Milwaukee hotels begin to see signs of recovery from COVID-19 pandemic on travel industry, experts say

Tom Daykin, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Milwaukee area hotels are starting to see some signs of recovery from the coronvavirus pandemic's impact on the travel industry, a panel of industry experts said Wednesday.

But, while some new hotels are still opening, other hotel development proposals have died — and some hotels are likely to go downscale as they deal with declining revenue, reports the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which is a part of the USA TODAY Network.

Those were among the comments from a web-based presentation sponsored by the Commercial Association of Realtors-Wisconsin.

The panelists were Douglas Nysse, a principal at Milwaukee hotel development firm Arrival Partners LLC; Peggy Williams-Smith, president and chief executive officer of Visit Milwaukee, the public-private agency which promotes the area to visitors, and Andrea Foster, senior vice president of development at Milwaukee's Marcus Hotels & Resorts Inc.

Exterior of The Renaissance Milwaukee West Hotel at 2300 N. Mayfair Road, Wauwatosa, WI. Hotel opens in June. It will be the first Renaissance branded hotel in Wisconsin.
Exterior of The Renaissance Milwaukee West Hotel at 2300 N. Mayfair Road, Wauwatosa, WI. Hotel opens in June. It will be the first Renaissance branded hotel in Wisconsin.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which led some Milwaukee-area hotels to begin closing temporarily in early April, "has just been absolutely devastating," Williams-Smith said.

She cited a 58% unemployment rate within the nation's hotel industry.

Some of those job losses include 425 Marcus Hotels employees in Milwaukee, Lake Geneva and Madison who are being permanently laid off in July.

Another sign of how bad things are: this past week saw a 25% occupancy rate for Milwaukee-area hotels.

That was actually an improvement during a season when many Milwaukee hotels typically are running near full occupancy thanks to Summerfest, Milwaukee Brewers games and other activities that have been canceled or curtailed.

"We're starting to see people out there traveling again," Williams-Smith said.

Meanwhile, area hotel construction projects are still proceeding, she said.

Those include two buildings with Home2 Suites/Tru and Holiday Inn Express brands, totaling 328 rooms, at 515-525 N. Jefferson St., as well as the 196-room Renaissance Milwaukee West Hotel, 2300 N. Mayfair Road, Wauwatosa.

The Renaissance recently received a $300,000 matching forgivable loan from the city to help it deal with the pandemic's effects.

But some older, larger hotels will likely decline in quality, perhaps sliding from upper scale to mid-scale, as they struggle to deal with dropping revenue, Nysse said.

And, hotel development proposals that didn't have their financing packages completed before the pandemic aren't going to get construction loans amid the industry's depression, Nysse and Foster said.

"We don't need more hotel rooms," Foster said.

Local hotel development proposals that appear to be dead include the planned construction of a 220-room hotel at the former Humphrey Scottish Rite Masonic Center,  790 N. Van Buren St., as well as the proposed creation of a 96-room boutique hotel as part of the redevelopment of the Milwaukee Athletic Club, 758 N. Broadway, Foster and Williams-Smith said.

Still, despite the hard times, including the substantial downsizing of August's Democratic National Convention, Milwaukee as a travel destination is likely to see a rebound in 2021, Williams-Smith said.

"There is still a great interest in Milwaukee," she said.

Williams-Smith said she doesn't know of any local hotels that plan to shut down permanently.

"The resiliency of our hospitality community has just been absolutely amazing," she said.

Her long-term optimism was reflected by the other panelists.

Said Foster, "Where we are is not where we will end up."

Tom Daykin can be emailed at tdaykin@jrn.com and followed on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: COVID-19: Milwaukee hotels start to see signs of recovery, panel says

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