By Larry Sandler

It was going to be a huge boost for the hospitality industry throughout southeastern Wisconsin and even northeastern Illinois. But now the 2020 Democratic National Convention could be either a modest infusion of business for Milwaukee alone, or a complete disappointment.

Even a smaller version of the convention would be “such a necessary shot in the arm (for some restaurants) to even stay solvent,” says Kristine Hillmer, president of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association. By contrast, she adds, “If this was to go (entirely) virtual … it would truly be devastating.”

Already battered by shutdowns, cutbacks and layoffs forced by the coronavirus pandemic, the Milwaukee area’s hotels, restaurants, bars and event spaces aren’t sure what to expect from a delayed DNC that’s likely to be scaled back to a still-unknown extent. Figuring out how to bounce back from the pandemic’s continuing impact has overshadowed convention preparations, they say.

“It would be a welcomed opportunity in a year that’s so far been a disaster,” Scott Stenger, lobbyist for the Tavern League of Wisconsin, says of the convention. However, “right now, first and foremost is being able to open up, and open up in a safe and responsible manner,” he adds.

The Tavern League and the restaurant association backed legislation to extend bar hours to 4 a.m. in 14 southeastern counties during the convention’s originally scheduled July dates. That bill won approval from the Assembly and a Senate committee, but did not reach the Senate floor before the regular legislative session ended. That measure is dead now, Stenger says.

In its original form, the presidential nominating convention was expected to draw more than 50,000 visitors; occupy some 15,000 hotel room nights; spin off 1,500 to 2,000 related parties and other events; and produce a total economic impact of nearly $200 million for the region, according to the Milwaukee 2020 Host Committee and Visit Milwaukee.

But in response to the ongoing pandemic, the Democratic National Committee first rescheduled the event from the week of July 13 to the week of Aug. 17 and is now in the process of authorizing convention organizers to reconfigure it in whatever way they find necessary. That would include allowing delegates to participate virtually if they can’t travel to Milwaukee or don’t feel comfortable doing so.

Many of those delegates are still being chosen; Wisconsin, for example, won’t pick most of its delegation until the virtual state party convention June 12. That means the convention team can’t even ask all delegates yet if they’re planning to come, and therefore can’t estimate how large of a crowd to expect. Nor is anyone certain what pandemic restrictions may still be in force in Milwaukee in mid-August.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has said the party “may have to do a virtual convention.” And, referring to President Trump’s insistence on holding a full-scale Republican convention in Charlotte, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said this week, “I don’t think there’s anyone who would say at this point that tens of thousands of people should come together for a political convention, no matter how great an ego trip it is for somebody.”

For those reasons, organizers are unlikely to settle on a precise format for several more weeks, with no firm date for a decision.

“At a point when there is so much uncertainty … the best we can do as convention planners is to build flexibility into our plans,” says Katie Peters, spokeswoman for the Democratic National Convention Committee.

Restaurant operators say they also are staying flexible.

“We have the great fortune to work in an industry which by its nature is very unpredictable,” with frequent last-minute changes in numbers of guests, availability of supplies and other factors, says Paul Bartolotta, owner of the Bartolotta Restaurants. “If you don’t have a flexible mindset, you will not be happy in the restaurant industry, because nothing is predictable.”

One thing is predictable: Lower expectations.

“We’re probably looking at an economic impact in the tens of millions, rather than the hundreds of millions, even if you’re being optimistic,” says Steve Baas, a senior vice president at the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce and incoming Visit Milwaukee board chair.

The deepest cuts could come in “those hundreds and hundreds of ancillary events” hosted by individual delegations and interest groups, Baas says. “Most if not all of that is going to be off the table.”

That’s what the Pabst Theater Group is seeing. CNN had booked historic Turner Hall near Fiserv Forum for its CNN Grill, a broadcasting and hospitality staple of previous conventions, while others had booked events at the Pabst Theater, the Riverside Theater and the Back Room at Colectivo, CEO Gary Witt says. But CNN recently pulled out, and all the other bookings have been canceled as well, he says.

Smaller spaces might fare better. Bartolotta says he still has a number of bookings for events at most of his restaurants, while several groups are considering plans for the large ballroom at the Grain Exchange. Similarly, all of the private spaces are still booked for Hospitality Democracy’s restaurants near Fiserv Forum and in the Historic Third Ward, although it’s likely many of those events will be canceled, says David Marcus, CEO of the group’s owner, Marcus Investments.

The downtown steakhouse Carnevor “had a quite a few generous offers on the table. None of them are on the table any more,” although inquiries continue to trickle in, says Omar Shaikh, co-owner of the restaurant and outgoing Visit Milwaukee board chair.

Another likely reduction will be in the convention’s geographic footprint. Of the 57 delegations — representing every state and territory, plus the District of Columbia and Democrats Abroad — organizers assigned only 26 to hotels in Milwaukee County (including the Ambassador Hotel near Marquette University, where Wisconsin’s delegation is staying). The rest: five in Waukesha County; and 26 in Illinois. Other visitors — including candidates, journalists, activists and interest groups — reserved rooms as far north as Sheboygan County and as far west as Madison.

Now, with fewer people coming, “if you can accommodate everyone in the hotel stock in Milwaukee, why would you have them stay in Madison?” Baas asks. Stenger agrees, saying, “No question about it, I think the footprint is going to shrink considerably … (to) just Milwaukee County and maybe even just the city of Milwaukee.”

However, organizers may need some more distant hotels to keep larger delegations together, says Trish Pugal, interim CEO of the Wisconsin Hotel and Lodging Association.

Even in a shrunken form, the convention could benefit Milwaukee by raising its national profile, helping to draw future visitors and conventions, say Baas and Visit Milwaukee President Peggy Williams-Smith.

“It is still going to be an amazing commercial for Milwaukee,” Baas says. Williams-Smith agrees, adding. “I can’t imagine more news stories being written about Milwaukee in the middle of a pandemic.”

Despite the limitations, Baas says, the convention is “still something we want to be excited about and optimistic about. … We’ve got to make sure we don’t sit around moping.”

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