The VISIT Milwaukee staff has been working for more than a year with the Democratic National Convention Committee (DNCC) on logistics for bringing the Democratic National Convention (DNC) — including 50,000 visitors and 1,500 additional DNC-related events over four days — to town this summer.
To say that planning got a little more complicated recently is an understatement: Last month, DNCC officials announced that, as a result of the pandemic, they were moving the event from July 13-16 to the week of Aug. 17. The DNC changed the dates to August in order in order to give organizers more time to plan the best and safest way to hold the event, DNCC CEO Joe Solmonese said in a press release in April. Ensuring the safety of the convention’s host community and the convention-goers “has been — and always will remain — the top priority of the Democratic National Convention Committee,” he said.
On Tuesday, the Democratic National Committee’s Rules & Bylaws Committee voted in favor of a resolution that would give the DNCC team on the ground in Milwaukee the authority to change the convention’s format, size, and dates. Last month, former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, raised the possibility that the convention might need to be a virtual one during an interview with a national news show. “This isn’t about option A (a full-scale event) or B (a virtual event),” Jason Rae, the DNC secretary said Wednesday in a press release, “but it’s about looking at all the pieces of the convention, how to scale up or down as we get closer to August.”
VISIT Milwaukee — and the community — took these changes in stride, said Laura Lutter Cole, convention sales manager for VISIT Milwaukee and the head of the organization’s internal DNC team. “We’re used to working with groups who may have changes in their plans, whether it’s changes in dates or changes in size,” Lutter Cole said. “We’ve got the experience and we’re confident that we can make any changes necessary.”
There are many pieces to the puzzle, she added, “but the key takeaway for us is how closely we’ve worked with local host committee and the DNCC from the beginning.” DNCC staff “are used to change and just as eager as we are to pull off a successful in-person convention in Milwaukee,” she added. “It’s been a really natural process of picking up the pieces from where we were and asking, ‘How do we basically plug and play this into some new dates?’”
The DNCC is responsible for designing the structure of the convention, which will be centered inside the downtown Fiserv Forum and other venues that are part of the Wisconsin Center District campus, as well as large-scale logistical arrangements, including transportation and safety. VISIT Milwaukee, Lutter Cole said, is working to secure hotel rooms for convention-goers, recruiting and working with local volunteers, and working with the hospitality industry to be ready for the convention.
More Than the DNC Coming
They are preparing not just for the DNC, but for all groups scheduled to meet in Milwaukee in 2020, including the USA Triathlon, Ryder Cup, and the Society of American Travel Writers, she said. The city also plans to host the Wisconsin State Fair in August, and the Summerfest music festival in September.
VISIT Milwaukee has been working closely with city and county health departments and monitoring advice from the Centers for Disease Control, Lutter Cole said. “Some groups are changing meeting formats to have larger ballrooms with fewer people to allow attendees to socially distance and sit safely apart,” she said. “Restaurants are taking away buffets and preparing plated meals or boxed meals that meeting participants can take back up to their hotel rooms to practice social distancing. General sessions could go virtual, placing higher demand on hotel and event-venue WiFi bandwidth. We are working with our groups to accommodate their needs.”
The business closings and “shelter in place” orders have, of course, taken a huge toll on the hospitality industry and tourism, Lutter Cole said. In the interim, VISIT Milwaukee has pivoted its communications in an initiative called, #GoodThingsBrewing, which highlights the multiple ways in which the community is coming together, including restaurants who are giving away meals to those in need and distilleries who have shifted from bottling spirits to making hand sanitizer, she said. “People really are coming together in Milwaukee to support each other,” she said.
“This is beyond anything any of us could have imagined. We are a small, tight-knit community. I always say, we’re not competitors — we’re all colleagues in an industry with the main goal of bringing people to Milwaukee. I think the promise of August — and the economic impact that the DNC is expected to bring into the city, is keeping everyone going,” she said.
VISIT Milwaukee also has developed webinars to educate the community at large on best practices for social distancing, and the protocols that hotels, restaurants, and event venue managers are following,” Lutter Cole said. “We are really putting out a strong message of community awareness.”
The plan for 2020 had always been to highlight Milwaukee’s innovative spirit, she said. But the conversation now will include “the way that community pivoted in this time and changed how we do things to help out in this crisis.” And “we were always going to talk about our incredible food industry, our quality of life, and our diversity. I think that that is really important as part of the fabric of who we are,” she said. “Now we can talk about how Milwaukeeans pivoted to help one another. If anything, we have so many incredible stories to tell, it’s going to be hard to narrow them down.”
“The messaging about Milwaukee is changing because of the coronavirus, but it does not change who we are as a city. I think if anything, it has strengthened the things that make us amazing,” Lutter Cole said.
The situation, as many have pointed out, remains a fluid one. VISIT Milwaukee is taking things one day at a time, Lutter Cole said. “No matter what shape or format the convention turns out to be in August, it’s going to put Milwaukee on the world stage and have a positive impact on our city,” she said. “We’re grateful for the DNC’s commitment to be here and we’re going to put on one hell of a show.”
Barbara Palmer is deputy editor of Convene.