DNC’s date change creates logistical challenge

DNC 2020 will be held at Fiserv Forum.
DNC 2020 will be held at Fiserv Forum.

Last updated on April 28th, 2020 at 02:54 pm

Many in Milwaukee breathed a sigh of relief on Thursday when the DNC announced its 2020 convention will still take place here this summer, but organizers and local entities are now faced with the logistics of rescheduling a major event as the ongoing COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic and subsequent economic crisis persists. 

The 2020 DNC was pushed back about a month to the week August 17, which organizers say provides more time to restructure the convention around public health needs.

The shift gives area hotels, restaurants and event venues only about four months to rebook reservations that, for some, have been set for more than a year.

“This has definitely kicked us into high gear to try to make sure that we can secure the hotel rooms needed,” said Peggy Williams-Smith, president and chief executive officer of VISIT Milwaukee, adding that area hotels are currently feeling a sense of frustration.

In a press release announcing the date change, the Democratic National Convention Committee said it had previously confirmed that Fiserv Forum, the Wisconsin Center and area hotel accommodations were available in August.

Meanwhile, the city’s event calendar was expected to be busier than usual for the month of August, with the Microscopy & Microanalysis 2020 Meeting, Aug. 2 to 6; USA Triathlon’s Age Group National Championships, Aug. 7 to 9; and Northwestern Mutual’s Annual Meeting, Aug. 9 to 12. Not to mention the month’s annual events like Wisconsin State Fair, Aug. 6 to 16, and Irish Fest, Aug. 13 to 16.

As of April 3, those events are all scheduled to take place as planned.

Northwestern Mutual had moved its annual July meeting to August this year in order to accommodate the DNC’s original dates.

“Initial conversations with Fiserv Forum indicate we will not need to reschedule our Annual Meeting as a result of the Democratic National Convention moving to August,” the company said in an email statement. “Our meeting remains set for Aug. 9 to 12, and we continue to monitor evolving information from the CDC, local and national leaders, and others to make sure we can confidently hold our meeting while keeping our workforce, advisors and the community safe.”

Williams-Smith said there were no citywide conventions planned for the week of August 17 — VISIT Milwaukee had also been eyeing the week as it works to reschedule 44 large events that have been postponed as of March 27 due to COVID-19.

But that doesn’t mean hotels aren’t booked with groups or smaller events aren’t taking throughout the area.

Greg Hanis, president of New Berlin-based Hospitality Marketers International Inc., said accommodating for the new DNC dates will be a “logistical nightmare” for hotels, restaurants and other venues involved with the convention.

August is among the busiest months of the year for area hotels. According to data from Hendersonville, Tennessee-based STR Inc., the occupancy rate for downtown Milwaukee-area hotels was nearly 80% in August 2019. For comparison, occupancy rates for June and July, the busiest months of the year, were 83.7% and 83.4%, respectively.

This doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room for the added demand DNC attendees are suddenly bringing, said Hanis.

Colin Walsh, general manager of the Hyatt Regency hotel in downtown Milwaukee and president of the Greater Milwaukee Hotel & Lodging Association, said the group understands and appreciates the DNCC’s decision

“The hotel and lodging community in the greater Milwaukee area is already looking into how we can help to make this important event happen as advised, and we look forward to proudly demonstrating Milwaukee’s ability to host a world class event,” he said.

But, the logistics side of the rescheduled convention is going to be “a puzzle” for hotel operators, he said. Walsh said hotels will have to figure out what existing business can coexist with the DNC, and what if any business can be rescheduled to different dates.

“We’ve got to work with current business relationships and transient reservations that were on the books to try to work out the ability to accommodate it (DNC),” he said.

Rodney Ferguson, CEO and general manager of Potawatomi Hotel & Casino, also voiced his support for the DNCC’s decision. 

“We will continue to work with DNC planners and commit the space we have available during the rescheduled convention dates,” said Ferguson. “This remains a rare and unique opportunity for the city and region, and Potawatomi Hotel & Casino plans on contributing to its success.”

In order to meet the DNC’s host city selection requirements last year, the local bid committee secured 16,000 hotel rooms within 40 minutes of the city’s convention center district and Fiserv Forum.

Now, with the convention’s crowd size in question, the number of hotel rooms that will fill during the event is also uncertain, but Williams-Smith said the DNC is still a huge win for the city and region.

“It’s even more of a win if we can sell out our hotels so quickly after we come out of quarantine and ‘safer-at-home’ polices,” she said.

BizTimes Milwaukee real estate reporter Alex Zank contributed to this story. 

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Maredithe Meyer
Maredithe Meyer started as an intern reporter at BizTimes in summer 2015. She currently covers entertainment, sports, tourism and restaurants. In May 2017, she graduated with a journalism degree from Marquette University where she worked as an in-depth projects reporter for the Marquette Wire and Marquette Tribune.