As pandemic wanes, what's bringing tourism back to Evansville and Henderson?

·5 min read

COVID restrictions are all but gone, and tourism officials in Evansville and Henderson say visitation is creeping back to pre-pandemic levels with sports and outdoor pursuits being major drivers.

Evansville’s hotel room occupancy rate is 56%, up 12% from this time in 2021. On weekend nights, the rate climbs to 64.5%.

The city's hotel revenues, about $23 million, are 37.4% above last year.

“We’re making really good gains,” said Alexis Berggren, CEO of Visit Evansville.

Berggren expects sports to account for about 47% of Evansville’s tourism for the year.

Deaconess Sports Park on the city's East Side is bringing dozens of youth travel baseball and softball teams to Evansville on many weekends, and this summer's addition of artificial infields is meant to reduce rained-out tournaments.

The USSSA Great Lakes World Series, a girls softball event, will bring 225-250 teams in July.

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Erika Monroe, front, from Ft. Wayne, Ind., cheers on her daughter's team as softball fans gather in the bleachers during the United States Specialty Sports Association (USSSA) Fastpitch Great Lakes Nationals softball tournament at Deaconess Sports Park Friday morning, July 17, 2020.
Erika Monroe, front, from Ft. Wayne, Ind., cheers on her daughter's team as softball fans gather in the bleachers during the United States Specialty Sports Association (USSSA) Fastpitch Great Lakes Nationals softball tournament at Deaconess Sports Park Friday morning, July 17, 2020.

Another July event, the USA Softball national championship for 14-and-under girls, is expected to bring about 80 teams, as well as college coaches over six days.

Goebel Soccer Complex, next to Deaconess Sports Park, also is hosting youth sports events.

Evansville’s tourism scene continues to benefit from the Ohio Valley Conference men’s and women’s basketball championship every March at Ford Center, although the departures of Murray State University and Belmont University from the OVC might soften that event’s financial impact in future years.

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Conventions 'starting to pick up'

Nonsports tourism has been on an uptick as COVID restrictions have passed, Berggren said.

Evansville this week is hosting the 71st Annual National Square Dance Convention, an event that's brought 2,000 guests into the city's hotels and restaurants.

The city recently has had several Downtown concerts, as well as a professional bull riding event and WWE's Monday Night Raw wrestling.

The Frog Follies classic car show, Aug. 26-28 at the Vanderburgh County 4-H Fairgrounds, sells hotel rooms regionwide.

In general, business travelers and conventions have been slower to return to the area than leisure travelers, Berggren said.

People practice square dancing during the 71st  National Square Dance Convention at the Old National Events Plaza in Downtown Evansville, Ind., Thursday, June 23, 2022.
People practice square dancing during the 71st National Square Dance Convention at the Old National Events Plaza in Downtown Evansville, Ind., Thursday, June 23, 2022.

The regional conference of Jehovah's Witnesses, which Evansville hosted for years at Ford Center and earlier at Roberts Stadium, has not come back since the pandemic.

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The Jehovah's Witnesses event brings several thousand guests over two mid-summer weekends. Berggren said dates are being held for the group in 2023.

One major event scheduled for 2023 is the Indiana Society of Association Executives, which hasn't met in Evansville since 2015.

"We are still seeing a pickup in conventions, but (more gains) are further out," Berggren said. "They are hitting higher-profile, attraction-centric destinations. But it's starting to pick up."

One of Evansville's major attractions, Mesker Park Zoo & Botanic Garden, is seeing a visitation boost thanks to the Kinney Family Penguins of Patagonia exhibit which opened last fall.

The city-owned zoo has surpassed 100,000 guests for the year, the earliest stage Mesker has reached that plateau in more than a decade, Director Erik Beck said.

He said in-zoo revenues from concessions, merchandise and carousel rides also are spiking, and Mesker has 9,000 household memberships after several years of hovering around 7,000.

Henderson 'a nice regional getaway'

Outdoor attractions and events are boosting tourism in Evansville as well as in Henderson.

The fact that so many of Henderson’s attractions are outside was a boon during the COVID period, said Abby Dixon, executive director of the Henderson Tourism Commission.

Thousands attended the just-completed W.C. Handy Blues and Barbecue festival, and Henderson’s presence on Ohio River cruise lines brings guests into downtown restaurants and shops, as well as Audubon State Park.

A train speeds by on the Henderson Bridge as the Queen of the Mississippi is dock on the Henderson Riverfront Wednesday, June 26, 2019.
A train speeds by on the Henderson Bridge as the Queen of the Mississippi is dock on the Henderson Riverfront Wednesday, June 26, 2019.

Tourism across Kentucky was down about 30% during the COVID period. But Henderson only lost 15% of its business.

"We didn't feel the impact of it as much as destinations that rely on convention traffic," Dixon said. "That has been on our side."

With much of the country suffering with astronomical fuel prices, Dixon said Henderson is positioned to lure travelers who would rather drive shorter distances to see something new, as opposed to better-known destinations which are longer drives.

She said Henderson is seeing more visitors from other parts of Kentucky who want to explore lesser-known corners of the Commonwealth.

"We are well-positioned to be a nice regional getaway," Dixon said.

The crowd listens to music at the W.C. Handy Blues and Barbecue Festival at Audubon Mill Park in Henderson, Ky., Wednesday evening, June 15, 2022.
The crowd listens to music at the W.C. Handy Blues and Barbecue Festival at Audubon Mill Park in Henderson, Ky., Wednesday evening, June 15, 2022.

Evansville airport traffic increasing

Like airports across the country, Evansville Regional Airport has lost substantial traffic and regular flights since COVID. EVV's daily connections with Chicago and Detroit are on what the airport hopes is temporary suspension.

U.S. Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-Evansville) and U.S. Sens. Mike Braun and Todd Young (both R-Indiana) recently wrote to Delta and American Airlines asking that those flights resume. During an appearance in Evansville last week, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb echoed that sentiment, saying such flights are important for economic development.

Some of EVV's traffic load is returning, however, as vacationing picks back up. The airport has seen a 24% increase this year compared to the same stage in 2021, said Leslie Fella, director of marketing and air service

Evansville has maintained its daily connections with Atlanta, Charlotte and Dallas, plus nondaily and seasonal service to Orlando and Destin, Florida.

This article originally appeared on Evansville Courier & Press: What's bringing travelers and tourists to Evansville, Henderson?