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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2014

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Milwaukee.
Paul Upchurch and Brent Foerster of VISIT Milwaukee.
Paul Upchurch and Brent Foerster of VISIT Milwaukee.

Talking tourism, conventions, hotels and more

As a follow up to last week's "Hotel Week" feature, I reached out to the leadership at Visit Milwaukee to get additional flavor on our city's tourism market, capacity and future. 

Brent Foerster, VP sales and marketing, and Paul Upchurch, president and CEO, took time to field my questions.

For record, I'm on the board of the Wisconsin Center District, owners and operators of the convention center in Downtown Milwaukee.

OnMilwaukee:  How can the "typical" Milwaukeean help recruit conventions to Milwaukee?

Paul Upchurch:  Many of us belong to or are affiliated with associations on a professional or personal level, for example an engineering association or a religious organization. These associations all hold meetings and conventions. Milwaukee is also home to hundreds of corporations that bring in people for conferences and seminars.

It is often through a local "champion" of an organization or corporation that we are able to bid on hosting these events.  And this "champion" doesn’t have to do the heavy lifting. VISIT Milwaukee has the resources to do a majority of the work – from bidding to assistance with hotels, planning, marketing, PR and volunteers to host a successful convention.

Holding conferences "in your own backyard" brings recognition to your industry or organization and can assist with future recruitment, marketing and sales, fund raising and more.  Local association chapters often report a significant increase in chapter membership after hosting their association’s regional or national convention.  Corporations hosting meetings in their own backyard can often get more of their staff involved in the meeting and/or reduce costs with reduced travel. 

Brent Foerster: Local "champions" realize that the city possesses not only outstanding, tangible meeting assets like a central location, a great airport, award-winning restaurants, multiple meeting facilities, quality hotels, museums, theaters and festivals, but also quality intangible assets like friendly people, value and just a fantastic fun factor.

All it takes is a call to VISIT Milwaukee and we’ll guide you through the process.

OMC:  In real dollars, help us understand what tourism means to Milwaukee.

PU:  Milwaukee tourism creates jobs and is a significant part of our local economy. Milwaukee County has the largest tourism economy of any county in the state. In 2012, total tourism spending, or what they call total business sales, was $2.9 billion. Total full-time tourism jobs in the county numbered 30,000 and resulted in $977 million in wages paid. We saw strong growth in hotel taxes in 2013, indicating that our local tourism economy is growing and creating jobs.  

OMC: In the convention game, who are we competing against?

BF: There are more than 200 convention centers in the U.S. all competing for meetings and events. It’s a very competitive industry. The economic impact is tremendous.  At a national level we compete most often with other Midwestern cities like St. Louis, Minneapolis, Columbus, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Indianapolis and Louisville.

On a state and regional level we compete with the Wisconsin Dells, Madison, Fox Cities, Green Bay and destinations in Illinois, Minnesota, Michigan and other nearby states.

OMC: And, what's Milwaukee's advantage?

PU: For conventions, meetings and events we know from research that we rank high when it comes to restaurants, value, entertainment options, quality hotels, arts and culture and an easy-to-enjoy destination. We offer a lot of great options at an affordable price, allowing organizations to invest more in their meetings.  For the leisure market, research shows our accessibility, value, entertainment options, lakefront, parks, River Walk and festivals are all strong attributes that attract travelers to the city.

OMC: Does greater Milwaukee need more hotels?

PU: Like many cities, Milwaukee has and will continue to experience hotel development when demand increases.  Recently Milwaukee has seen an increase in activity from developers that have determined they can make money by building in Milwaukee.  The next question is what is the correct number of hotel rooms needed to make the destination more attractive, but at the same time allow the industry to thrive?

BF: Earlier we mentioned the attributes that are strengths of Milwaukee.  Two areas where we fall short compared to our competitors are the size of our convention center and the availability of large hotels near the Wisconsin Center. 

Large conventions are looking for hotel rooms close to the meeting venues.  When asked, most meeting planners prefer their convention hotel rooms to be all in one facility, under one roof.  When that is not possible, meeting planners look for the least number of hotels as close as possible to the convention center.  For any groups that use 1,000 or more rooms on their peak night, we have to use multiple hotels putting Milwaukee at a significant disadvantage when compared to our competition.

PU: A large hotel built near the convention center would help bring additional conventions to Milwaukee. It would also need to compete successfully for business and leisure travelers. If Milwaukee’s hotel room night inventory continues to grow through multiple smaller hotels, it makes the city less attractive to a future large hotel developer.  

OMC: Your thoughts on a new entertainment/basketball arena and an addition to the Wisconsin Center?

PU: We’ve been told by industry experts that we are becoming less competitive in attracting conventions to Milwaukee because of new development in our competitive cities. In total exhibit space, Milwaukee ranks near the bottom of its competitive set. Mid to large meetings, our target market, need space to make their meetings financially successful.  The fees paid by each exhibitor are often the convention’s largest revenue stream.  Convention centers that cannot accommodate their exhibit needs are usually not considered.

We need to make a good decision on how to balance an increased investment in our convention facilities with the jobs and revenues that would be created. 

A new entertainment facility/arena would also help us attract additional events to Milwaukee. Cities with larger, newer arenas have secured events that we have been unsuccessful bidding on. We are becoming less competitive for the types of events we solicit that use an arena like the BMO Harris Bradley Center. 

OMC: Do you like the new Wisconsin tourism ad with Kareem and the "Airplane!" cast? 

BF:  Our goal is to attract as many travelers to Milwaukee as possible.  The work the Department of Tourism does to market Wisconsin regionally and nationally helps us in our effort. They have done a great job creating media interest with their commercials. Web traffic, page views, time on site, etc. are all up on the Travel Wisconsin site.

We’ve seen solid growth in referrals to our site as well.  A successful marketing campaign generates positive exposure/interest for a destination that results in the consumer spending their dollars in the destination.  So far it’s working, so, yes I like the campaign!

OMC: If you had a magic Milwaukee wand, what are your two wishes for greater Milwaukee?

PU: A comprehensive convention, hotel and entertainment product development plan with a strong potential ROI.  Secondly, a devoted commitment from the community to make the plan happen.

OMC: What's your favorite city to visit and why?

BF: Exeland, Wis., where our cabin is.  It is less about the town and more about the memories.  There is nothing better than a long weekend with your family away from the distractions of everyday life and the memories that are created as a result.  In America finding time to experience those days seems to be harder and harder to do.  For our family, Exeland is that little corner of the world we can make memories that last a lifetime.

PU: I love waterfront cities. It’s unusual for a big city to be on the water, and it’s one of the reasons I was attracted to Milwaukee. When not enjoying all that our waterfront city has to offer, I like to visit Southern California beach towns, also as my two kids live there.

OMC: Define success.  

BF: Accomplishing goals that make the people, organizations and community around you better and doing it with determination, dignity, ethics and pride.

PU: For our local tourism economy, success means growing spending that creates jobs and income for our community and improves the quality of life for all who live here.

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