by Kerstan Szczepanski
The Brand. Cleo Battle will come back to that phrase often in conversation about the convention scene in Louisville. Making the Brand, solidify the Brand, market the Brand. In 35 years he has come to appreciate the power the Brand can have in making a city’s tourism scene grow.
Battle’s journey to CEO of the Louisville Tourism Board started in Denver, where he graduated with a hotel and restaurant degree. Moving from there to Phoenix then to Newport Beach, to Upstate NY, then Virginia, he gathered decades of experience in the hospitality and tourism industries before landing in Louisville, Kentucky, as an Executive VP in 2013.
Louisville was looking to expand its horizons within the tourism industry. While home to The Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory, the Muhammad Ali Center, and the historic Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, the city was looking to expand from leisure markets to the convention/meeting markets. But how to do that? You build a brand.
One other industry was part of Louisville’s history: the bourbon industry. So Louisville made a decision to shift its brand to alcohol. Not as a party town notorious for excess, but as refined experience in culture. Ten years ago, Louisville had no micro-distillery visitor experiences showcasing the Kentucky bourbon culture, now it has 10 and the Bourbon Walk is a part of visiting the city. “Locals were, ‘You’re going to shift our brand to alcohol?’“ Battle says. But with the success of the micro-distilleries, locals have come around to appreciating the brand as conveying “… the experience of bourbon … the history, the craftsmanship, the culture.” Further, the bourbon experience is a year-round experience, unlike the internationally renowned Kentucky Derby, which Battle calls “the most exciting two minutes in sports.”
Coupled with the shift in brand, Louisville started significant hotel expansion, including the new Omni Louisville with more than 600 rooms and just a block from the Kentucky International Convention Center, which also has undergone a recent renovation. “With the growth in occupancy over the years, we were able to have a larger presence in many of the industry shows. We’ve been able to extend our brand … after solidifying what our brand would be.” Battle says. “We got our name out there and established ourselves … if I have a salesperson in Atlanta or Chicago or DC, I want them to have ‘warm calls’ not cold calls. And what I mean by that is when you knock on the door, and they open it and say, ‘Oh Louisville! Come on in, we were just talking about you!’“
Succeeding Karen Williams as CEO and president in 2021, Battle has seen the tourism board through the end of the pandemic and return of business. “The Derby was four percent up (last) May,” Battle comments. “We’re seeing the return of occupancy with conventions.” And these conventions will include some big ones.
IAEE’s Expo!Expo! 2022 took place in December and EXHIBITORLive! 2023 will take place in Louisville in April, moving away from its traditional Las Vegas location. In October, Louisville will host Equip Exposition 2023. “We feel great about our recovery [post-COVID],” Battle says. “We are blessed in this community with these assets,” meaning the bourbon culture, Churchill Downs, the Ali Center and the Louisville Slugger Factory. “People are starting to see Louisville as a visitor city, a tourism city.”
And Battle sees a beneficial cycle in that. “I truly believe a good place to live is a good place to visit, and tourism contributes to making Louisville a better place to live.”