Conference Upswing

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A bevy of projects and proposals across the region will result in more weekday tourism revenue

Story by Lee Reinsch

Cabins and water slides make up a good chunk of Wisconsin’s $12.3-billion-a-year tourism industry, but it’s not all about fun in the sun.

A tidy portion of the state’s tourism revenue comes from things that probably won’t show up on the Travel Wisconsin Facebook page – conferences, expos and conventions.

Things like the Rotary District 6270. Or Wisconsin DARE Officers Association. Or the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators.

Though not stereotypically frolicsome gatherings, such events bring in a juicy $1.3 billion each year, according to the Wisconsin Department of Tourism.

So having facilities in which to hold them can make all the difference to an area, say those in the hospitality industry.

“(Convention facilities) will significantly increase traffic for the restaurants, night clubs, coffee shops, museums and retail outlets,” said Jay Schumerth, general manager of the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel & Conference Center in downtown Appleton. “So the more conferences and the bigger the conferences we can bring…the busier the entire district will get.”

It’s the kind of dynamic that snowballs, according to Schumerth. When convention centers get built, buildings get redeveloped, more people want to visit downtown, property values rise, cities make more tax revenue, citizens get happy.

“Any business downtown will tell you they know when there’s a conference at The Radisson going on,” Schumerth said. “Their business levels increase significantly.”

An Oshkosh homecoming

The Wisconsin DARE Officers really are convening this July, and without the efforts of some area business people, it likely would have been somewhere other than Oshkosh.

“The Oshkosh market hasn’t been in the conference arena for a good number of years, just because there hasn’t been a good marriage of a good quality convention center with a good quality hotel,” said Rich Batley, one of the parties behind the soon-to-open Oshkosh Premier Waterfront Hotel & Convention Center.

Thanks to Batley and two Appleton businessmen, John Pfefferle and Paul Hoffman, plus the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh Foundation, Oshkosh will be welcoming weekday convention business back home.

“It’s renovated, it’s our largest hotel in Oshkosh, it’s downtown attached to the convention center, and we are so excited about this,” said Wendy Hielsberg, executive director of the Oshkosh Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Why so much excitement over one hotel opening its doors?

The hotel attached by skywalk to the city’s convention center has suffered some hiccups during the past decade including liens, closings, money problems, bankruptcy, a sheriff’s sale, loss of its liquor license, and more than its fair share of owners.

Eventually the Oshkosh Convention & Visitors Bureau just stopped booking events out of fear that visitors wouldn’t come back because of a hotel property that was simply falling apart.

Four years ago, the convention center underwent a $2.8 million renovation.

That was great, Batley said. “But we didn’t have a quality hotel, so regional conventions really didn’t see Oshkosh as a good venue. Most conferences want a center that has a very nice hotel associated with it.”

Former monikers of the hotel include Radisson, Hilton, Park Plaza and City Center, but on May 1 it will officially become the Oshkosh Premier Waterfront Hotel & Convention Center.

It’s working to achieve a Best Western Premier tag – a rare designation shared by fewer than 2 percent of the chain’s 2,200 hotels – within its first year of operation, according to Batley.

“This puts us at a pretty high level,” Batley said. What’s even more unusual, he said, is that the area boasts two Premiers within 15 miles of each other. The Bridgewood Resort in Neenah, which Batley co-owns, is another Premier property.

Renovations major

Those who have seen the former hotel property in downtown Oshkosh before are not going to see much they recognize, Batley said.

“This is so close to just being a brand-new facility,” he said. “We took it right down to the studs and concrete.”

For starters, everything’s been upgraded. They lowered the number of guest rooms from 181 to 176, developing five into whirlpool/fireplace suites. There are executive suites, and a few “corner king” rooms with oversized windows on two sides.

Other amenities: an exercise facility with state-of-the-art workout equipment and window views; swimming pool and whirlpool; plus game room and a store for forgotten sundries.

The remodel makes use of the river view. “We’re the only hotel on the waterfront and near the mouth of Lake Winnebago, so we intend on marketing that and utilizing that as a strong selling point,” said Dan Schetter, the Premier Waterfront’s general manager. Most recently he served as general manager of the CopperLeaf Boutique Hotel & Spa in downtown Appleton, another property owned by Batley’s investment group.

For conference-goers, the renovated hotel includes 20 breakout rooms, updated meeting rooms, and river views from the convention center.

Its restaurant, The Ground Round at River’s Edge, has an outdoor patio and bar.

The river side of the convention center is technically a public park, but management is working with the city on getting permission to use it for events like weddings that involve a reception.

“When you combine the hotel and the convention center, we have 25,000 square feet of space,” Schetter said.

To make better use of the fully equipped kitchen on site, they’ve formed their own catering business on the side: Premier Waterfront Catering. It already has preferred-caterer contracts signed with EAA and The Waters.

It’s also partnering with Continental Girbau for the Premier’s in-house laundry facilities to serve as a showroom for the company’s commercial laundry equipment.

CVB moving

The Oshkosh Convention & Visitors Bureau has some news of its own: In April it’s moving its headquarters from the current offices off U.S. Highway 41 back downtown, to the 100 North Main building, across the street from the hotel and convention center.

