VISIT Milwaukee has its new leader. As the city gears up for an event-packed 2020—hosting the Democratic National Convention and serving as a home base for the Ryder Cup, to name a few—it announced that Peggy Williams-Smith will be its new president and CEO, effective November 18.

Williams-Smith replaces Paul Upchurch, who in May announced he was stepping down.

After a months-long national search, Williams-Smith, senior vice president of Marcus Hotels & Resorts, was selected from a national field of candidates. She is a lifelong Milwaukeean and the first woman to lead the organization. 

“Peggy is well known in the Milwaukee community as a leader and as a woman who makes things happen, so she was a natural choice for the role,” said Omar Shaikh, the chair of the VISIT Milwaukee Board of Directors who headed up the search. “Ultimately, the search committee was impressed with her vision for VISIT Milwaukee and her passion for the destination.”

Williams-Smith comes with both hospitality credentials and deep Milwaukee roots. She grew up in the suburbs of Milwaukee and is a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee graduate.

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After a few short stints away in Chicago and Los Angeles, Williams-Smith returned to Milwaukee in 1995 and has been there ever since. She’s a 30-year industry veteran, honing much of her hospitality skills at Milwaukee-based Marcus Corporation since 1997.

Williams-Smith sees the local experience she brings to VISIT Milwaukee as an edge, for both herself and for meeting professionals, especially as the city continues to prepare for a big year.

“I can hit the ground running. I know how the city works. I know how to navigate the politics of the city,” she said. “I think knowing everyone here is important, especially in this upcoming year. I can make connections between people hosting events here for the first time with people in the city.”

Additionally, she has co-chaired the citywide United Performing Arts Fund (UPAF) campaign and is a member of women-empowering Professional Dimensions and TEMPO Milwaukee.

The Milwaukee community has long recognized her local reach and impact, too, with the Milwaukee Business Journal naming her a “40 under 40” winner in 2010 and a “Woman of Influence” in 2017.   

Her appointment comes at a time when Milwaukee is emerging as a hot destination. Airbnb recently named the city its No. 1 trending destination for 2020 after seeing a 729% year-over-year growth in bookings. Even Meetings Today is bringing its MidAmerica LIVE event to Milwaukee next May.

“We’ve been on a constant occupancy growth for 72 months and we continue to build hotels,” she said. “We also have the Ryder Cup coming to Kohler, which is about a 35-minute drive away, and we see people coming in and doing pre-visits for that.”

Milwaukee will also host the USA Triathlon 2020 Age Group National Championships next summer.

With its big-time exposure and Williams-Smith at the helm wielding her experience and passion for her home city, Milwaukee seems poised for success in 2020 and beyond.

“I don’t think Milwaukee could be any more prepared for this,” Williams-Smith said. “I want people to walk away knowing that this is great meeting destination, and that we can also handle large-scale conventions.”

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