It may have seemed a bit counterintuitive in 2020 when the Wisconsin Center District decided to move ahead with what is now a $456 million expansion project for Milwaukee’s downtown convention center in the midst of a global pandemic.
Marty Brooks, chief executive officer of the WCD, and his team, however, saw an opportunity to not only complete a long-discussed project for the convention center, but also to capitalize on the eventual return of the meetings and events business.
The expansion is on track to open in 2024 and the return in convention and event business is happening, too, if anything a little ahead of schedule.
“We're seeing a scarcity in available dates and in available space, which is encouraging not just for the convention center but for restaurants, hotels, bars and all the support businesses that thrive on visitors coming into Milwaukee,” Brooks said of the 2023 outlook.
Prior to the pandemic, there were more open dates in 2023 than normal, Brooks said, but amid 2020’s slowdown, the WCD team worked to shift bookings to open dates instead of having customers cancel.
At the same time, the lead time for events has shrunk, Brooks said. Someone who would have been looking for a 2023 date back in 2018 or 2019 could now be planning a similar event for late 2023 or early 2024.
Attendance at events has also rebounded. Coming out of the pandemic, meeting planners were uncertain of how numbers would ramp up.
“We’re seeing that rebound back to pre-COVID numbers,” said Brooks. “I’m sure we’re going to see those events that are repeats down a skosh, but we’re encouraged not only by the booking activity but that the actual people showing up to these meetings and conventions is at a much higher percentage than coming right out of COVID.”
Brooks will be among the speakers at BizTimes Media’s 22nd annual Economic Trends event on Jan. 26 at the Italian Community Center.
Beyond the return of attendance figures, Brooks also said event attendees are increasingly looking to make the most of their trips to conventions.
“People are looking to tie time in a city pre- and post-(event) and not just fly in for the meeting and get out,” he said, praising the efforts of VISIT Milwaukee and others to highlight the city’s offerings.
“While they want to be at the meeting and attend the convention, they also want to experience where they're going,” Brooks said. “I think people are looking to spend time outside of the convention center itself, and I think we've got a lot to see and do around our city.”
The expansion of the convention center offers a chance to bring more people to Milwaukee, although not necessarily more people all at the same time.
Brooks said that in the past, when an event took up the entire convention center, the facility would be booked for 12 or 14 days, even if the peak activity from the meeting only took place over four or five days. The rest of the time was dedicated to setup and tear down for the event.
“The real opportunity for the convention center expansion, certainly we'll be able to go after bigger conventions that need more exhibition space and more meeting rooms, but the real driving force to the expansion has been how do we get more events of the same size to occur either simultaneously or overlapping,” Brooks said.
Staggering multiple events could allow the city to go from four peak nights to eight or 10 over a 10- or 12-day stretch.
“It’s more occupied hotel rooms, more days where the hotels and restaurants and bars are activated as opposed to being compressed to just a four-day window,” Brooks said.
More activity means more economic opportunities for businesses, but it also comes with a potential challenge as many in the hospitality sector already face staffing shortages.
Brooks, however, expressed confidence that the city is up to the task.
“We do it all the time, I think the biggest thing is there's not going to be the lulls we've been experiencing over the years where the convention just loaded out and nothing is going to happen for another four or six days. We're hoping that this a lot more consecutive days with a lot less days off,” he said.
One event that’s expected to bring an especially high volume of activity to Milwaukee is the 2024 Republican National Convention, set to take place July 15-18, 2024. Brooks said the event is still in a transition period of sorts and more details, and business opportunities, are likely to emerge over the next three to six months.
“They have not yet selected their convention production team yet, so until we get a better understanding of exactly what they're looking to do from a scheduling standpoint, from a creative standpoint, that I think is going to be what drives the details that we all need and the businesses need to support the incoming convention,” Brooks said.