Return of conventions boosting tourism in Dubuque

With multiple conferences at Dubuque’s event centers and hotels in the coming months, local leaders hope the gradual return of large gatherings will bolster the area’s tourism season.

The International Snowmobile Congress wraps up today at Grand River Center, drawing more than 400 attendees. This week, the convention center will welcome more than 600 visitors for the Iowa Association of Business and Industry’s annual Taking Care of Business Conference, at which Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds is slated to speak.

Dubuque will play host to several other events this summer poised to draw attendees from a wide range of areas, from a state gathering of county auditors to a rally of Harley-Davidson motorcycle enthusiasts.

The busy schedule is one more sign of a local tourism industry that is bouncing back from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Julie Kronlage, vice president of sales for Travel Dubuque.

“While it was pretty quiet in 2020 and 2021, we’ve definitely seen a rebound in 2022,” she said. “Our hotels that offer meeting services are seeing some really good local and regional corporate groups coming in … and we know when we fill the convention center, the impact it makes to the entire city is remarkable.”

Andrea Willey, volunteer with Iowa State Snowmobile Association and chairperson for this year’s International Snowmobile Congress, said this marks the fourth time that Iowa has hosted the event.

“There’s lots of different avenues for tourism here,” she said, noting that attendees visited the Field of Dreams movie site in Dyersville on Thursday evening. “We like to showcase Iowa when we have (the congress), and Dubuque is the first city in the state, so we thought it would be a good venue. It just had everything that we needed to be able to make a successful event.”

Jack Hasken, president/CEO of Jackson Manufacturing in Maquoketa and current board chair for the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, said the Taking Care of Business conference has been held in Dubuque multiple times, most recently in 2017.

“ABI members love Dubuque,” he said. “They see the success story that we have here. They see how we’ve diversified our economy and invested in the infrastructure and businesses, and just what a great city Dubuque is.”

The ABI conference will include networking, workshops, guest speakers and industry tours, along with time for visits to local attractions such as Eagle Point Park, Mathias Ham House and Steeple Square.

Grand River Center General Manager Mitzi Yordy said the rest of the summer at the convention center largely will be filled with weddings and similar social events, but conventions and corporate gatherings will start to pick back up again around September.

“It’s nowhere near pre-COVID times, but we are seeing an increase,” she said, adding that convention attendance is still somewhat dampened as people continue to take advantage of virtual options. “It’s definitely getting better — not quite normal, but getting better.”

Dwight Hopfauf, general manager of Hotel Julien Dubuque, said the hotel is seeing strong bookings for local, regional and state groups.

“I think that there’s a returning faction of corporate-style business, although I think it’s still sporadic in regards to large events,” he said. “There’s more smaller corporate stuff that’s starting to happen.”

Whether it’s an international gathering or a regional conference, Hopfauf said inbound travel to any area hotel or conference center benefits the rest by increasing compression in the local market. When one hotel is booked solid, additional travelers are pushed to find other lodging, and hotels often can sell their few remaining rooms at a higher rate.

“The more travel into a community, the better time for all the hotels and the restaurants and the lounges and the gas stations … because travelers bring money with them and they spend it,” he said.

Kronlage said the Iowa State Association of County Auditors will hold its summer conference at Hotel Julien later this month, and the North American Trainers Association will return to Dubuque Regional Airport for its annual training event featuring vintage military aircraft in late July.

Also in July, Hotel Julien will host the first Regional Mid-America H.O.G. (Harley Owners Group) Rally, a gathering of Harley-Davidson motorcycle enthusiasts. Hopfauf said more than 900 people are registered to attend the event, hailing from 32 U.S. states and Canada.

“I know every hotel in the community has some level of riders that will be staying with them,” he said. “It’ll be a big deal.”