Conventional wisdom

Milwaukee’s Fiserv Forum will host the 2020 Democratic National Convention, but Madison businesses figure to get in on the action, too.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

The Democratic National Committee, as part of its bid to reclaim Wisconsin on the nation’s Electoral College map, has chosen Milwaukee as the site of the 2020 Democratic National Convention, or DNC. While downtown Milwaukee and the brand-new Fiserv Forum will be the epicenter of convention activity next July 13-16, Madison also stands to benefit economically.

The question is: How much?

The answer: At this stage, it’s hard to tell until more convention details are known.

The potential for some impact is there. Consider that to win statewide, Democrats need to rack up impressive turnout numbers in both Milwaukee and Dane Counties. The lead up to the nominee’s acceptance speech, typically on the last night of the convention, will give the eventual nominee and perhaps the ticket an opportunity to do some politicking in Madison while on his or her way to Milwaukee, or the ticket could decide to make Madison its first post-convention campaign stop.

Also consider that interest in the 2020 presidential election is likely to be at a fever pitch even in July, given how determined Democrats are to defeat President Trump and given how important Wisconsin will be to both major-party tickets. Early on election night in 2016, the Badger State turned out to be a harbinger of things to come in the Midwest, the first crack in the Democrats’ vaunted “Blue Wall” as Donald Trump also went on to win Michigan, Iowa, Ohio, and Pennsylvania — all carried by President Obama in 2012.

Given Tony Evers’ victory in the 2018 gubernatorial race, Wisconsin is shaping up to be one of the biggest battlegrounds of all the so-called battleground states that could go either way in helping the presidential candidates amass 270 electoral votes. While there will be some economic opportunity in the Capital City, the DNC’s selection of Milwaukee as the convention site brings Wisconsin’s largest city and the southeast Wisconsin region the economic opportunity of a lifetime. The convention is expected to draw more than 50,000 visitors and result in an estimated economic impact of $200 million. Ed Rendell, chairman of the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia and the former mayor of that city, recently said Milwaukee could enjoy quite a windfall from hosting the 2020 convention, including pumped up sales tax revenue and positive media coverage.

Beer Town might be the center of gravity, but the economic impact will not be confined to the metropolitan Milwaukee area. Businesses of all sizes — in Milwaukee and elsewhere — will be counted on to help make the event successful.

By the time you read this article, the identities of the so-called “delegate hotels,” where the various state party delegations will stay, and the supplier RFP process should be finalized. So, as convention planning proceeds, we decided to take a look at the convention’s potential impact on Greater Madison.

Destination … Madison?

Hotels in southeastern Wisconsin have set aside 16,000 rooms for the convention, but with 50,000 people heading to that region, Madison hotels and even Airbnb hosts can expect to host some convention goers, including delegates to the convention. Contrary to one media report, local hotels are not fully booked for the week of July 13-17, 2020, so that work proceeds accordingly.

Deb Archer, president and CEO of Destination Madison, says her organization has assisted the DNC’s third-party housing company in communicating with hotels for room blocks and contracts. A significant number of hotel room nights were initially reserved, but Destination Madison does not have information about the final contracted room night number.

Destination Madison, formerly the Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau, is approaching any potential visitor and financial impact on Madison with measured steps because it is waiting to see how things unfold and because research shows that economic opportunities for non-host cities are limited. This wait-and-see approach applies to everything from hotels and restaurants to events and retail opportunities. 

Destination Madison will assist colleagues at VISIT Milwaukee with their convention planning, but right now arranging the housing is the top priority.

Kristine Hillmer, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, notes that some Milwaukee hotels already have found out which state party delegation they will host, and it’s not implausible that some state delegations will be housed outside of metro Milwaukee. She notes that regional hotels, including the Grand Geneva in Lake Geneva and the Osthoff Resort in Elkhart Lake, are fully booked.

“It is quite possible that there could be some delegate hotels out in this [Madison] area and then once we know that, bars and restaurants that are near those delegates can have some additional opportunities,” Hillmer states. “We know that there are hotels that are booked for the DNC up to Elkhart Lake, down to the state line, over to here [Madison].”

