MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - Instead of welcoming guests on one of her tour buses or taking convention delegates on food experiences throughout the city, Theresa Nemetz is frantically shifting between an outdoor table and a line of moving cars, boxes in her hand and a mask over her face.
This isn’t a normal workday, or for that matter, a normal work year. For the first time, U.S. political parties are holding their presidential nominating conventions remotely, canceling the multi-day extravaganzas that in past election cycles have boosted the economies of host cities like Milwaukee. The Wisconsin city was set to host the 2020 Democratic National Convention.
What was supposed to be a “phenomenal year” for her company, Milwaukee Food and City Tours, has turned into a complete transformation of her business model. “2020 was the year of Milwaukee,” she said. “We were excited for really the best financial year that we were ever going to have.”
Nemetz was hoping the tens of thousands of visitors expected to flock to the city during the weeklong Democratic National Convention would boost her bottom line.
“We immediately put 60 or 70 different public tours on the calendar alone, and we knew we would have requests for private tours and bus rentals.”
Nemetz readily admits it’s a daily struggle to keep her tour guides and drivers employed — and her business afloat — by stuffing Wisconsin goods into packages, and in some cases, delivering them in person.
“We’re not doing any tours, you know. Americans are just not comfortable with traveling right now,” Nemetz told VOA during a break in the traffic backing up at the hotel where she has rented temporary space for distribution of the “Wisconsin Pavilion” boxes filled with goods from the state. “Creating care packages is about breaking even and keeping our staff on board.”
Until the pandemic, as many as 50,000 people were expected to gather in Milwaukee to participate in the process to nominate former Vice President Joe Biden in the battleground state the party lost in 2016 but hopes to win in November.
As the number of COVID-19 cases rose in the U.S., organizers first delayed the convention, then shifted to virtual programming, until finally in early August, Biden announced he would not travel to Milwaukee to accept his party’s nomination as president.
Now, there will be no convention-goers spending money in Milwaukee, a city known for brewing beer in a state known for cheesemaking.
"As disappointed as I am that we can't show off the city, our priorities have to be on helping people get their lives back in order,” Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett recently said to a local Wisconsin television station. “And that means working our way through the COVID-19 crisis."
For Nemetz, 2020 went from great to grim in a matter of days.
“We essentially lost a million dollars. So, a hundred percent of our business is lost at this time.”
Nemetz is not alone. Everything from hotels to restaurants and taxi companies stand to lose significant income.
“$200 million was the number that we felt comfortable saying would be the economic impact of it happening here,” Visit Milwaukee’s Claire Koenig explained. “The $200 million in economic impact is no longer going to be. There is an economic impact of a media event like that, and that number is probably higher than $200 million.”
Koenig’s organization was among others that helped the city bid to host the DNC and spent several years preparing businesses and residents for the once-in-a-generation event.
“We’re losing that feeling of being a part of history, and that’s hard to replace,” Koenig said. “In what has already been an incredibly devastating year, it’s more heartbreak. But I do think everyone understands that you cannot put anything above the health and safety of locals and attendees.”
While Wisconsin braces for steep economic losses as a result of shifting plans for Democrats, North Carolina, which planned to host to the Republican National Convention in Charlotte in late August, is estimated to lose about $290 million.
“The cancellation of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions is just a small example of the negative impact that COVID-19 has had on the travel and hospitality industries,” Chip Rogers, president of the American Hotel and Lodging Association, said in a recent statement.
“In 2020 alone, state and local governments nationwide are expected to lose nearly $17 billion from the drop in travel. With business travel not expected to resume at normal levels until 2023, hotels and local economies in conference and convention markets will be pushed to the brink of collapse,” Rogers said.
Koenig says Visit Milwaukee is adapting to the moment, producing a series of online videos to showcase the city virtually, and is exploring purchases for TV commercials promoting Milwaukee during prime-time convention coverage.
“There is great hope that we can bring a political convention here the next cycle,” Koenig said.
“The DNC really, I think, is a once-in-a-lifetime situation,” Nemetz said. “I just don’t know what the future is for Milwaukee to host that convention in the future.”
Nemetz said her focus now is on getting through the worst of the pandemic. But she hopes one day her business will benefit if Milwaukee gets the opportunity to host another convention.