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Milwaukee doesn't have the rooms to accommodate a large convention, but could it?

Is there room for more hotel rooms in Milwaukee?

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For decades, the people who are responsible for booking conventions in Milwaukee have cited the number of hotel rooms available as the primary obstacle to booking larger conventions in Milwaukee.

And after a conversation with Paul Upchurch, the president and CEO of Visit Milwaukee, it's clear that the number of rooms is still an issue.

"We have two convention hotels that are connected to the convention center," Upchurch said. "The Hilton has 729 rooms and the Hyatt has 489."

That comes to a total of just over 1,200 rooms. It's important to understand that not all of these rooms are available for conventions, though. Some of them are reserved for regular leisure and business travelers. Typically, a hotel will allocate 70-75 percent of their rooms to convention business.

"We peak at about 1,000 rooms for conventions," Upchurch said. "It would be ideal if we could get to 2,000, and we could be less stressed on what we already have and allow us to go after larger groups."

"We've had a lot of additions to the hotel landscape in recent years but they are not really considered convention hotels," Upchurch said. "Most conventions want better proximity to the convention site."

Upchurch agrees that the ideal place for another hotel is the lot on 4th and Wisconsin. Mayor Tom Barrett even mentioned that valuable piece of vacant land in his State of the City address last week. What was noticeably absent from Barrett's desires for that spot, however, is any mention of a convention hotel with 700 or 800 rooms.

"The West Wisconsin Avenue Development Corporation will be conducting an exciting design competition for the lot at 4th and Wisconsin," he said. "What we want to see is a proposal that creates a major destination and includes public spaces, small businesses and public art."

The problem is that the powerful and influential Marcus Corporation, owners of the Hilton Hotel across the street from the site, have been doggedly opposed to a hotel on that site.

Upchurch says he understands the opposition.

"If you ran a restaurant and another restaurant was opening right across the street, you'd oppose that, too," he said.

People who favor a hotel on that site are from the rising tide lifts all boats school. If we had more hotel rooms, we could book bigger conventions, which would help all the hotels.

Hotel rooms, of course, are not the only issue when it comes to booking conventions. The convention site itself, as well as the size and amenities of the meeting rooms, is also a major issue and there is a study underway to decide what direction to go. The study is being financed by both Visit Milwaukee and the Wisconsin Center District Board.

"We've hired HVS Consulting and they are the leading consultants in the world on these issues," Upchurch said. "We expect their report in about a month and expect that they will address issues like hotel rooms and the possible expansion of the convention center."

So, a month from now, we may well have a report suggesting another hotel and expansion of the convention center, which may well be in direct opposition to what the mayor is talking about.


TheyThink | March 3, 2014 at 1:29 p.m. (report)

Might be worth mentioning, for full disclosure, that Paul Upchurch previously worked for the Marcus Corporation.

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