Interest grows in Milwaukee tourism

When the Wisconsin Department of Tourism released the numbers from its annual study on the economic impact of tourism in our state last May, the news was good – especially for Milwaukee County.

According to the 2011 Economic Impact of Expenditures by Travelers on Wisconsin study by Davidson-Peterson Associates, in 2010 Milwaukee County was the fastest growing tourism economy in the state of Wisconsin. Milwaukee County also accounted for more than 50 percent of the new jobs created in tourism in our state. 2011 was another very strong year for our local tourism economy, with continued growth in both business and leisure travel. And we expect the Wisconsin Department of Tourism numbers to reflect that when they are announced this spring.

Convention market

Overall, convention room nights consumed in 2011 through VISIT Milwaukee grew by 5.6 percent, or more than 10,000 over 2010, which in itself was a very strong year. In 2012 we predict business and leisure travel to remain strong. Our convention market is currently more robust in the first half of this year than our historical averages, but softer during late summer and fall.

One of the reasons why, is that for a destination like Milwaukee a couple of large events a year can make a significant difference in our overall convention numbers. Groups that fill the city, such as The American Legion National Convention (2010) or National Guard Association of the United States (2011) rotate their annual meetings, typically only returning to a city every ten years or so. It’s important for us to be in that rotation, but in the years when a group like this doesn’t convene in Milwaukee it affects our numbers.

We actually have more conventions in 2012 almost every month of the year, but they are smaller in size, which is happening across the country. Companies are still on tight budgets and as a result some larger national meetings have been replaced with more and smaller regional meetings. Virtual meetings, where attendees receive content remotely from their computer may also have an impact in keeping convention sizes smaller.

Among the trends working in our favor is a shorter booking window for conventions. We’ve gone from booking business three to five years out to booking groups that will hold their meeting 18 months or less from the day the contract is signed. We’re still getting inquiries from meeting planners on behalf of smaller groups considering Milwaukee for 2012 business, which hasn’t been typical in the past. We’re confident when year ends we will have filled some of those late summer and fall dates, which are normally some of our busiest booking times.

What is VISIT Milwaukee doing to remain competitive in an era of smaller meetings and short-term booking? We increased our sales staff last year and our sales department is attending more trade shows and hosting more events that get meeting planners here to see for themselves why Milwaukee is the perfect choice for their next meeting. In 2011 we almost doubled the amount of familiarization trips, or “fams” bringing meeting planners to Milwaukee for site visits, hosting nearly 100 planners in all.

And we’re working harder than ever to build significant relationships, such as the ones that helped us land the 2013 Connect convention, which will bring 400 meeting planners to Milwaukee. We’re excited for this opportunity because research shows that meeting planners who have never been here aren’t likely to consider Milwaukee, but for those who have visited, we more often than not move to the top of their list. A destination like Milwaukee will sell itself if we can get them here to see it, and we work closely with our hotel and airline partners and the Wisconsin Center District in these all-important efforts to showcase Milwaukee.

Our Advisory Council, made up of influential meeting planners from across the nation, continues to assist us in assessing our marketing impact, developing our brand messaging and in staying on top of industry trends. We’ve increased our advertising presence in targeted publications and taken advantage of many value added opportunities as a result. These include banner ads, interviews in articles, and advertorial. These marketing efforts are being supported by an increased public relations push. Last year saw positive Milwaukee stories in several important trade publications including Convene, PCMA, Meetings Focus and USAE.

Another key strategy is to work with locals to bring meetings here. Often, when people have multiple destinations to consider, local support can make a huge difference. Our locals who are board members of or active participants in an organization are often the deciding factor in whether a group makes a site visit to Milwaukee. As previously mentioned, “seeing is believing” and this is a key step in getting Milwaukee on the short list. Often those decision makers won’t come without a local invitation.

Leisure market

While we predict leisure travel will remain strong in 2012, we continue to actively battle Milwaukee’s lack of image in the leisure market. VISIT Milwaukee is the only local organization with a core mission of marketing Milwaukee to travelers outside our area. In 2011, the Milwaukee Image Task Force, a committee made up of key local influencers from government, corporations and non-profit agencies, determined VISIT Milwaukee to be the organization with the resources to effectively establish a Milwaukee brand and generate brand awareness outside the market. The ultimate goal? To increase awareness of Milwaukee and create positive economic impact as a result.

VISIT Milwaukee tells the BIG story in a compelling way. By packaging the unique attributes that appeal to visitors our public relations efforts have a greater reach than those of individual organizations. In 2011, we increased our PR efforts and were responsible for placing 218 Milwaukee articles in leisure and trade outlets, building brand awareness. Those included the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, New York Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, UK Guardian, Saveur Magazine, Midwest Living, the Huffington Post and

2011 saw the second year of a comprehensive advertising campaign aimed at the Chicago and Northern Illinois markets. Intercept studies showed us that if we can get these travelers to come to Milwaukee once, they return an average of three more times within a calendar year. Because people are making vacation plans with shorter lead times and taking more vacations closer to home, we need to make sure our message is in front of them more frequently. We’re tapping into strong regional awareness and capitalizing on it. It’s working because our partners are report they are seeing an increase in Illinois visitors.

Our web site is a critical component of our leisure marketing efforts. In 2010 we had an increase of over 14 percent in web traffic – and we expect that trend to continue. More people are going online to research vacation destinations, and we continue to enhance our web site to contain the type of information travelers want in an easy-to-navigate format. We’re also actively growing our social media presence to reach out to new markets and looking for creative ways to connect. In 2012, we’ll be rolling out our first mobile app for leisure visitors.

While the competition is fierce, VISIT Milwaukee is looking forward to building on the momentum of last year’s successes. With creativity, strategy, focus and vision, we’re confident we’ll end 2012 with a positive story to tell.

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