“We felt we needed to be more in the heart of the community and be near the conventions,” Hielsberg said. It made sense to return to downtown, too, since walk-in traffic near Highway 41 wasn’t increasing due to the availability of online material.

Oshkosh is a mid-tier convention destination, meaning it’s capable of hosting expos and conferences of between 200 and 800 attendees.

Hielsberg said she won’t be able to predict how much the area will draw in convention revenue for another few years.

“I knew what it drew back in its heyday, but I won’t be able to make projections until we’ve been up and running for a year or so,” she said. “Oshkosh hasn’t had an active (multiple-day, downtown) convention for seven or eight years.”

“When we start to see some conventions trickle into this community we will see a really good tourism season,” Hielsberg said.

The City of Oshkosh owns the Convention Center, and the collaborative partnership group owns the hotel. It pays the city for the right to run its food and beverage services, Batley said.

Paper Valley remains positive

It might look like the rug’s been pulled out from beneath plans to develop a proposed convention center near the Paper Valley Hotel in downtown Appleton.

Do not be deceived: The group pushing for it keeps chugging along.

“We knew at the start we would need a perfect storm,” said Walt Rugland of Fox Cities Exhibition Center, Inc., the nonprofit established to advance the project.

With ownership of The Radisson Paper Valley Hotel currently in flux – an investment group now owns it after the previous owners it funded defaulted on payments in late 2012 – getting necessary commitments might take a bit longer.

“A lot is hinging on getting a management agreement signed with the hotel,” Rugland said, noting such an agreement would ask the hotel to take on the risks and rewards of operating the convention center. Once a management agreement is in place, only then would it be appropriate to ask municipalities to increase their hotel room tax to help fund the estimated $20 million project.

Rugland explained they need the room-tax revenue promised from Fox Cities municipalities before they can go to the bond market for funding.

Then they need the land transferred from the county to the city, and they need the St. Joseph’s convent and related structures demolished before building can begin.

The City of Appleton has already budgeted $3.4 million for the site, Rugland said.

But even if the Fox Cities Exposition Center group finished everything on its to-do list today, it would still be at least 15 months before any conventions can begin to use the proposed facility, according to Rugland.

The 60,000-sq. ft. project would consist of a 31,500-sq. ft. expo center with a 13,000-sq. ft. lobby and 10,000 square feet of support rooms, such as storage, restrooms, food preparation, etc. The center would be attached to the hotel and not a standalone facility that would need its own parking, Rugland said.

A convention center needs exhibit space, breakout rooms, banquet facilities and many argue, lodging, all under one roof. The Radisson Paper Valley in downtown Appleton comes close – it has three out of the four elements.

The Paper Valley’s Schumerth said the expo center addition would supply the missing piece – exhibit space – and would be able to accommodate most of the kinds of events that come to the state.

Downtown Green Bay’s recent news – a $2 million Easter egg from the state’s capital budget to help expand the KI Convention Center – doesn’t daunt this group.

“Downtown Appleton has a lot to offer that downtown Green Bay doesn’t, so I don’t think that should be something that should scare people away or think this project isn’t worth it,” Schumerth said. “This project is just as viable a year from now, regardless of what Green Bay is doing.”

Expansion of KI

Speaking of plans to expand the existing KI Convention Center in downtown Green Bay, the project is currently in the design phase and could start construction as soon as October. The proposed $19.5 million project would add more than 30,000 square feet to the current 44,000-sq. ft. facility, making it the fifth largest convention center in the state.

The expansion project will be funded using half of the additional increment from a 2 percent hike in the county’s hotel room tax, as well as nearly $8 million from the city through tax incremental financing, management fees and anticipated proceeds from naming rights.

Enhancing Green and Gold

One of Green Bay’s other premier conference facilities is undergoing a $140.5 million renovation within the next year at the Lambeau Field Atrium. It’s not adding an internal meeting space, noted Aaron Popkey, director of public affairs for the Green Bay Packers, but a new plaza added to the Oneida Nation Gate could be a spot for outdoor group events.

The renovation project involves moving and expanding the Pro Shop below the atrium, moving Curly’s Pub to the existing Pro Shop location, moving the Hall of Fame from the atrium basement to the second floor, where Curly’s is currently located, and expanding the Oneida Nation Gate. The project nearly doubles the Pro Shop from 11,500 to 20,000 square feet.

Of the special events held at the Lambeau Atrium, slightly more than half are corporate, such as luncheons, conferences, speeches, presentations and to a smaller extent, expos in the under-100-booth range, according to Popkey.

The remaining 45 percent of its use includes events such as fundraisers for nonprofit groups, and social events like weddings and private parties.

The upgrades will make getting to the atrium attractions easier, especially when special events are being held in the atrium.

“We have a lot of unique spaces to hold different types of events,” Popkey said.

The atrium floor can host more than 2,000 people in a theater-style layout, and the Legends Club upstairs can hold 600 theater style and 380 classroom style. Club 1919 is an indoor club area with good views, and the Lee Remmel Press Box area can be rented out to functions as well, Popkey said.

Work is being done during the off season and should be completed by 2015.

Lee Reinsch writes and edits from Green Bay.