In a year packed with high-profile national-level events, southeastern Wisconsin is headed for a tourism boom that has the potential to leave a lasting, cross-industry economic impact.
In July, 50,000 politicians, delegates, lobbyists, dignitaries and members of the national and international media will descend upon Milwaukee for the 2020 Democratic National Convention.
The four-day event is expected to make a $200 million economic impact on the region. Airbnb ranked Milwaukee as No. 1 on its list of top 20 trending travel destinations for the upcoming year, reporting a 729% year-over-year increase in Milwaukee bookings for 2020.
“The DNC is the gift that will keep giving before, during and after the actual convention,” said Peggy Williams-Smith, chief executive officer of Visit Milwaukee.
In September, the biennial Ryder Cup golf competition will bring players from Europe and the U.S. to Kohler Co.’s Whistling Straits golf course in Sheboygan County. Tournament officials are expecting the five-day event to generate $135 million in economic impact to the region and bring about 50,000 visitors to the course each day.
Other major events on tap this year include USA Triathlon’s Age Group National Championships and the 2020 American Cup international gymnastics meet, which will take place in August and March, respectively, in Milwaukee.
In addition, the Society of American Travel Writers selected Milwaukee to host its annual convention in October. It will bring 300 journalists, who will spend time in other areas of the state before and after the convention, generating media exposure for Milwaukee and Wisconsin.
Now that southeastern Wisconsin has succeeded in attracting some of the biggest and most notable sporting events and conventions, focus has shifted toward capitalizing on those opportunities.
“Our goal is to show that Wisconsin can do big things,” said Sara Meaney, Wisconsin Department of Tourism secretary designee. “We are capable of hosting major events, we are capable and we thrive and we excel at hosting high-profile events and everyday visitors to the state.”
The state’s tourism industry is enjoying an upward trend.
Total business sales from tourism in 2018 generated $21.6 billion in economic impact, which was an almost 5% increase over 2017. Visitor spending in 2018 also grew by 5%, which is the highest growth rate since 2014, according to Travel Wisconsin’s most recent economic impact report.
Milwaukee’s tourism market experienced similar year-over-year growth in 2018, with total business sales increasing by 5.2% to $3.7 billion.
Williams-Smith said the surge of local tourism in 2020 and 2021 will likely boost revenue and hiring for local businesses. It will also help the city attract more talent, she said.
“You want to be in a city that’s hot and we hope to provide, through tourism, a lens on a city that makes people not only want to visit and bring their business meetings and conventions here, but they want to move their business here and live here,” she said.
As the largest metro in the state, Milwaukee leads Wisconsin’s tourism economy, which is why the DNC is considered a win for the entire state if it plays its cards right, Meaney said.
Of the anticipated 50,000 convention-related visitors, only about 4,000 are delegates who will spend the majority of the four days participating in the convention. The rest are media, family members and other special guests who would have more time to experience and learn about the city and surrounding region, Meaney said.
“All of those people have a voice, and, frankly, all of that media attention gives voice to the stories of Wisconsin,” she said. “It’s about connecting opportunity with context and telling Wisconsin’s story while people are paying attention.”
An estimated 20,000 members of the national and international media will cover the convention, shining a spotlight on the region and Wisconsin as a swing state.
In January, about 500 members of the press visited Milwaukee for a DNC “walkthrough” to learn about the city and start planning convention coverage.
“We have an opportunity to make an impression on people that have never been here before or may not even know exactly where Milwaukee is located,” said Williams-Smith.
What’s more, the Ryder Cup is expected to reach 500 million households around the world with 27 hours of news coverage, adding to the state’s reputation as a top golf destination. Ten Wisconsin golf courses, including Whistling Straits and 2017 U.S. Open host Erin Hills, made Golf Digest’s 2019 list of “America’s 100 Greatest Public Courses.”
Meaney said the Ryder Cup, DNC and past events that Wisconsin has hosted, such as the Ironman Triathlon, Reebok CrossFit Games and the EAA AirVenture, are crucial to bringing visitors to the state for the first time. After each event, the goal becomes getting people to visit regularly or eventually become residents.
“Most people that come to the state, our research tells us, say, ‘Wow, I had no idea, I’m definitely coming back,’” she said. “The hardest thing is getting people here for the first time.”