along what has become known as Whiskey Row, there are several more where you can tour and taste. Old Forester, owned by Brown-Forman and headquartered in Louisville, will open yet another distillery on Main Street in June 2018. Several other new distilleries — Angel’s Envy, Michter’s and Rabbit Hole — are being planned for next year as well.

“The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, and Copper and Kings, which produces brandy, are rumored to be the most group friendly out of the downtown distilleries,” said Robertson. “They work well with the group market.”

Louisville is on the Kentucky-Indiana state line and has a population of about 625,000. It has transformed itself through civic and commercial improvements over the past few decades and is now emerging as an exciting mid-South U.S. city.

The Select Traveler Conference will take place in Louisville February 4-6. The official conference hotel will be the Galt House. Registration is ongoing.

Signature Experiences

Louisville, of course, is known for a lot more than spirits. It has quite a few other unique destinations.

“We have a lot of Louisville original attractions here,” said Robertson. “We have the Belle of Louisville, the oldest river steamboat in operation in the nation. We have the Muhammad Ali Center right downtown on Main Street. We also have the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory, and Churchill Downs, and the Kentucky Derby Museum. For a second-tier city, we have a lot of attractions that are known worldwide.”

The types of groups that Louisville frequently hosts are conventions and other large meetings, plus niche markets that include seniors, students and church organizations. The city is within a few hours’ drive of Cincinnati; Nashville, Tennessee; Indianapolis; and St. Louis, Missouri, which means people from those metropolitan areas like to come to Louisville for a change of pace.

“We attend the marketplaces at various travel trade shows where we do a lot of marketing,” Robertson said.

The city encourages group travel planners to schedule Louisville familiarization tours to educate themselves about the strengths of the city as a unique, fun destination. “Just about every time we do FAM tours, we are successful and get a lot of business out of them,” said Robertson. “People didn’t necessarily think of Louisville in a negative way. They just didn’t know what to think of us. It really opened their eyes to what we have to offer.”

Susan Dallas, senior marketing communications manager for the Louisville CVB, said her city’s hospitality is unmatched. “And we are very accessible, group friendly and affordable. There are many unique things you can see and experience here that you can’t get in other places.”

Louisville’s CVB is offering special packages for groups that want to try out the River City. For example, various tour combinations may include a visit to the famed Churchill Downs for live racing. Special group seating can be arranged on Millionaires Row or the Skye Terrace, both high above the track, along with a buffet lunch or dinner. While visiting the track, many groups also tour the popular Kentucky Derby Museum, which smartly chronicles the history of the most famous thoroughbred horse race in the world through a heart-pounding sight, sound and light show.

Another fun group activity involves one of those Louisville originals previously mentioned. Fans of baseball or not, visitors will enjoy touring the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory on Main Street. This is where the famed Louisville Slugger baseball bats are produced by Hillerich and Bradsby. This museum is hard to miss: A giant baseball bat, as tall as a building, leans up against the entrance to the facility.

From Baseball to Boxing

Louisville’s professional baseball team, the Louisville Bats, is the AAA-level affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds. The team plays its home games at Louisville Slugger Field; 70 or so home games are played during the spring and summer. The park offers groups special ticket prices and group meal options.

The CVB promotes various combinations of activities: Bourbon and Baseball is a tour where visitors can visit the bourbon distilleries and the Slugger museum, all in the same compact area of downtown Louisville. Another combo activity is Bats and Boats. This one involves the bat museum and a trip up the Ohio River on the charming paddleboat the Belle of Louisville or on the slightly smaller Spirit of Jefferson. Both launch right from the Louisville waterfront.

The Muhammad Ali Center is a museum and cultural center on Main Street downtown. Ali, a native of Louisville, was a world champion heavyweight boxer, but he also touched the lives of millions around the world through his six core principles: confidence, conviction, dedication, giving, respect and spirituality.

Also downtown is the Frazier History Museum. Louisville has a fascinating history, and it developed, in part, because of the location of the Falls of the Ohio River, which forced boats to unload cargo onto wagons for transport downriver past the falls to continue their journeys. As a result, Louisville became a busy and important river town. The Frazier Museum tells that story and hundreds more about the city and area. The museum stop could be paired with a visit to Louisville Stoneware. Opened around 1815, it is one of the oldest stoneware companies in the United States. Groups can tour the factory and shop in the store for beautiful dining and home accessories.

Flavors and Celebrations

Louisville likes to eat and is gaining a national reputation for its culinary scene. Southern Living magazine named Louisville “one of the Top 10 tastiest towns in the South.” Bon Appetit said Louisville was one of the “best foodie small towns in America,” though Louisville is hardly small. The city is known for a few originals, like the Hot Brown, created at the historic Brown Hotel; Derby Pie, a nutty, chocolaty treat that screams “Don’t count the calories;” and Benedictine, a sandwich spread that’s made with cream cheese and cucumbers. Some believe the classic cheeseburger was invented in Louisville.

Seasonal celebrations Louisville officials wants group travel planners to know about include fall and holiday activities. The CVB is now focusing on fall activities for groups in Louisville. One is fall racing at Churchill Downs. Another is the monthlong Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular in Iroquois Park, with 5,000 artistically carved pumpkins lining a quarter-mile walking trail, illuminated at night as an art show.

Cruises on the Belle of Louisville to see the fall foliage are popular. The CVB has sent out three-dimensional promotional mailer boxes to travel planners. Inside are the ingredients to make a s’more, a treat that is associated with cool autumn nights and campfires. It’s designed to encourage people to book trips to Louisville.

There is also an incentive for new groups to come to Louisville. It’s called 15 Rooms to Love. If a group has not been to the city before or in two or more years, stays one night and takes 15 guest rooms, it gets the option of a $500 shopping spree at the city’s visitors center or a check for $250. The group leader can share the incentive cash with other group members.

Louisville is always planning ways for visitors to enjoy the holidays in the city. Some fun and interesting activities for visitors are the new “Nutcracker the Exhibition” at the Frazier History Museum and Lights Under Louisville at Louisville Mega Cavern. Various Victorian mansions in historic neighborhoods will be decorated for the season, the Louisville Ballet will present “The Nutcracker,” and the Actors Theatre of Louisville will offer the always-touching and visually stunning “A Christmas Carol” onstage.