As the convention host, Milwaukee has a big task ahead, and a lot of things need to get done before the convention begins, including the construction of several hotels and arts venue projects. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett also is trying to complete an extension of The Hop, the city’s new street car, to Fourth Street and Wisconsin Avenue at a cost of $52 million. The city also has less than a year to see these projects through to fruition, so how much will VISIT Milwaukee be leaning on Destination Madison? “Milwaukee and VISIT Milwaukee are well-poised to host this event, but they also recognize there are areas where additional capacity is needed, such as hotels for delegates and others, and we have made it clear we are eager partners,” Archer says.

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In addition to the existing hotel supply, there are hotel projects in Middleton and Monona that may be open in time for the DNC. Asked if she anticipates Madison hotels to be fully booked that week, just as they are during the week of an Epic User’s Conference, Archer says Destination Madison anticipates a busy hotel week in Madison. “The weekend prior to the DNC is Art Fair on the Square, there is a convention taking place at Monona Terrace simultaneously during the DNC, and the following weekend is a busy summer weekend with the Dane County Fair and more,” Archer notes.

Metropolitan Milwaukee alone is expected to host upward of 1,500 events the week of the convention, but it’s not hard to envision that spilling over into Madison. “We anticipate some events to occur here,” Archer says, “and there have been discussions regarding this, but until there is a schedule for the convention, it’s difficult to tie up venues for such events.”

In terms of how the Madison business community can take part, Hillmer advised interested business vendors to visit the DNC website for updates on the RFP process because there will be a need for many kinds of business vendors. When those RFPs come out, they will be very specific about their requirements and the businesses they are looking for.

Boarding the Badger Bus

One estimate puts the number of buses needed to transport delegates and attendees at more than 400. So, another local business that stands to benefit from the Madison to Milwaukee connection is Badger Transportation Services, operator of Badger Coaches, Badger Bus Lines, Badger Tour & Travel, and High Rollers Casino Bus Trips. In fact, the company already has committed quite a few buses to the DNC for its use.

David Meier, executive vice president and co-owner of Badger Bus Transportation Group, knows that even though the event is still almost a year away, there is no question it will have a very positive impact on his business. First, he reasons, the event is scheduled for July 13-16, which traditionally is a soft time period for its bus business, and so the incremental revenues from the convention will be a big boost. “These types of large conventions or events almost always result in increased demand for local bus operators like us,” he explains. “Anytime there is a need to move lots of people quickly and efficiently, then we are in position to help.”

Meier anticipates that both daily-line runs to Milwaukee and its regular charter services will spike during the DNC. “Madison residents will find it very easy to get to the convention if they take the bus as opposed to driving and looking for parking,” he states. “Almost certainly we will be adding additional line runs each day during the convention. We do this for other big events held in Milwaukee such as Summerfest.”

In terms of charter services, “demand for our motor-coach charter services will certainly be strong during the convention,” he adds. “Not only shuttling for the DNC itself but for groups coming from destinations all over the region. We are keeping a large number of coaches available for that entire time period next July.”

Party geography

More than 1,500 events are expected to be held in metro Milwaukee throughout the convention’s four-day run, but there is no reason Madison can’t have a piece of that action, as well. Given that political conventions are prime-time television events, you can expect watch parties with food, drink, and political themes to be common outside of Downtown Milwaukee. Hillmer agreed the convention is an opportunity to share something communal, even if the event itself is not in this community. “You can really have a lot of fun with it.”

Conventional detail

Businesses interested in supplying the Democratic National Convention or the Milwaukee 2020 Host Committee can visit the following web page: milwaukee2020.myconnxion.com/user/login

Other websites to check for convention updates include:

Wisconsin Restaurant Association: wirestaurant.org/resources/dnc-in-milwaukee

DNC Host Committee: milwaukee2020.com

VISIT Milwaukee DNC: visitmilwaukee.org/dnc

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