Peter Patsuno, shown at the podium, is president and CEO of the American Bus Association. | Photo by Caitlin Bowling
Peter Patsuno, shown at the podium, is president and CEO of the American Bus Association. | Photo by Caitlin Bowling

Standing on a riser in the soon-to-be-closed Kentucky International Convention Center, American Bus Association president and CEO Peter Pantuso spoke about why his organization is returning to Louisville in 2019.

“We had an amazing convention here in January,” he said. “We’ve been doing this convention in excess of 40 years. This was the highest-rated convention that we’ve ever had from our attendees’ perspective, and it was the best-attended convention that we’ve ever had, so it was a home run.”

Pantuso noted the hard work of staff at the Greater Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau and at the convention center, the variety of attractions Louisville has to offer, and the quality of the hotels.

“(The attendees) thought Louisville was the friendliest place they’d been to,” he said.

When the American Bus Association returns in 2019, it will bring with it thousands of people, both those involved in the motorcoach and tour industry and those who want their business. This year, the convention drew an estimated 3,500 people and had an economic impact of more than $4 million, according to CVB numbers.

In between now and the association’s 2019 convention, the convention center will undergo $207 million in renovations, including adding a 40,000-square-foot ballroom and increasing the amount of exhibition space by 54,000 square feet to 200,125 square feet. The new design also features a lot more glass, offering views of downtown.

“Think of Louisville 2019 as a brand new destination,” said Anthony Leachman, CFO and interim CEO of the Kentucky State Fair Board, which owns and oversees the convention center. Leachman also noted that multiple new hotels and attractions are expected to come online before the association’s next Louisville convention.

The convention center is set to close next week on Aug. 17, and most of the work will be completed by June 30, 2018. During the renovations, a couple blocks around the convention center will be either completely or partially closed, impacting traffic. Leachman declined to talk about the specific closures until next week’s news conference when he will correct some “inaccurate” information.

Meanwhile, CVB officials have continued to state that the closure will not substantially or negatively impact businesses whose bottom lines rely on conventions and other large events.

“Over the next days, weeks and months, I think you’ll be hearing several great announcements from us,” said Karen Williams, executive director of the Greater Louisville CVB.

Williams told Business First a few weeks ago that the city will see an estimated $130 million economic impact from conventions, trade shows and other events scheduled during the two years that the convention center is closed. She touted the number to show that Louisville and downtown businesses won’t be harmed by the closure of the center, which brings thousands of visitors downtown each year.

Since that story ran, the estimated economic impact of scheduled events during those two years has risen, Williams said. When asked what the new number is, she said she didn’t know off the top of her head. IL has reached out to the CVB for those numbers.

“From the number of conventions and also to the number of attendees as well as the economic impact — all of those numbers went up some,” Williams said.

When the CVB found out about plans to shut down and renovate the convention center, officials said staff got to work reaching out to event organizers who had already committed to hosting conventions and trade shows at the center during those two years and tried to find different venues for their events. CVB staff also has been working to attract numerous small-business meetings that can help cover the loss of a larger convention or trade show.

“We’ve been working for a long time on trying to mitigate whatever loss we are going to have,” said Cleo Battle, the CVB’s executive vice president. “There is more of a focal point on bringing business that can use hotel space or other spaces in the community.”

From August 2016 to August 2018, the CVB so far has booked 361,050 room nights. The bureau has reached 84 percent of its room nights goal for fiscal year 2017 (July 2016 through June 2017), which Battle said is the year that will be most impacted by the closure.

“We will close some of that gap,” Battle said. “We’ve still got some time to book some business into that year.”

The CVB has nearly met its goal for room nights in fiscal year 2018, with 92 percent of expected room nights booked. The organization did not change its room night goals after finding out about the convention center closure, Battle said.

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Caitlin Bowling
Louisville native Caitlin Bowling has covered the local restaurant and retail scene since 2014. After graduating from the Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, Caitlin got her start at a newspaper in the mountains of North Carolina where she won multiple state awards for her reporting. Since returning to Louisville, she’s written for Business First and Insider Louisville, winning awards for health and business reporting and becoming a go-to source for business news. In addition to restaurants and retail business, Caitlin covers real estate, economic development and tourism. Email Caitlin at [email protected]