While the Democratic National Convention will still be held in Milwaukee, the gathering's shift to a largely virtual format leaves questions about its potential economic impact on a hospitality industry that's been devastated amid the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
Originally expected to draw 50,000 visitors and generate a more than $200 million economic impact this summer, the scope of the event remains unclear after organizers this week announced the change, branding it as a "Convention Across America" that's "anchored in Milwaukee."
But in spite of the unknowns and the reality that the economic boost is "not going to be anywhere near" $200 million, Visit Milwaukee CEO Peggy Williams-Smith stressed that whatever does end up occurring as part of the DNC "is going to be helpful" for local businesses in the time of coronavirus.
“The dollars are going to be smaller but the impact may be greater because of what we’re facing right now," she said.
As part of the updated DNC plans, delegate voting will occur virtually rather than in-person and the event, running Aug. 17-20, will be held in a smaller venue: the Wisconsin Center, rather than the new Fiserv Forum arena. Former Vice President Joe Biden will still accept the party's nomination in the city, his campaign said Wednesday.
Programming during the event is set to include live broadcasts and curated content from Milwaukee and satellite cities and locations across the nation, according to the announcement.
The latest news comes nearly three months after organizers pushed the DNC back to August after it was originally scheduled for July 13-17. DNC Chair Tom Perez said at the time the decision came as officials sought to prioritize public safety and "buy us more time," though he emphasized that he remained "100% committed to Milwaukee."
For Visit Milwaukee, Williams-Smith said without COVID-19 and with a July convention, hotels would have seen upwards of 90% occupancy throughout the entire month. But now, she said lodging sites would slide into August with "hopefully around 40% occupancy" — the lowest historical rate since the organization began measuring occupancy levels.
"If we had a million dollar economic impact, it's going to feel like a boon because some of our hotels are going to sell out," she said. "It might be the first time some of our hotels sell out or it might be the third or fourth but it wouldn't be like it would've been had it been a normal summer."
The change to the convention's format comes as those in the tourism and hospitality fields have been forced to postpone or cancel events dating back to March and throughout this summer due to the pandemic.
"That we're losing this convention is devastating but the overall effects of the pandemic are even more devastating, so you have to keep it in perspective," Williams-Smith said.
Impact on Madison
Madison hotels will also feel the absence of expected convention-goers this summer. Area lodging sites were expected to host the majority of staff from national nonprofit and advocacy groups, DNC organizers announced in December, in addition to other visitors that would then drive or bus into Milwaukee each day.
In all, 6,352 rooms were initially blocked locally over the four nights of the original convention dates in July, with 1,633 reserved for the peak night, according to a Destination Madison spokesman.
It's currently unclear whether any guests will stay in Madison to attend the convention. Democratic National Convention Committee spokeswoman Katie Peters said in a statement that public health officials "need more time to assess the trajectory and impact of the coronavirus pandemic before determining how many people can safely travel and gather in person later this summer."
She didn't return follow-up questions about the timeline for making those determinations.
Destination Madison President and CEO Deb Archer said in a statement while she's "disappointed that we won't be able to share our story and our hospitality with guests from throughout the country," she noted the DNC is just "the latest to be affected" by COVID-19.
Meanwhile, Phillip Mattsson-Boze, president of the Greater Madison Hotel & Lodging Association and general manager at HotelRED, wrote in an email that local hoteliers have worked since Milwaukee was first announced as the site of the DNC to host overflow business, adding: "We were looking forward to showcasing our vibrant city to a national audience."
"While we are all disappointed that the opportunity will not be what we expected, we respect the decision by the DNC to scale down the convention in the interest of public health," he wrote. "As a key contributor to Madison’s local economy, we feel a responsibility to stay nimble and creative in drawing new business to our area to support our community."
Noting that some of the organization's more than 60 member hotels decided to temporarily close in response to the pandemic "while others remained open at drastically low occupancies," Mattsson-Boze wrote the DNC wasn't the only event affected by the COVID-19 crisis.
"We remain hopeful and stand ready for the day when events resume," he wrote. "Associate and guest safety are a chief priority for us right now, and as we see travel rebound, health and safety will continue to remain top of mind."
Williams-Smith, of Visit Milwaukee, noted that organizers and other groups aiding them have had to pivot regularly over the last few weeks and months in their approach to holding the DNC.
Just three and four weeks ago, she noted, "everything was trending better."
"Who knows in a month from now what's going to happen?" she said. "Although I'd love to be able to tell you we went from contracting with 120 hotels and we’re now using a certain number of hotels, I don’t know that because they don’t know that because they still don’t know what their capacity on the convention floor is going to be at this time because we are not close enough to be able to make that decision."
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