Choose Chicago tourism bureau weakened as post-COVID travel picks up

Jessica Wong

But that’s just where the challenge begins for Choose, which now has to overcome real and perceived concerns that the city isn’t a safe or inviting place to visit during the pandemic. It’s a gloomy backdrop for local tourism sector stakeholders facing the herculean task of reviving visitation, with hundreds […]

But that’s just where the challenge begins for Choose, which now has to overcome real and perceived concerns that the city isn’t a safe or inviting place to visit during the pandemic. It’s a gloomy backdrop for local tourism sector stakeholders facing the herculean task of reviving visitation, with hundreds of millions of dollars in tourism-related tax revenue and tens of thousands of local jobs on the line.

“We need (Choose Chicago) more than ever to make sure people are thinking about Chicago,” says Michael Jacobson, CEO of the Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association. “Unfortunately at a time when we need them the most, their hands are tied behind their back.”

Chicago tourism was rolling before the pandemic, with nearly 61 million visitors to the city in 2019—the eighth consecutive record-breaking year, according to Choose Chicago data. Those annual increases came despite years of national headlines spotlighting the city’s issues with violent crime that threatened to keep tourists away.

But the pandemic has exacerbated some of those issues. Periodic carjackings and robberies have recently plagued the heart of the city. Much of the central business district remains sparsely populated during the day, while many hotels and restaurants remain shuttered.

Choose Chicago, which declined to make any of its executives available for comment on its strategy for luring visitors, is now trying to thread the needle of broadcasting that the city is open for fun but also safe and still under significant COVID-19-related restrictions.

That will require more than just promoting the city’s normal tourist destinations like Navy Pier or Millennium Park, says Michael Fassnacht, who has worked with Choose Chicago over the past year as the city’s chief marketing officer.

“We can’t just tell people we’re open now again. We have to give them concrete reasons to experience Chicago again,” Fassnacht says, citing ongoing discussions with the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs & Special Events and downtown neighborhood associations about staging outdoor events to help draw visitors. The Chicago Loop Alliance, for example, recently asked the city to shut down part of State Street for up to 12 Sundays this summer to highlight local art, culture and retailers.

“I’m very optimistic starting in May that we’ll have a cadence of weekly events and reasons why you should come, all flanked by this overall message that we’re open again,” Fassnacht says, though he warns the comeback won’t be at the same speed as other cities “that are going from zero to 100. That is not us. That is not smart, that’s not thoughtful. It’s a dimmer switch.”

Funding promotion for such events will also require some creativity, though Choose could still get some emergency help from public coffers—especially with $7.5 billion in federal COVID-19 stimulus money rolls in. Sylvia Garcia, acting director of the Illinois Department of Commerce & Economic Opportunity, says that her agency is planning a tourism marketing and promotion campaign this spring or summer. Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s proposed budget for the coming fiscal year also includes pre-COVID levels of spending for tourism promotion regardless of hotel tax collections that normally back such marketing efforts.

Choose is running some regional ad campaigns this spring and summer—pooling resources with other Chicago-area towns in some cases—to promote attractions that are open or that will be soon.

Early returns have been positive: Average occupancy at downtown hotels that were open during each of the last two weeks of March and first two weeks of April was higher than 30 percent, according to data from research firm STR. That’s still a fraction of the 70 percent occupancy rate that would be typical for early spring during a normal pre-pandemic year, but an improvement from the first year of the pandemic, when occupancy never rose higher than 27 percent for a single week, STR data shows.

More advertising will help continue that momentum, but the trajectory of the pandemic and safety of city streets will ultimately determine the fate of businesses that rely on tourists, says Andrew Sargis, chief of operations for Wendella Tours & Cruises.

“Our employees and patrons need to feel safe coming and working downtown,” says Sargis, whose fleet of vessels for boat tours and water taxi rides drew 700,000 passengers in 2019. The company suffered a 75 percent hit to its annual revenue last year. “We need to make sure there aren’t continually high levels of crime, and people need to feel like they’re not going to get sick.”

Another prong to Choose’s strategy while it waits for international and business travel to come back will be pushing more Chicago-area residents to explore city neighborhoods. The tourism group last month hired Rob Fojtik, a former adviser to Mayor Lori Lightfoot, as its senior director of neighborhood strategy and announced liquor giant Diageo will donate $2.5 million to help build and promote more outdoor dining spaces, with a focus on disinvested South and West Side communities.

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