Milwaukee awaits summer visitors, spending down 37% during COVID

After a devastating year for the tourism and hospitality industries, this summer is expected to bring a welcome rebound! Many in Milwaukee are anxiously awaiting a flood of visitors.

Over the last decade, visitor spending in the city had been increasing 3% to 5% each year. During the coronavirus pandemic, VISIT Milwaukee estimates it plummeted 37%. Now, there is hope among travel experts and business owners alike that things are turning around. 

"The best way to see Milwaukee is from the water," said Redmond Tuttle, owner of Boat MKE.

As the city heats up and COVID-19 ‘leaves the dock,’ Tuttle is ready for summer to get underway.

"We’ve had a lot of people from Chicago, Iowa and Indiana," said Tuttle. "We’ve seen a lot of international travelers, too. Just to see the city reopened and back at its capacity, and Milwaukee, I’ll call it the greatest city on Earth."

Claire Koenig with VISIT Milwaukee is also expecting a surge in visitors.

"They say that 80%of Americans have plans to travel," said Koenig. "Just two months ago, that number was 60%."

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Despite major events going dark this summer, like the lakefront fireworks and the Air & Water Show, which saw hotel occupancy reaching 98% in 2019, Koenig says there's no shortage of family reunions, weddings and more spontaneous travel than ever before to fill in the blanks.

"Because we’ve been in a climate where – how do you know what it’s going to be like in six months?" said Koenig. "They are planning more to travel on a whim than ever before."

Plus, Koenig said Summerfest's postponement could bring another bump in travel come September.

"It’s never been only on the weekends before, but you would think that enables more visitors to come in," said Koenig. "We are thrilled that it’s back."

While leisure travel is expected to boom this summer, VISIT Milwaukee doesn't anticipate business travel to return to normal levels until 2024.