If the recession was a roadblock to convention traffic, organizations and associations are now rolling over it or driving around it. Bookings are up and continue to look strong into 2015, tourism leaders say, and some foresee even more growth as venues expand.
“Every year it’s getting better,” says Beth Ropson, director of sales at the Greater Green Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau. “2014 looks good. I don’t think we’re back to where we originally were, but 2015 is going to be a very good year.”
Though construction on the new KI Convention Center addition won’t be done until late summer or early fall, that’s likely driving some of the bookings (see New North story.)
“That’s huge for us, because we really needed the additional meeting space or the square footage to accommodate so many groups that were looking to do something in Green Bay,” Ropson says.
The completed Lambeau Atrium renovation will help draw visitors, and a planned update of the historic Northland Hotel in downtown Green Bay will add more rooms for them, she says.
“That’s going to be awesome,” Ropson says. “It’s really exciting for Green Bay to bring that venue back to its original state, because that was ‘the place’ in Green Bay back then.”
In the Fox Cities, convention venues also are seeing strong bookings, says Pam Seidl, executive director of the Fox Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“We look at convention and sports sales together, and 2013 was sort of a record-breaking year for us,” Seidl says. “We booked over 59,000 hotel rooms for the future.”
Numbers have increased steadily since 2010, Seidl says. In 2009, at the onset of the recession, the Fox Cities booked about 32,000 hotel rooms.
While convention bookings are often cyclical, in 2013, the regional bureau saw a “perfect storm” of bookings, in which it secured the U.S. Youth Soccer Midwest Region 2 Championships for 2015 and NCAA and WIAA baseball through 2018 and 2020 respectively, Seidl says.
The construction of an expo center attached to the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel, a project that’s been through some fits and starts, would bring in even more. The feasibility study on the project was being updated in April to reflect the market and demand changes in the past five years, Seidl says.
Oshkosh’s 2013 also was a record year, says Wendy Heilsberg, executive director of the Oshkosh Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“We attribute that to all of the events that we host having significant attendance increases, or holding the same attendance as previous years,” Heilsberg says. “We landed the Tough Mudder event in September. It was just a great event. And then our new downtown hotel opened, which is our largest hotel in our city.”
The city-owned Oshkosh Convention Center downtown completed renovations in 2011 and the attached hotel, the Best Western Premier Waterfront, opened in May 2013. Oshkosh has a number of mainstay events that help keep visitors flowing through the area. The city hosts the Country USA Music Festival in June and EAA Convention in July. Every five years, Pathfinders, the international youth religious group, brings more than 40,000 people to the city. They’ll be here in August, Heilsberg says.
Osthoff Resort, Elkhart Lake
“I think this is the first year that we have really seen more interest from the corporate market again since 2008,” says Lola Roeh, general manager of the Osthoff Lake Resort. “I think corporations were holding back, and watching to see what the economy was going to do, how the health care bill would affect them, and things like that.”
The Osthoff is seeing interest in its new 10,000-square-foot conference center space, an addition to its north wing conference center that was finished in 2005. The space will be ready this summer, and boosts convention space by about 25 percent, allowing the Osthoff to accommodate expos, Roeh says.
“Because of the demand that we had, we knew we needed another additional conference space of this size, and this takes us into the next tier,” Roeh says.
Two of the Osthoff’s core groups wanted to book on the same day in September, and now the resort can accommodate both of them, Roeh says.
The recession that hit about 2008 didn’t really impact conventions in Wisconsin Dells except in terms of rates, says Tifani Jones, director of sales at the Wisconsin Dells Visitor & Convention Bureau. The Dells is home to some of the state’s largest venues, the Kalahari and the Chula Vista Resort, which each have about 100,000 square feet of space. The Chula Vista also has an off-site, 90,000-square-foot multi-use facility.
“We tend to be somewhat insulated from the swings that downturns in meetings can have in other types of markets, and a lot of that has to do with the number of regional and state meetings that are hosted in our area,” Jones says.
In June, the Dells is hosting a cluster of hobby-related groups, including the State H.O.G. (Harley Owners Group) Rally; Fire and Iron, a national firefighters motorcycle enthusiast group; and the Hot Rod Power Tour.
In Madison, convention bookings are up 188 percent from Q1 2009 to Q1 2014, according to the Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“We’ve had the highest number of confirmed events that we booked in the first quarter of this year for the future than we’ve had over all those (recession) years and the highest attendance for future events,” says Deb Archer, president of the bureau. “So we’ve had a really robust first quarter.”
The 164-acre campus of the Alliant Energy Center is getting 300,000 square feet of new space.
A stronger economic climate has allowed corporations and organizations to get back to holding and hosting events, Archer says.
“That face-to-face connection is so powerful,” says Judy Frankel, public relations and communications manager for the bureau. “Businesses have learned from trying different ways of meeting that this is really still the most effective way to connect their people together. So we’re very lucky to be able to capitalize on that trend.”
‘Shirley’ Wisconsin is the best
Wisconsin’s new summer ad campaign features a 30-second takeoff of the 1980 film Airplane! It features stars Robert Hays, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the inflatable Otto Pilot. The trio fly “too low!” over Wisconsin scenery while lauding its many summer activities.
The ad, which also brought back the original writers and directors – Wisconsin natives David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams – was unveiled during the Wisconsin Governor’s Conference on Tourism in Madison on March 3.
Visit www.youtube.com and search “Airplane! Stars Shirley Love Wisconsin Summers.”