1780 – The Official Blog of Transylvania University

1780 | The Official Blog of Transylvania University

Transylvania alumnus elected to leadership role in promoting Kentucky tourism industry

man sitting at an info table

After helping his Eastern Kentucky hometown grow as a destination for visitors over the past 12 years, Transylvania University graduate Brandon Pennington ’11 is expanding his focus to the state level.

As the new chairman-elect of the Kentucky Travel Industry Association, he will be working on advocacy, education and professional development while drawing from what he’s learned both as Harlan’s executive director of tourism and as a student at the state’s oldest college.

“I am preparing to help guide KTIA toward new heights, facilitating board meetings, providing leadership, ensuring effective governance and seeing Kentucky prosper in the tourism realm,” he said.

Since Pennington took over his role in Harlan, the economic impact of tourism there has more than doubled to $26 million annually.

Area attractions include the Black Mountain Off-Road Adventure Area, Black Mountain Thunder Zipline, Portal 31 Mine Tour, the state’s largest old-growth forest and a “vibrant downtown scene” with coffee shops, restaurants, murals and boutiques featuring mountain artisans.

“These attractions, festivals and events bring in thousands of visitors a year to eat, shop, play and stay in Harlan County,” Pennington added. “It’s this profound impact on Harlan that I wish to continue to amplify as the director of tourism. Tourism not only fuels economic growth but also fosters community pride and development, a testament to the power of giving back to the community that raised me, which is truly the biggest highlight of my career.”

Pennington also gave some advice to current Pioneers looking for something to do near Transylvania. “For students exploring Lexington and the surrounding region, I can’t recommend enough the wealth of experiences available,” he said. “From the quintessential horse farm tours and bourbon distilleries in Lexington to the incredible festivals and events that take place, there is something for everyone.”

Brandon Pennington ’11 on Knobby Rock — his favorite hike in Harlan County.

He encouraged Transylvania students to check out the VisitLex website and social media accounts for events and attractions.

Being from a small town himself, Pennington welcomed the opportunity to experience the city’s cultural offerings as a student. He even organized events of his own while in college — for instance, he and classmate Marci Cornett ’09 launched a Foreign Language Week, which celebrated diverse cultures and capped off with a discotheque. 

“I think all of my classes, the organizations I joined and all of the experiences I had at Transy began instilling in me the tool set I needed to succeed in the Kentucky tourism industry from marketing, event planning, research, leadership, critical thinking skills, communication, public relations and so many more,” he said.

Pennington, who majored in business administration (with a focus in marketing) and minored in French, also said his liberal arts education gave him a broad perspective that’s crucial to have in the industry. 

Additionally, he said his involvement in groups like the Student Activities Board and Delta Sigma Phi fraternity honed his leadership abilities and taught him the importance of collaboration — along with community.

He’s now helping bring the community of Harlan together, having spearheaded events such as Fourth Fest, which brings in 5,000 visitors, and the state’s only hot dog eating championship during Dog Days of Kentucky.

“I truly believe that my passion for creating community space for events and festivals began at Transy,” Pennington said.