Officials with the World Dairy Expo, the largest convention and exposition in Dane County, are exploring venue options outside the Madison area for this year’s event, due to local COVID-19 restrictions.
Currently, Dane County, which has been home to the event for more than 50 years, remains the planned host for the expo. But event officials have been looking into alternative locations for the 2021 show, which is scheduled to run from Sept. 28 through Oct. 2.
“Our leadership believes that it’s important for us to bring the global dairy industry together in some form and fashion in 2021,” said Scott Bentley, the expo’s general manager. “That is the desire that has prompted us to consider alternative venues.”
The expo, which brings in 62,000 people from 100 countries for a week each fall to the Alliant Energy Center, serves as a major economic boon for hotels and restaurants and typically has an estimated economic impact on the region of more than $45 million. The event also draws high-profile visits, with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue attending in 2019. Last year’s event was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns.
“Our community hosting this event in the heart of America’s Dairyland allows us to show the best of our hospitality to people from around the world,” Destination Madison president & CEO Ellie Westman Chin said in a statement. “We understand the difficult position World Dairy Expo is in and we understand the weight of responsibility our public health department bears during COVID.”
Westman Chin said she is hopeful the easing of restrictions on businesses and public gatherings announced this week will continue so that the expo can be held here “in some form this fall.”
“Being able to hold this iconic event in the place it has called home for more than half a century could serve as a key stepping stone toward our community’s economic and quality of life recovery,” Westman Chin said.
In a statement Wednesday, expo officials said “uncertainty remains surrounding future health regulations that may govern Madison this fall at the time of WDE 2021.”
“Due to World Dairy Expo’s role as the gathering place of an essential global industry, the organization’s leadership is simultaneously exploring alternative venues for hosting the 2021 show,” according to the statement.
Expo officials say they have met with Dane County and Alliant Energy Center officials to discuss current and potential local COVID-19 restrictions, and those conversations continue “as additional clarity is sought.”
Requests for proposals for alternative locations were sought last month, but Bentley declined to say which potential venues are being considered, including whether they are located within the state. The expo’s executive committee will make a decision later this spring.
“I would say that our leadership has a desire to hold the World Dairy Expo with all its parts and pieces,” including the trade and cattle shows, educational events and industry networking opportunities, Bentley said. “It’s an event of scope.”
Earlier this week, Dane County officials announced plans to ease restrictions on dining and public gatherings, with a new public health order going into effect March 10.
Under the new “Forward Dane” plan, restaurants will be allowed to serve twice as many customers as they may now — up to 50% of their capacity — and taverns, currently restricted to take-out service, will be allowed to seat up to 25% of their capacity. The new order also allows up to 350 people to gather indoors and up to 500 people outdoors, though cloth face coverings are still required.
Local officials have been easing COVID-19-related restrictions with hopes of returning to a more normal level of business and community activity by this summer.
The Alliant Energy Center is a county-owned facility that falls under the jurisdiction of Dane County’s order.
However, Bentley said no single component of Dane County’s public health restrictions prompted the decision to consider other venues.
“We want to have a trade show where people can communicate effectively with commercial visitors and attendees, and we want to have a cattle show so people can watch the cattle being fed and the competition taking place in the Coliseum,” Bentley said. “I think it’s being eyes-wide-open and aware of how the Forward Dane kind of opens up over the next few weeks or months.”
Bentley said officials also are discussing potential public health precautions for the upcoming event but didn’t specify what those might entail.
“Any exploration that has taken place or might take place is solely relative to our desire to hold our 2021 World Dairy Expo,” he said. “I can’t speculate beyond that.”
One of the Madison area’s signature events, the World Dairy Expo was founded in 1967 and has grown into one of the premier agriculture events in the world. The expo includes shows, exhibitors, seminars and food events.
Nick Novak, spokesperson for Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, said, given the uncertainty surrounding local governmental regulations, event organizers are forced to look to other areas in the state “that they are confident will allow these types of gatherings while still ensuring the safety of those in attendance.”
“Agriculture and the dairy industry are significant drivers of Wisconsin’s economy, and the World Dairy Expo puts our state on the global stage,” Novak said. “We can certainly understand the challenges their team is going through, but we have confidence that there are a number of excellent locations in the Dairy State that would be happy to host them this fall.”
Also on Wednesday, WMC, the state’s largest business lobbying group, announced plans to relocate the organization’s Business Day event, originally scheduled to be held in Madison, to Pewaukee. The event had been scheduled for Wednesday but was canceled due to COVID-19 restrictions and will now be held Oct. 14, according to a letter to members.