Paul Upchurch has sat at the helm of local convention and visitors bureau VISIT Milwaukee for almost a decade. At the end of the year, he will resign, leaving big shoes to fill for the next president and chief executive officer. During Upchurch’s tenure, tourism spending in the Milwaukee area doubled from $1.6 billion in 2011 to $3.2 billion in 2018, and earlier this year, he celebrated one of VISIT Milwaukee’s greatest accomplishments: helping secure a bid to host the Democratic National Convention in July 2020.
In a recent interview with BizTimes Milwaukee reporter Maredithe Meyer, Upchurch reflected on his tenure.
“If we looked at our own city as if it had been a city we had never visited before, and talked about it that way, perceptions would change; fewer people would think about leaving and more people would want to come here. I think sometimes we don’t help our own cause because we can be very quiet about our city, we don’t brag about our city and we are very reserved about telling its story. It’s time to have a little swagger. When one of the most important political conventions in the country picks your city because they think it’s pretty cool, that should change our perceptions.”
Convention center push
“When I got here (in 2010), we used to approach conventions and say, ‘We’d love to have you come to Milwaukee,’ and they’d say, ‘Well, tell me about Milwaukee.’ Now they say, ‘Wow, we’ve heard great things about Milwaukee.’ So I think perceptually, people are excited about Milwaukee and want to come to Milwaukee. Obviously, things like the DNC really help that, but the one obstacle is we have more demand than we have capacity because of the size of our (convention) center… We’ve seen a tremendous growth in the number of hotels, we just haven’t had the corresponding growth in the space we need to host conventions to fill those hotels, so that has to continue to be a priority if we’re going to see the city change.”
Tourism as a solution
“One of the things we’ve tried to do in tourism is make this a tourism city that benefits all neighborhoods. That’s still a struggle and I’d like to see more of that happen in the future, but I’ve seen a city that is trying very hard to be inclusive… Tourism is a huge job creator, provides a lot of opportunities. There are so many jobs available any day in tourism that are unfilled. It’s a great opportunity to help solve some of those problems and it brings so much money into the community. It’s an important part of the solution, and we just have to realize that and continue to make sure we can grow it.”