By MATT KOESTERS
From Elizabeth in Indiana to Elizabethtown in Kentucky and all parts in between, hotels across the region are going to have one thing in common: no vacancy.
That might be bad news for travelers, but it’s great news for Louisville, which is hosting the National FFA Convention and Expo, Wednesday through Saturday at the Kentucky Exposition Center. And what’s great for Louisville is great for Southern Indiana.
The National FFA Convention — formerly Future Farmers of America — is back in Louisville after a seven-year hiatus that saw the event moved to Indianapolis. Thanks to a new deal, Louisville will be hosting nine of the next 16 conventions, said Jim Epperson, executive director of the Clark-Floyd Convention and Tourism Bureau.
“That [convention] is so big,” Epperson said. “It’s not the only one that happens in Louisville that does this, but it is so big that it requires the hotel rooms from a much larger region than just what Louisville can provide. I think it’s 16,000 rooms to hold everybody, and right now, some of the groups are housed as far away as Seymour, French Lick, out to Lexington, Bowling Green, Elizabethtown, those areas. It is definitely the biggest of any of those large conventions.”
How large? Estimates put the attendance at this year’s event at north of 56,000. That’s a lot of young people in blue vests. Out of necessity, the business bleeds into Indiana, where the convention’s attendees are more than welcome.
“This one has big support through transportation and other services through the Louisville [convention and visitors bureau], so it’s a little bit larger magnitude than some of the other ones that we’ve seen,” said Patrick Gregory, general manager of the Sheraton Louisville Riverside, Jeffersonville. “But any time that the city of Louisville books a citywide [convention], it is very good for Southern Indiana.”
And very, very good for the Sheraton and other area hotels. According to a desk clerk at the Sheraton, the hotel was sold out Wednesday and Thursday, with room prices approaching $400 per night. Most of that came from the FFA convention. If the lines are long at area restaurants, don’t be surprised, said Uric Dufrene, executive vice chancellor of academic affairs at Indiana University Southeast.
“The large influx of the students likely means that hotels will be at full capacity and that restaurants will be very busy,” Dufrene said. “The size of this convention means that there will be benefits for Southern Indiana. There are also benefits to retail, and so the size of this convention and the discretionary dollars conventioneers bring to the region could provide an early shopping season for some specialty retailers. Retail benefits will not be as strong as leisure and hospitality, however.”
Don’t tell that to Jill Schimpff. The co-owner of Schimpff’s Confectionery in Jeffersonville is pulling some extra hours this week to make sure that the 1,400 extra kids the store is performing demonstrations for this week each have a memorable experience.
“On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, we’re seeing nine demos a day, starting early,” Schimpff said. “We open at 9, early for them, and in two cases, closing later.”
Part of the credit for the busy week goes to the area tourism bureaus in Louisville and Southern Indiana, Schimpff said. Convention attendees viewing the National FFA website will see Schimpff’s as one of several area tourism destinations. Joe Huber’s Family Restaurant also gets a mention on the site. But some of the business coming through is from people who remember Southern Indiana from way back when the FFA Convention was here nearly a decade ago, Schimpff said.
“Many of these people not only remember us from seven years ago, but in the ensuing seven years, they have come by here on their way to Indianapolis,” Schimpff said. “We had one lady come in today who said that this was her 18th time here, and she brings her kids every time. We’ve had a lot of fun with it.”
Business like that will keep coming back in the future for similar reasons stemming from this year’s convention, Epperson said.
“You always get some leisure return visits because of your conventions,” Epperson said.
And if business owners in Southern Indiana are enjoying the economic boom that comes with the FFA convention this year, wait until next year. Not only will the FFA be back in town, but the Centennial Festival of Riverboats will also be in October 2014, which could mean huge money for the region.
Epperson’s not sure what the economic impact on Southern Indiana will be from this year’s FFA convention, but the region is expected to see a $40 million impact. That could snowball in years to come.
“Long-term, the size of this convention helps the region in building its brand as a convention city capable of handling large conventions such as the FFA,” Dufrene said. “As a city can demonstrate that it can effectively handle large conventions, others might be attracted.”