Milwaukee tourism industry hit hard by COVID, but poised for recovery

Milwaukee County saw second steepest decline in visitor spending in Wisconsin

Milwaukee Art Museum
Milwaukee Art Museum

Last updated on May 7th, 2021 at 11:22 am

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, direct visitor spending in Milwaukee County last year fell about 40% to $1.33 billion, according to VISIT Milwaukee, citing recent data from the Wisconsin Department of Tourism

In the greater Milwaukee area, which includes Milwaukee, Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington Counties, direct visitor spending totaled $2.08 billion, down 36.6% from 2019. 

As the largest tourism market in the state, greater Milwaukee had a lot to lose when the coronavirus and government restrictions kept people from traveling and hosting large events. 2019 was a record-breaking year for area tourism, generating $3.3 billion in direct visitor spending, and prior to the pandemic, and 2020 was expected to be even bigger with major events including the DNC and Ryder Cup.

Instead, state and local taxes generated from tourism in the greater Milwaukee area declined 30% and total business sales dropped 25.9%. Tourism business supported 39,653 jobs, which was down 25.52% from 2019.  

At the county level, last year’s revenue loss yielded a 28.42% decrease in hospitality jobs. Milwaukee County saw the second steepest decline in visitor spending in the state, behind Dane County, according to state tourism data. 

“The data serves as a painful reminder of all that was lost in 2020 for our local hospitality industry, but it should also be a powerful call to action,” said Peggy Williams-Smith, president and CEO of VISIT Milwaukee. “Our restaurants, museums, bars, hotels, and retailers still need your support, and they need it today.”

Williams-Smith encouraged locals to get the COVID-19 vaccine as a way to help the region bring back leisure and business travelers and events at “levels that look anything close to normal.”

VISIT Milwaukee expects activity to increase in the second half of this year, with the return of summer festivals and live performances.

And thanks to recent efforts, such as locally focused marketing campaigns, continuous work with local health experts and strategic sales initiatives, the region’s tourism industry is positioned for recovery.

Decreased travel and tourism last year hit the local hospitality industry hard, but the pandemic also spurred increased interest in supporting local businesses. VISIT Milwaukee ran several promotional campaigns to help keep hospitality businesses afloat.

In 2020, local spending infused $2.5 billion into Wisconsin’s economy that would have been spent elsewhere on a vacation. This includes nearly $821 million in restaurant spending and nearly $264 million on lodging, according to VISIT Milwaukee.  

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Maredithe Meyer covers restaurants, retail, tourism, and sports and entertainment. She joined BizTimes in 2015, previously as an intern reporter. She earned a degree in journalism from Marquette University in 2017. When she's not on the job, Maredithe coaches field hockey and loves exploring her favorite city on earth, Milwaukee.

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