A message from Joe Ward, President of Experience Rochester and Mayo Civic Center

This article appeared in the April 30, 2022 edition of the Rochester Post Bulletin.

Joe WardMy family and I moved to Rochester in late summer of 2019 for my role as president of Experience Rochester and the Mayo Civic Center. It was an exciting time for my family, moving to a new and growing city with hope in our hearts for a bright future. But then, something changed.

Just over six months into my tenure, COVID-19 dealt us a blow that none of us will ever forget. Mayo Civic Center was closed by state order. A center that was meant to bring people together fell eerily silent.

Around the city, the bustling traffic in the skyways and subways essentially disappeared overnight. People were uncertain and scared about the unfolding pandemic. Our tens of thousands of tremendous health care workers in our community found themselves on the front lines, experiencing unprecedented levels of stress. 

Whatever the answers were for the pandemic, it was crystal clear to me that many of the innovative care and medical research answers would emanate from this great city.

At the Mayo Civic Center, we were proud to have worked with the City of Rochester and Olmsted County to quickly reopen as a day and night shelter, then partner with the Boys and Girls Club and other area nonprofits to open a distance learning center. Months later, we took on the role as one of Minnesota’s mass vaccination sites. Unfortunately, meetings, conventions and live entertainment would have to wait.

Early lockdown days saw restaurants and retailers close and when allowed to reopen months later, we saw how the entrepreneurs behind them pivoted. They found unique ways to serve, changed up their business practices and charted a new course for the future. Many made it through, but sadly, some did not. Throughout the hardship, we welcomed new hospitality businesses to Rochester. ThaiPop, Workshop Food Hall, Purple Goat, Janky Gear and the Knotty Woodpecker are just a few examples. Four new hotels also opened.

Business is now starting to come back at Mayo Civic Center and gradually throughout the city. We’ve hosted city-wide conferences already this year and we are seeing the return of live entertainment and large sporting events, but this journey to the new normal has just begun.

As we embark on National Travel and Tourism Week (May 1-7), we recognize the critical role the travel industry plays in rebuilding our local economy. 

We now vividly know what a world without travel looks like, and I’m confident in saying that is a place where none of us would like to return. We are all craving to reconnect with family and friends, and new experiences.

Our hospitality partners need us, and we need them. Our hotels crave the return of international travelers, business travelers and convention delegates who come to Rochester to learn or to train.  Our restaurants and retailers need visitors and locals alike, many of whom now work from home.

Small businesses are the essence of our community, of diversity in culture, food and style. They also happen to be the places that visitors enjoy most. I’m inviting each of you to rediscover a slice of Rochester and bring some guests along for the experience. We welcome all of those who now work from home back to rediscover the Rochester community.

The past two years have been the hardest most of us have ever faced. Together, we’ve overcome our industry’s most devastating crisis — and now, the importance of travel is clearer than ever before.

I can’t wait to meet everyone I missed as a newcomer. It's so gratifying to now explore Rochester with my family. Plus, I’m a hockey and soccer dad, which provides me the opportunity to engage more in the community on a personal level. I’m excited to see you on the patio of a restaurant, at Thursdays Downtown this summer or at a show at the Mayo Civic Center.

Mayo Clinic put Rochester on the map, and we wear the “Med City” moniker with pride. We’ve seen so much growth in the hospitality community over the past several years due in large part to Mayo Clinic. The next phase of the visitor economy also needs you to support local.

The pandemic has left long-lasting impacts, but it will not stop us.  The future is indeed now.  Let’s all be part of it and shape the new normal with individuality; let your unique spirit shine and celebrate with those extraordinary establishments that have put it all on the line to serve.