Since launching a local tour company in 2008, Theresa Nemetz has been in the business of showing off the best of Milwaukee.
Milwaukee Food & City Tours started as a side hustle for Nemetz, whose local roots date back to the early 1900s when her great-grandparents immigrated to Milwaukee from Santa Flavia, Sicily. Eventually, the business grew into a full-time gig as it rode the wave of momentum within the local tourism industry over the past decade.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic decimated the global tourism industry in 2020, Milwaukee Food & City Tours lost 100% of its annual revenue. At a time when it might have been tempting to throw in the towel, Nemetz did the opposite.
She quickly found ways to supplement business, shipping Milwaukee-themed care packages to customers across the U.S. and going to market with a new brand, Milwaukee Fudge Co. In addition, Milwaukee Food & City Tours acquired Chicago City Tours in 2021. Then, in early 2022, the operation that Nemetz and her team had cultivated reached a new height, becoming what’s now a multi-million-dollar portfolio of companies.
Building off the momentum and post-pandemic return of Great Lakes cruises – which saw Milwaukee’s record-setting 33 port calls and 13,610 national and international visitors this season – Nemetz launched Great Lakes Shore Excursions. The company organizes all on-shore activities and tours for six different cruise lines voyaging to port cities in Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and Illinois. One of its clients is Switzerland-based cruise giant Viking, which entered the Great Lakes market this year.
In its first season, Great Lakes Shore Excursions serviced a total of about 35,000 cruise passengers, and the company has scaled from about 15 part-time tour guides to now 250 across the Great Lakes region.
“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,” said Nemetz in an August interview with BizTimes.
Launching and scaling a new company at the same time is not without its challenges.
“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. … 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.”
Collaboration with other businesses plays a key role in crafting the experience cruise passengers are looking to get out of what, for many, is a first foray into fresh-water culture. Great Lakes Shore Excursions works with hundreds of other businesses, including tour operators, hotels, restaurants, transportation companies and experts on local history and nature, and that’s a highlight for Nemetz, who received the Regional Spirit Award at the BizTimes Media Innovation + Entrepreneurship Forum in December.
“This is really an award for our entire community coming together to be able to show off Milwaukee and the different communities,” said Nemetz in a recent interview. “We saw people smiling on the cruise ship docks, and we saw people who were in the community, whether they were working for us or working in a gift shop or at a local museum or restaurant, and they took the time to talk to (visitors) about the community and ask them genuinely how they are liking Milwaukee. … We’ve been able to show off that Milwaukee hospitality and I think it’s really shown through in everything the community has done … to step up and show off Milwaukee to its visitors.”
Asked where she sees room for improvement within the Milwaukee area and its business community, Nemetz said there’s a need for more confidence in the region’s accomplishments and assets and emboldenment to seize more opportunities for growth and progress. Her motto is to always say “yes.”
“A lot of times people say, ‘Oh Milwaukee can never win an (NBA) championship.’ But we did,” she said. “And so, it’s really finding a way to be able to open the door to opportunities and be open to things that maybe we haven’t done before but could make a really positive impact on the community and region.”