The recent news that Milwaukee beat out two much larger rivals, Houston and Miami, to snag the bragging rights of hosting the Democratic National Convention in 2020 was the ultimate underdog win for a Midwestern city perhaps best known for its breweries. Yet Paul Upchurch, president and CEO of Visit Milwaukee, the city's destination marketing arm, is not at all surprised by the big win.
"I am sure that there are lots of people who have said, 'Is Milwaukee big enough?' when considering us as a destination for their convention," said Upchurch. "This answers that question. If we can handle the DNC, which will have about 50,000 attendees on peak nights, obviously we can handle big conventions."
At the centerpiece of Milwaukee's bid for the convention -- which stands to have an economic impact of $200 million for the city, not to mention put it squarely in the national spotlight as a destination -- was its new, 730,000-square foot, $524 million Fiserv Forum, a state-of-the-art arena that can seat 17,500 people.
According to Upchurch, the absence of a larger convention center -- a long-planned expansion of the city's Wisconsin Center has been held up for months over funding issues -- did not hurt Milwaukee's chances in the selection process, because it has all of the other requirements, including airlift, to host such a large event. In the past few years, the city has enjoyed a $5 billion building boom that has added a new streetcar line and several hotels, such as the 220-room Westin Milwaukee, which opened in 2017.
To be considered as a host city, Milwaukee had to guarantee it could deliver on 15,000 hotel rooms. "We have close to 18,000 in the greater Milwaukee area, and we have several more in the pipeline," Upchurch noted. "Some I suspect will push to break ground a little earlier now that we've been selected."
In bolstering his case, Upchurch pointed to a successful citywide Harley-Davidson anniversary event last year that drew more than 100,000 bikers for a weekend of festivities. "We currently do events that are much larger than what the DNC will bring in," he said. "I think it's more about building awareness of just how much we have to offer, because once people come here, they always leave saying it was so much more than what they expected."