(Editor’s Note: The following was written in advance of the Democratic National Convention and serves as a leadership piece for all venue professionals.)
By Marty Brooks
With a $420 million expansion approved and the Democratic National Convention (DNC) on the horizon, 2020 was off to a strong start for the Wisconsin Center District (WCD). Milwaukee and the WCD were poised to be featured on national and international stages — it was a big opportunity. Then COVID-19 hit and the world as we knew it changed dramatically. How could we forge ahead with a major expansion project and a huge event in the middle of a global pandemic? By staying true to our vision, we are making it happen.
Employees Bring Vision to Life
When I started at the WCD in 2018, my main focus was to breathe new energy into the organization and implement industry-wide best practices. I knew that this focus would be an evolution over time, and I knew that I would only be successful if I started with the staff. Employee engagement became my top priority. Employees are our most important asset, especially in the hospitality and entertainment industries. As the first faces that greet visitors when coming to the convention center, arena or theatre, they are responsible for creating experiences our guests won’t forget. A lot rests on their shoulders. I wanted employees to be proud of where they work and look forward to coming to work each day. That same energy needed to be felt by our visitors too.
I distilled my vision for the WCD and our employees into three key pillars — Be Bold. Be Proud. Be Experience Obsessed. Over the last year our employees embraced this vision and truly brought it to life in the services they provide to our visitors. You could feel the energy and excitement at any event we hosted and we received positive feedback from our board and guests.
Tremendous highs. Devastating lows.
After winning the bid to serve as a venue for the DNC and securing Board approval for the expansion, 2020 was shaping up to be one of the biggest years ever. Then the pandemic hit and I faced the most challenging financial landscape of my 40+ year career. We were forced to close all three of our venues — The Wisconsin Center, Miller High Life Theatre and UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena. To date, more than 90 events have been postponed or canceled.
Safety Is Part of the Experience
In late June, we received news that the Wisconsin Center would be the exclusive venue for the now reimagined DNC in August. This announcement gave us a concrete timeline to begin planning and bringing our staff back to the office. The safety of our staff and guests is our top priority. We spent Q2 speaking with local and national industry partners and health officials to develop a comprehensive and thoughtful plan for reopening our facilities. Our COVID-19 Readiness Guidelines include, but are not limited to:
● All cleaning staff received detailed training on pathogen remediation and proper use and disposal of personal protective equipment.
● Employees are required to complete training sessions on guidance related to COVID-19 prior to first shift back to work.
● An even higher-frequency cleaning and disinfecting protocol for all surfaces, equipment and technology has been established. Previously, cleaning would occur before and after an event. Now, cleaning will occur hourly, even during events, while working closely with clients to ensure planned activities are not disrupted.
● WCD purchased electrostatic Clorox 360 cleaning equipment, which disinfects all sides of surfaces, killing 99.9% of bacteria within 5 seconds.
● Staff will complete a daily health screening and temperature reading prior to starting work in any of the facilities.
○ During the DNC, all staff will be tested at the client’s request.
● All cleaning staff within the facility will be required to wear a hospital-grade face mask or face shield and nitrile gloves. And due to state and city masking policies, all staff are required to wear cloth face coverings inside the building.
● All food service staff will be required to wear eye protection, face masks, and gloves at all times.
Bold. Proud. Experience Obsessed. In-person or virtually.
Milwaukee has an opportunity to capitalize on the global spotlight of the DNC. The convention will introduce Milwaukee to entirely new audiences. While DNC representatives and guests will not be joining us virtually, we want to make it a memorable experience and ensure that they feel welcome. We have the added challenge of bringing our vision to life for people without even stepping foot in our building. In partnership with Visit Milwaukee, our convention and visitors bureau, we are working to make sure the city comes across as beautiful on the screen as it does in person. I am confident in our ability to show the nation that we are bold, proud and experienced obsessed — no matter the scale of events that take place in our building or virtually.
This time in the spotlight will open doors that haven’t been opened before. We have the chance to show off our city and all that it has to offer through all forms of media including video, live stream, print, social, and more. As people watch the convention from the comfort of their homes, we want them to remember the WCD and Milwaukee.
Seizing an Opportunity
The WCD has a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate our leadership in the hospitality industry. We’re hosting one of the nation’s most notable events since the beginning of the pandemic with a new set of standards in place. With the hard work and planning that has gone into the DNC, we can show others how to successfully host a large-scale event live, virtually and work with national safety experts to protect employees and visitors alike. Hosting the 2020 DNC is a huge honor and our team is dedicated to making it an unforgettable event.
Marty Brooks is president and CEO of the Wisconsin Center District.