The interview: Therese Nemetz

Since 2008, Milwaukee Food & City Tours has been riding a wave of momentum within the local tourism industry. With founder Theresa Nemetz at the helm, the company has taken off amid the growing COVID-19 pandemic…

Since 2008, Milwaukee Food & City Tours has been riding a wave of momentum within the local tourism industry. With founder Theresa Nemetz at the helm, the company has taken off amid the COVID-19 pandemic, becoming a multi-million dollar family of brands. His latest venture launched in the spring with the return of Great Lakes cruises. Great Lakes Shore Excursions is responsible for the range of activities and tours offered to cruise passengers when calling at ports in Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin. This season, Great Lakes Shore Excursions will serve approximately 35,000 people on six cruise lines, including international giant Viking. BizTimes Associate Editor Maredithe Meyer recently spoke with Nemetz about scaling and seizing opportunity.

What are your first lessons to take away from the launch of Great Lakes Shore Excursions?

“It’s been amazing and far exceeded our expectations, both in terms of the opportunity and the hard work to truly be a pioneer in this field. What we’ve really discovered is that we don’t just serve Viking passengers, but we work with other cruise ships on the Great Lakes – there’s the American Queen, the Pearl Mist, the Ponant – and we see how many people are signing up for cruises, and we know that’s just going to lead to even more cruise ships coming to the Great Lakes in the future.

What has been the biggest challenge in establishing a presence in other port cities?

“To be able to adapt to what we needed to do, not only did we need to expand in Milwaukee, but we also needed to expand in other port cities along the Great Lakes where ships called. In many of these towns – they are very small towns – the infrastructure did not exist to be able to service these cruise ships. For example, there are no tour guides in these communities, no one works with cruise ships, and there is not even transportation. Some of the towns we visit have 500 to 600 people living there full time, and the cruise ship comes in and practically doubles its population that day. So, in Milwaukee, we had to hire about 75 to 100 part-timers to help out on cruise days. That includes things like handling baggage, greeting people at airports, driving people, and then in other port cities we’ve also collectively hired about 75 to 100 people.

“It’s been hard to find the right people to tap into their expertise and then really be able to create experiences around them, but we’re really creating a top-notch product for cruise ship passengers and creating unique opportunities. For example, in Alpena, Michigan, we bring in a renowned paleontologist who goes fossil hunting with the people. … We go hiking in Duluth, Minnesota, with geologists. … It took a long time, a lot of talking to locals and community members and finding the right connections, but it was amazing to see it all come together and see the passengers really love it.

What are Great Lakes cruise ship passengers looking to get out of their travel experience?

“Overall, we see that expedition vessels are in high demand. They sell, and that’s because people have traveled a lot, they’ve traveled the world, they’ve cruised elsewhere, and now they want to see the natural beauty of America.

“What we keep hearing from passengers is how beautiful and beautiful nature is that we show them. For example, we are going sea kayaking in the Apostle Islands. We go bird watching at the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center. These are things that people otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do if they hadn’t taken this cruise that takes them to these places. We are definitely seeing a very strong interest in nature-focused, expert-led excursions.

What other local gems have you highlighted?

“Specific to Milwaukee, we did the Urban Ecology Center, hiking with their hiking experts. At Schlitz Audubon we actually did seaglassing as well as birdwatching. We worked with Milwaukee Kayak Company and kayaked with naturalists on the Milwaukee River so that was really awesome too. Other things are more touristy, for example, we do a church and chocolate tour and show some amazing churches in Milwaukee. We do a Milwaukee greatest hits tour, where we show the Harley-Davidson Museum, the Pabst Mansion, the North Point Lighthouse and the Milwaukee Museum of Art. We have something for everyone in each of the cities we create these experiences for.

How has the growth of your shore excursion business impacted the Milwaukee Food & City Tours brand?

“We find that as people get off the ship, they extend their stay. They arrive in Milwaukee a few days early before their cruise…and stay a few days longer after their cruise ends. And they explore Milwaukee, and they don’t just use Milwaukee Food & City Tours. We make sure they know all the other tour operators in town and all the other attractions they can visit. …I think that’s the beauty of what we’ve been able to do with Great Lakes Shore Excursions. It’s not just our tour operator – we use literally hundreds of other suppliers and tour operators on the Great Lakes and are able to inject revenue into their businesses as well. … Being able to spend money locally in each of the communities was really important to me, and it was amazing to see that personal impact.

“During our research and our search for growth, we had the opportunity to research all these other companies that service the cruise industry for shore excursions. We have been to Alaska, for example, and we have reviewed a company that took 40 years to build what it has done for all cruise lines (this tour) I have six months to do it and I’m in the middle of that six months…. It’s evolving to a pace so fast because growth is coming into the market. By 2024, there will be such an increase in demand for cruises (on the Great Lakes).”

What awaits you as local tourism continues to make a comeback?

“As we look to the future, we’re looking at the impact of the 2024 Republican National Convention on the capabilities of not just Milwaukee, but also Chicago. Right now, I’m making all my reservations for 2024 for blocks of hotel rooms and for buses because I have to make sure that all of my customers and our cruise ships can still come to Milwaukee and Chicago at that time when inventory is going to be really tight and expensive.

“As we continue to grow, I think greater opportunities continue to come our way and so we just continue to react to those opportunities and talk to people and see how we can meet those needs. None opportunity that presents itself to us is not too crazy.

About Marc Womack

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