Many breathed a sigh of relief when the Democratic National Convention Committee announced earlier this month that its 2020 convention will be postponed, not canceled, and that it’s still on track to take place in Milwaukee this summer.
Prior to that decision, questions had circulated for weeks as major events around the world were canceled or postponed due to the global coronavirus pandemic. DNC organizers initially reassured the country that the convention would take place as planned, until the party’s presidential primary front-runner, former vice president Joe Biden, publicly acknowledged a traditionally formatted convention could be in jeopardy.
Now, with the DNC pushed back about a month to the week of Aug. 17, organizers say they have extra time to figure out what the 2020 convention would look like and how to make it safe for both visitors and locals.
Party officials have vocally doubled down on their commitment to public safety and to Milwaukee as the host city. DNC Chair Tom Perez called the city an “incredible partner,” and reminded Democrats why he made the selection in the first place.
“We couldn’t be more committed to highlighting Wisconsin as a key battleground state, as it is at the center of so many of Trump’s broken promises,” he said.
But uncertainty continues to loom as the road to recovery from COVID-19 seems increasingly longer and more difficult.
Under Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers’ “Badger Bounce Back” plan outlining criteria for the state to begin a phased reopening, gatherings of more than 50 people aren’t permitted until the third and final phase, when all business activity can resume with minimal protective and preventative measures for the general public.
The order requires a 14-day decline in new COVID-19 cases before the state could resume normal operations. Moving from phase to phase of the reopening process depends on meeting a list of public health criteria, so it’s unclear whether the city will be able to host large events by the time August rolls around.
“I don’t know whether we’re going to have people who will want to travel in droves in August, no matter how good our weather is,” said Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett during a recent Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce briefing on the impact of COVID-19 on the city’s health and economy.
It’s a disappointing reality for a region that, for more than a year, has been banking on an estimated $200 million economic boost and 50,000 visitors coming to town this summer.
Still, Barrett remains optimistic about what hosting a major political convention will mean for the area as it moves toward recovery.
“My hope remains that we will have a very vibrant convention, that will be a shot in the arm for the restaurants and hotels here, and it will also be a signal to the nation on how a community emerges from this,” he said.
The pandemic, however, has also prompted cuts at the DNC’s local host committee.
On April 16, just two weeks after the DNC’s postponement announcement, the Milwaukee 2020 Host Committee disclosed that it had cut its staff by more than half, from 31 to 14. Six employees were laid off, while 11 employees were offered positions with the convention’s national organizing committee or as party organizers.
One of the host committee’s main responsibilities has been raising $70 million to fund the convention and its official events. Barrett said the layoffs likely reflect a lag in those fundraising efforts due to the economic crisis caused by social distancing efforts to fight COVID-19.
“Charitable giving is down,” he said. “Certainly, we’re seeing less money being spent in retail, places like that, and political giving is down, at least on the Democratic side.”
Whether the layoffs are an indicator that the convention itself is in jeopardy, Barrett said it’s too early to tell.
The host committee said in a statement that the “recalibration” will allow it to “remain steadfast in its commitment to continuing preparations for a safe and successful convention in Milwaukee this August.”
In a recent interview with BizTimes Milwaukee, the committee’s chief executive officer Raquel Filmanowicz didn’t indicate that fundraising was a problem. She said the committee hit the ground running after the new date was announced.
“We feel confident that the funds raised will be able to put on a convention that Milwaukee and, really, the American people deserve. So, we’re in good shape,” she said.
Filmanowicz, who is on a leave of absence from her executive role at BMO Harris Bank to lead the host committee, has faced her fair share of challenges since assuming the position in early March.
She and chief operating officer Paula Penebaker, former CEO of YWCA Southeast Wisconsin, took the reins of the host committee after its former president Liz Gilbert and former chief of staff Adam Alonso were ousted amid concerns over workplace culture and mismanagement.
Now in the midst of a public health crisis that threatens to upend an in-person convention, Filmanowicz is working to keep her remote team focused on the task at hand.
“For us, we’ve never pumped the brakes on what we’ve been working on, but now it’s like, we have a date, we have a target, so it’s full steam ahead and getting to that finish line,” she said. “We’re going to keep doing what we’ve been doing pretty much, but all with the goal that we’re going to have the best convention and Milwaukee will be showcased as the gem that we all know it is.”
The DNC’s date 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.
During the initial bid process last year, VISIT Milwaukee played a central role in securing the required 16,000 hotel rooms within 40 minutes of the city’s convention center district and Fiserv Forum.
Williams-Smith said area hotels are “feeling a sense of frustration” as they work to accommodate move reservations.
“We anticipated the possibility of postponement as a result of COVID-19,” said Greg Marcus, president and CEO of Milwaukee-based Marcus Corp. “We have been in communication with the Democratic National Convention to ensure we can best welcome the convention to Milwaukee this August while accommodating our valued guests when our hotels reopen.”
The company’s three downtown Milwaukee hotels – Hilton Milwaukee City Center, The Pfister and Saint Kate Arts Hotel – are all closed indefinitely in response to the coronavirus outbreak, but in the meantime, it’s doing all it can to prepare for the August convention, Marcus said. The Hilton Milwaukee City Center will still serve as the Democratic National Convention headquarters hotel during the convention.
Rodney Ferguson, CEO and general manager of Potawatomi Hotel & Casino, also voiced his support for the DNCC’s decision to push the convention back to August. Potawatomi had blocked all 400 of its rooms for the DNC weeks before Milwaukee was originally selected as host city last year.
“We will continue to work with DNC planners and commit the space we have available during the rescheduled convention dates,” Ferguson said. “This remains a rare and unique opportunity for the city and region, and Potawatomi Hotel & Casino plans on contributing to its success.”
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 Milwaukee-area hotels was nearly 80% in August 2019.
That probably won’t be the case this year, but August in Milwaukee could still hold potential.
As of press time, the following events are all scheduled to take place as planned: the Microscopy & Microanalysis 2020 Meeting from Aug. 2 to 6; USA Triathlon’s Age Group National Championships from Aug. 7 to 9; Northwestern Mutual’s Annual Meeting from Aug. 9 to 12; and Wisconsin State Fair from Aug. 6 to 16. However, Irish Fest, scheduled for Aug. 13-16, was recently canceled for 2020.
“(The DNC) is still a huge win for the city and it’s even more of a win if we can sell out all of our hotels so quickly after we come out of quarantine and ‘Safer at Home’ policies,” Williams-Smith said. ν