Why Milwaukee Hotels Are Still Optimistic Despite a Virtual DNC

The overflow will no longer reach as far as Madison and Oconomowoc, but Milwaukee hotels are still seeing a boost in bookings during a difficult time.

When the Democratic National Convention was first announced in Milwaukee, the city’s hospitality industry was looking forward to the expected 50,000 delegates and visitors filling up the city’s hotels, restaurants and bars. 

For hotels, rooms and convention halls were booked quickly, but numbers shifted when the DNC moved almost entirely virtual amid COVID-19 concerns. Delegate and visitor travel plans were halted by votes and events moving virtual, leaving hotels to adjust. 

“We all sat here a year ago and thought, man, 2020 is gonna be the year of Milwaukee, and the rug just got pulled out from under us,” said Tim Smith, the general manager of Pfitser hotel. “You don’t have to look very far to understand that the hospitality industry has been decimated more than anybody else.”

The Pfister Hotel. Photo courtesy of Marcus Hotels.
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Despite the burdens of COVID-19, mass layoffs and the loss of the DNC’s originally expected $200 million in economic impact on Milwaukee, the industry is still hopeful. 

“Hoteliers are optimistic people and the fact that it’s happening at all is a blessing,” said Bob Lambert, the general manager of the Iron Horse Hotel, “It could be 100% virtual. … At least we’re still going to have some people coming in to experience what Milwaukee is all about.”

Lobby at the Iron Horse Hotel. Photo by Visit Milwaukee

The Pfitser Hotel, which had been in contact with the DNC about booking rooms, still expects to sell out the hotel. Smith said it seems like the DNC is condensing its focus to downtown — no longer using hotels in Madison, Oconomowoc and Washington County as was originally planned. 

Both Smith and Lambert expect their hotels to make about 50 percent of their expected financial gains. They think the DNC is a chance for Milwaukee to make a difference “for years to come,” especially considering what Milwaukee’s hospitality industry has to offer.  

“Milwaukee is not always top of mind for big national, international events,” Smith said. “The greatest thing is when people get here and actually see the city, experience the city, and then really just feel you know the hospitality and people are just blown away.”

Pfister mezzanine
Photo courtesy of the Pfister Hotel

Even throughout the losses, Smith is impressed with the way Milwaukee’s hospitality industry has come together. 

“Our industry in Milwaukee is a really strong one. We’re small, we’re not Chicago, but we have great people and great owners and managers and partners in this industry. When stuff like this happens, everybody seems to come together really well.”

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