Seventeen percent of the 23 million people who visited Milwaukee last year came to the city for business-related reasons – that is almost 4 million people who visited strictly for corporate conferences, conventions or meetings, according to Visit Milwaukee.
As seven of Wisconsin’s nine Fortune 500 firms are located in or near Milwaukee, companies often want to showcase the state’s largest city.
“Milwaukee is a very unique experience,” said Kristin Settle, director of communications for Visit Milwaukee. “There is so much to do here and people often overlook this city but when people visit, they are so happy they came.”
Settle and the Visit Milwaukee team work closely with local companies like Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. and Harley-Davidson Inc. to host conferences and show off Milwaukee to employees or clients from around the globe.
“It is our job to make and promote the greater Milwaukee area as a top choice for conventions,” she said. “The broader goal is to increase the economic impact of tourism.”
But what differentiates Milwaukee from another convention city and makes it a so-called top choice for business tourism?
“To many people who travel a lot for business, Milwaukee might become just another U.S. city if you don’t get out and see it,” said Kay Collins, owner and main tour guide of KBC Tour Co. “If you’re staying at the Hilton and never make the effort to leave that area, Milwaukee might look like other cities to you.”
For 10 years, Collins has been the local expert for visitors who take her customizable tours. She has worked with a range of groups – from military reunions to weekend tourists – but corporate groups make up a large part of her business.
Companies hosting corporate events in Milwaukee often work with Collins to arrange tours that include local restaurants, Milwaukee Brewers games, museum visits and brewery tours.
Collins regularly gives tours to the Medical College of Wisconsin’s prospective physicians who are visiting Milwaukee during the interview process. Her three-hour tour focuses on the city and its history and culture.
“Often, candidates have told us that the tour with Kay was their favorite part of their visit, as they didn’t know Milwaukee had so much to offer,” said Jim Blair, MCW’s physician recruitment coordinator.
When showcasing Milwaukee, some of Collins’ top focuses include the city’s beer history, the East Side’s art and architecture, the Harley-Davidson Museum, the Milwaukee Art Museum and Miller Park. Her “Saints and Sinners” tour focuses strictly on Milwaukee’s churches and beer.
The summer and fall are her busiest seasons, with three to four tours per week, but Collins makes sure she includes Milwaukee’s lakefront.
“People don’t have very high expectations and we overwhelm them because they didn’t realize how beautiful the city is,” she said.
But not every out-of-town professional has time in between meetings for an official tour. Anna Lardinois, owner of Gothic Milwaukee walking tours, shows visitors the city in a different way.
Lardinois is known for her guided ghost tours of Milwaukee’s famous landmarks. She uses original source material from the Milwaukee County Historical Society to tell legends and folktales from Milwaukee’s history as part of her tour. A year ago, she took her six-year-old tour company a step further by producing and selling a collection of self-guided walking tours called Walking Milwaukee.
The 10 tour cards in each collection – a downtown and a Wauwatosa edition – include an illustrated map on one side and descriptions of featured landmarks on the other. Eight bonus tour cards in both collections provide in-depth history and information about the most iconic sights.
“There’s something about slowing down and walking through a city,” Lardinois said. “On a walking tour, the world slows down and you can see and learn a lot more.”
She said these tours are a great option for business-related travelers who have limited time but want to explore on foot after a long day of meetings.
Walking Milwaukee’s Downtown Edition includes tour routes of the riverwalk, lakefront, Water Street, Lake Park and – Lardinois’ personal favorite – The Churches of Yankee Hill.
The card collections are sold at local retailers including Whole Foods, West Elm and the Milwaukee Art Museum’s gift shop. Lardinois also narrates an audio version of “The Grand Walk” tour of Wisconsin Avenue that is available on the VoiceMap app.
She sells the cards to various local hotels to provide to out-of-town guests. Lardinois has also worked with Mandel Group to provide her collections for amenity spaces and various tenants in a downtown property.
Ironically, 80 percent of Lardinois’ touring business comes from the local community. She thinks everyone in Milwaukee should use the card collections to explore – not just visitors.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a tour where people – visitors and locals alike – did not say they learned a lot about the city,” she said.