Wisconsin Center has a shortage of open dates in 2023 as events recover

It might have seemed a bit counterintuitive in 2020 when the Wisconsin Center District decided to move ahead with a $456 million expansion project for the downtown Milwaukee convention center in the midst of a global pandemic. Marty Brooks, WCD’s chief executive officer, and his team, however, saw an opportunity not only to complete the long-discussed convention center project, but also to capitalize on a possible rebound in the meetings and events business. The expansion is on track to open in 2024, and a return to convention and event business is also happening, if nothing else a little ahead of schedule. “We’re seeing a lack of available dates and available space, which is encouraging not only for the convention center, but for the restaurants, hotels, bars and all the ancillary businesses that thrive on visitors coming to Milwaukee,” Brooks said of 2023. outlook. Before the pandemic, there were more open dates in 2023 than usual, Brooks said, but amid the 2020 slowdown, the WCD team worked to shift bookings to open dates instead of clients canceling. At the same time, the timeline for events has shrunk, Brooks said. Someone who would have been looking for a 2023 date in 2018 or 2019 may now be planning a similar event for late 2023 or early 2024. Event attendance has also rebounded. After emerging from the pandemic, meeting organizers were not sure how the number would increase. “We’re seeing that return to pre-Covid numbers,” Brooks said. “I’m sure we’re going to see these recurring events go downhill, but we’re encouraged not only by the booking activity, but also by the fact that the actual number of people showing up to these meetings and conventions is a much higher percentage than coming out of COVID.” Brooks will be among the speakers at BizTimes Media’s 22nd annual Economic Trends event on January 26 in the House of the Italian Community. In addition to rebounding attendance numbers, Brooks also said event attendees are increasingly looking to capitalize on their convention trips. “People want to spend time in the city before and after (the event), not just fly into a meeting and get out,” he said, praising efforts by 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 want to spend time outside of the convention center itself, and I think we have a lot to see and do in our city.” The convention center expansion offers an opportunity to bring more people to Milwaukee, though not necessarily more people at the same time. Brooks said that in the past, when an event took over the entire convention center, the facility was booked for 12 or 14 days, even if the meeting’s peak activity lasted only four or five days. The rest of the time was dedicated to setting up and tearing down for the event. “A real opportunity to expand the convention center, we’ll certainly be able to go after larger conventions that need more exhibit space and more meeting rooms, but the real driving force behind the expansion was how to get more of the same size events that can happen simultaneously or overlap,” he said. Brooks. A staggering array of events could allow the city to go from four biggest nights to eight or 10 in a 10- or 12-day period. “That’s more hotel rooms occupied, more days where hotels, restaurants and bars are active instead of being compressed into just four days,” Brooks said. More activity means more economic opportunities for businesses, but it also comes with a potential challenge as many in the hospitality sector are already facing staff shortages. Brooks, however, expressed his belief that the city is up to the task. “We do it all the time, I think the biggest thing is that there won’t be the lull that we experience in years when the convention just starts and nothing happens for another four or six days. Hopefully this will be a lot more consecutive days with a lot less off days,” he said. One event that is expected to bring a particularly large amount of activity to Milwaukee is the 2024 Republican National Convention, which will be held July 15-18, 2024. Brooks said the event is still in the transition period and more details are being worked out, and business opportunities are likely to emerge over the next three to six months. “They still haven’t picked their convention production team, so until we get a better understanding of exactly what they want to do from a scheduling standpoint, from a creative standpoint, I think that’s going to be what drives the details that we all need and the companies need to support the upcoming convention,” Brooks said.

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