Since 2008,Milwaukee Food & City Tours has ridden a wave of momentum within the local tourism industry. With founder Theresa Nemetz at the helm, the company hit its stride amid the COVID-19 pandemic, growing into a multi-million-dollar family of brands. Her latest venture launched in spring with the return of Great Lakes cruises. Great Lakes Shore Excursions is behind the array of activities and tours available to cruise passengers during port calls in Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin. This season, Great Lakes Shore Excursions will service about 35,000 people across six cruise lines, including international giant Viking. BizTimes associate editor Maredithe Meyer recently spoke with Nemetz about scaling up and seizing opportunities.
What are your early takeaways from the launch of Great Lakes Shore Excursions?
“It’s been incredible, and it’s far exceeded our expectations, in terms of both opportunity as well as how much hard work it is to really be a pioneer in this area. What we’ve really found is that we’re not only servicing the Viking passengers, but we’re working with other cruise ships on the Great Lakes – there’s American Queen, the Pearl Mist, the Ponant – and we see how many people are signing up for the cruises, and we know that this is just going to lead to even more cruise ships coming on to the Great Lakes in the future.”
What’s been the biggest challenge to establish a presence in other port cities?
“To be able to scale to what we needed to do, not only did we need to grow in Milwaukee but we needed to grow in other port cities along the Great Lakes where ships were visiting. In many of these cities – they’re very small cities – the infrastructure has not existed to be able to serve those cruise ships. For example, there’s no tour guides in those communities, there are no individuals that work with cruise ships, and there’s not even transportation. Some of the towns that we’re visiting have 500 to 600 people that live there full time, and the cruise ship is coming in and virtually doubling their population in that day. So, in Milwaukee, we’ve had to hire about 75-100 part-time staff to help us on cruise days. That includes things like luggage handling, greeting people at airports, driving people, and then in the other port cities, we’ve hired collectively about 75-100 individuals as well.
“It’s been challenging to find the right locals to tap into their expertise and then to really be able to create experiences around them, but we are really creating a very premier product for the cruise ship passengers and creating once in a lifetime opportunities. For example, in Alpena, Michigan, we bring in a renown paleontologist who goes fossil hunting with people. … We go hiking in Duluth, Minnesota, with geologists. … It’s taken a lot of time, it’s taken a lot of talking to locals and community members and finding the right connections, but it’s been incredible to see it come together and see the passengers really loving it.”
What are Great Lakes cruise ship passengers looking to get out of their travel experience?
“Broadly, we are seeing expedition ships are in high demand. They’re selling out, and this is because the individuals have been well traveled, they’ve traveled the world, they’ve done cruises elsewhere and now they want to see the natural beauty of America.
“The thing we’re hearing from passengers time and time again is how stunning and beautiful the nature is that we are showing them. For example, we’re going sea kayaking in the Apostle Islands. We’re going birding at Schlitz Audubon Nature Center. These are things that people would otherwise not have an opportunity to do if they hadn’t gone on that cruise that’s taking them to these locations. We’re definitely seeing a really strong interest in nature-based and expert-led excursions.”
What are some other local gems you’ve shown off?
“Specific to Milwaukee, we’ve been doing the Urban Ecology Center, going hiking with their hiking experts. At Schlitz Audubon, we’ve actually been doing seaglassing as well as bird watching. We’ve been working with Milwaukee Kayak Company and going kayaking with naturalists on the Milwaukee River, so that’s been really fantastic as well. Other things are more sightseeing-based so, for example, we’re doing a churches and chocolates tour and showing off some amazing churches in Milwaukee. We’re doing a Milwaukee’s greatest hits tour, where we’re showing off the Harley-Davidson Museum, the Pabst Mansion, the North Point Lighthouse and the Milwaukee Art Museum. We have something for everyone in each of the cities that we’re creating these experiences for.”
How has the growth of your shore excursion business impacted the Milwaukee Food & City Tours brand?
“We’re seeing, as people come off the ship, they’re extending their stay. They’re coming into Milwaukee a couple days early before their cruise … and staying a couple more days after their cruise ends. And they’re exploring Milwaukee, and they’re not using just Milwaukee Food & City Tours. We’re making sure they know about all the other tour operators in town and all the other attractions that they can go to. … I think that’s the beauty of what we’ve been able to do with Great Lakes Shore Excursions. It’s not just about our tour company – we are using literally hundreds of other vendors and tour operators on the Great Lakes and being able to infuse income into their companies as well. … To be able to spend money locally in each of the communities was really important to me, and it’s been amazing to see that personal impact.
“As we’ve researched and looked at how to grow, we’ve had a chance to research all these other companies that service the cruise industry for shore excursions. We went to Alaska, for example, and we looked at a company that took 40 years to build what it has done for all the cruise lines (that visit). I have six months to do that and I’m in the middle of that six months. … It’s moving at such a fast pace because the growth is coming on to the market. By 2024, there’s going to be such increased demand for (Great Lakes) cruises.”
What’s ahead for you as local tourism continues to make a comeback?
“As we’re looking ahead, we’re looking at the impact of the 2024 Republican National Convention on capacities of not only Milwaukee, but also Chicago. Right now, I’m making all my reservations for 2024 for hotel room blocks and for buses because I need to make sure that all my clients and our cruise ships are able to still be able to come to Milwaukee and Chicago at that time when inventory is going to be really tight and expensive.
“As we continue to grow larger, I think larger opportunities continue to come our way and so we just continue to react to those opportunities and talk to people and look at how to be able to fill those needs. No opportunity that comes our way is too crazy.”