Local tourism economy remains strong

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All this week, we’re celebrating National Tourism Week with the theme "Discovering Great American traditions." Certainly the Milwaukee area has more than its fair share of traditions from the State Fair and the Milwaukee Mile to Summerfest, the Brewers and Bucks and local companies such as Harley-Davidson and Usinger’s Famous Sausage.

We also use National Tourism Week as the time to hold the Visit Milwaukee annual luncheon meeting report on the "State of Tourism" in the Milwaukee area (on Wednesday).

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Let’s take a quick look at the numbers for 2007. Total traveler expenditures: $2.579 billion (includes four counties of Milwaukee, Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington). This is up slightly from the $2.578 billion recorded in 2006. Tourism employment increased from 64,020 jobs in 2006 to 64,854 in 2007. Tourism contributed $410 million in local and state taxes, down slightly from the previous year’s total of $415 million.

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The story behind the numbers is that traveler expenditures remained strong despite higher fuel prices and economic uncertainty. These challenges aren’t likely to go away anytime soon. Looking ahead, we have several reasons to be optimistic about the future prospects of this industry, among them:

  • Milwaukee remains a value destination. For cash-strapped consumers, Milwaukee when compared with other urban destinations offers travelers value in "core" expenditures such as lodging, food and entertainment.
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  • We’re not resting on our laurels. The community continues to evolve and invest in new tourism amenities. From recent additions such as Discovery World to coming attractions such as the Harley-Davidson Museum, the Potawatomi Bingo Casino expansion and the fun bronze Fonz project, Milwaukee will soon provide travelers with even more reasons to visit.
  • Continued promotion of our tourism assets, including sports, arts and culture, urban outdoors and culinary.
  • Collaborating with the Milwaukee 7, the Cultural Alliance of Greater Milwaukee and Film Wisconsin (both housed in the VISIT Milwaukee offices) and other organizations, we’re working to better leverage our region as a place to live, work, play and visit. And this includes developing strategies to promote our fresh water asset – Lake Michigan.

All of this is not without its challenges. When courting large convention groups we’re still challenged by image issues of the past when smokestacks dotted our skyline. We must continue to expose people to "new" Milwaukee and our warm brand of hospitality to secure more visitors, both convention and leisure travelers, into the city. The more the business community works together to brand the region the more successful we are going to be in changing the image of the Milwaukee region.


Lastly, it’s our 64,000-plus hospitality workforce that serves as our secret weapon. Our Certified Tourism Ambassador program, which we launched late last year, will count some 500 graduates by year-end. This army of trained tourism concierges has the tools and desire to exceed visitor expectations.

Tourism is economic development. It’s about convincing the traveling public that they will have a better time visiting Milwaukee and receive more value for their dollar versus other competitive urban destinations. It’s about growing the tourism economy and improving the quality of life for all of us who call this region home.

Doug Neilson is president and chief executive officer of Visit Milwaukee.

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