2020 Tourism Data a Reminder of the Impact of Travel 

As part of National Travel & Tourism Week, VISIT Milwaukee today released final data from the Wisconsin Department of Tourism, which, as expected, illustrates the pandemic’s devastating effect on Milwaukee’s tourism economy. Although the data paints a bleak picture of how far the industry must go to overcome the losses wrought by the pandemic, the 2020 data continued to show that Milwaukee is the state’s largest tourism market and essential to Wisconsin tourism. Indicators this year, like the return of summer festivals, live performances, live professional sports and sport even ts, and the forthcoming expansion of the Wisconsin Center all point to a much more positive second half of 2021 and beyond.  

Following a record-breaking year for tourism in 2019, which included $5.9 billion in total business sales for the Greater Milwaukee area and $3.3 billion in direct visitor spending, both of which helped support 53,200 jobs, the pandemic necessitated a total shift in strategy towards mitigating the impact and positioning the industry for recovery. Those efforts included an increase in locally focused marketing campaigns, continuous work with local health experts to promote the destination’s safety measures, and strategic sales initiatives to rebook and retain as many events as possible. 

“The data serves as a painful reminder of all that was lost in 2020 for our local hospitality industry, but it should also be a powerful call to action,” says Peggy Williams-Smith, president and CEO of VISIT Milwaukee. “Our restaurants, museums, bars, hotels, and retailers still need your support, and they need it today. In addition to supporting them with your wallets, I encourage you to get a COVID vaccine. That is the best way you can help our community begin to welcome leisure, meetings and conventions, and business travelers back at levels that look anything close to ‘normal.’” 

In 2020, direct visitor spending in Milwaukee County was down nearly 40%, the second steepest decline in the state behind Dane County, and a reminder of the continued importance of supporting suburban local restaurants, bars, hotels, retail and attractions whenever possible. This loss in revenue resulted in a 28.42% decline in hospitality jobs last year, many of which have not been reinstated. From dishwashers and servers to hotel sales staff and front desk personnel, the data highlights the crucial role travel and tourism play in supporting employment at all levels across the Greater Milwaukee area.  

In Milwaukee County:  

  • Direct visitor spending totaled $1.33 billion, down 39.32% from 2019.
  • Tourism supported 23,952 jobs, down 28.42% from 2019. 
  • Labor income from tourism totaled $1.015 billion, down 18.99% from 2019. 
  • State and local taxes generated from tourism totaled $176.9 million, down 32.05% from 2019.  
  • Total business sales because of tourism totaled $2.804 billion, down 27.72% from 2019. 

In the Greater Milwaukee area (Milwaukee, Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington Counties):  

  • Direct visitor spending totaled $2.08 billion, down 36.58% from 2019.  
  • Tourism supported 39,653 jobs, down 25.52% from 2019.  
  • Labor income from tourism totaled $1.54 billion, down 16.46% from 2019. 
  • State and local taxes generated from tourism totaled $271.9 million, down 30.06% from 2019.
  • Total business sales because of tourism totaled $4.395 billion, down 25.88% from 2019. 

Throughout 2020 and 2021, VISIT Milwaukee has been encouraging Milwaukeeans to support their own hospitality community through promotions like Season of GivingGiving Fest, Milwaukee Hotel MonthBring It Home (a local meetings-focused campaign), and more. According to Longwoods International, local spending like that which was encouraged in the campaigns helped keep many hospitality businesses afloat. In 2020, local spending infused $2.5 billion into Wisconsin’s economy that would have been spent elsewhere on a vacation. This includes nearly $821 million in restaurant spending and nearly $264 million on lodging. 

Milwaukee’s hospitality workers, of course, will be a potent force in tourism’s recovery. To encourage Milwaukee’s hospitality workers to get a vaccine, VISIT Milwaukee is hosting Hospitality Vaccination Days May 7 and May 28 at the Wisconsin Center, where the VISIT Milwaukee team will be conducting randomized giveaways throughout the day for hospitality workers who show up to get vaccinated. Uber is donating 1,000 free rides for those who need one to the Wisconsin Center that day, and VISIT Milwaukee will host a 9 a.m. press conference at the Wisconsin Center on May 7 to mark the occasion. Please contact Lindsey McKee (lmckee@milwaukee.org) if you plan to attend the press conference. 

The numbers listed above are estimates from The Economic Impact of Tourism in Wisconsin, an annual tourism impact study commissioned by the state and conducted by Tourism Economics and released by the Wisconsin Department of Tourism in early May. 

About VISIT Milwaukee 

VISIT Milwaukee is a community asset that markets the destination as a top choice for business, convention, and leisure travel to national and international visitors to increase the economic impact of tourism in the region. VISIT Milwaukee has over 700 members, including hotels/motels, restaurants, attractions, services, and area businesses. The Wisconsin Center District, which is undergoing a large-scale expansion slated for completion in 2024, and Potawatomi Hotel & Casino are strategic partners with VISIT Milwaukee, providing funding support for conventions and tourism programs. For more information call (800) 554-1448 or visit www.visitmilwaukee.org