Bolstered by big events, Chicago had a record number of visitors last year, but the city may be a harder sell as a travel destination in 2016.
Convention bookings are down, tourism advertising has been scaled back and Chicago’s image is suffering because of gun violence, police brutality and growing political unrest, presenting something less than a picture postcard for potential visitors.
“I don’t think Chicago is broken, but it certainly faces some serious challenges,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst with Atmosphere Research Group.
The NFL Draft, Lollapalooza, the Grateful Dead’s farewell concerts and Chi-Town Rising, the nascent New Year’s Eve celebration, helped draw a record 51.7 million visitors in 2015, according to Choose Chicago, the city’s convention and tourism bureau.
Those positive images have been offset in recent months by the release of dashcam video of the fatal police shooting of black teenager Laquan McDonald, the premiere of the Spike Lee movie “Chi-Raq” and Black Friday protests that shut down parts of the North Michigan Avenue shopping district.
Even President Barack Obama invoked his hometown as synonymous with violence during last week’s nationally televised town hall on gun control.
“I know the issues are real, they are heartbreaking in terms of what’s occurred,” said Don Welsh, president of Choose Chicago. “There are things that have got to be corrected in the city.”
Despite the spate of negative news, Chicago still makes a great winter weekend getaway for residents of say, Grand Rapids, Mich. At least that’s the message in an updated 30-second commercial that began airing regionally on DirecTV last week, promoting the city’s attractions as “cures for cabin fever.”
Welsh remains hopeful that a busy events calendar, which includes the return of the NFL Draft and the national tour premiere of the Broadway hit “Hamilton,” will keep tourists coming to Chicago throughout the year.
“I’m not overly concerned that we’re going to see any type of appreciable drop-off of overall business in 2016,” Welsh said.
Last year, the city targeted markets like Denver and San Francisco with bold advertising casting Chicago as an “Epic” destination. This year, Chicago will focus nearly all of its marketing efforts on markets like Indianapolis and Detroit, its bread-and-butter for weekend visitors.
Meanwhile, Choose Chicago is scrambling to make up a huge shortfall in convention room nights for 2016. Chicago has nine fewer conventions and 187,000 fewer hotel room nights booked than last year at this time. The loss of the Microsoft Ignite conference, which was scheduled for May before it relocated to Atlanta, cost the city nearly 89,000 room nights and some $56 million in economic impact.
“To take a hit as big as Microsoft was a huge impact,” Welsh said.
The city is looking to local companies to fill the void, offering discounts of up to 50 percent on hotel rooms and 20 percent on exhibit halls and meeting rooms at McCormick Place. Adding any major citywide conventions for 2016 is unlikely, Welsh said.
Chicago ranked third behind Orlando and New York in 2014 in total visitors. The city lags its peers in overseas visitors, dropping one spot to 10th in 2014, according to the National Travel and Tourism Office.
Two years ago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel set a goal of 55 million visitors a year by 2020, touting tourism as an economic boon and job creator for the city. He launched Choose Chicago in 2012 by combining two bureaus into the city’s official tourism organization.
Choose Chicago’s funding was frozen by the state’s ongoing budget impasse in June, forcing the agency to lay off one-fourth of its staff, close international offices in Canada and Mexico, and pull the plug on advertising during the second half of 2015.
The state provides about 40 percent of Choose Chicago’s annual budget, which remains at about $30 million for 2016. Funding was restored in December, including $7 million owed by the state from last year. But with another June deadline looming, Choose Chicago is reining in its ambitions this year.
The advertising budget has shrunk to $2.5 million, down 17 percent from last year. More than half of the money will go into a TV campaign airing exclusively on DirecTV, targeting Midwestern subscribers identified as potential Chicago visitors.
International advertising has been cut to less than $200,000, down from $500,000 in 2012, and all of it will be aimed at supporting Chicago’s remaining tourism offices in China.
“It’s not as if we don’t want to be in the national or international markets, but we see a greater return on investment faster when we’re regional,” Welsh said.
Ron Culp, a public relations and advertising instructor at DePaul University, said Chicago is taking the right approach by staying close to home with its marketing efforts this year, focusing on people “predisposed” to coming to the city.
Culp likened Chicago’s image woes to New York circa 1977, which launched the “I Love New York” campaign while the city was teetering on bankruptcy and beset by crime, grime and other problems. The campaign endured and the city long ago turned around, reaching 56.5 million visitors in 2014, according to its tourism organization.
“Chicago has never fallen into the state of disrepair that New York had to dig out from, so I think it’s very important to continue pushing the positives,” Culp said. “That’s obviously what they are attempting to do, although on a smaller scale than probably desired.”
Travel analyst Harteveldt said Chicago will eventually have to ramp up its marketing efforts to change the conversation and keep tourism growing.
“The city’s leaders have no choice but to increase its tourism marketing budget,” Harteveldt said. “Right now, the city’s image is being controlled by various news stories. If its tourism leaders want to overcome this, they need to make business, conference and leisure travelers feel welcome and confident that they will be safe.”
Welsh is looking to reopen the city’s tourism offices in Canada and Mexico this year, and said increased international advertising will be necessary down the road to make Chicago a “real global player.” But a lower profile will prevail, at home and abroad, until the state’s financial situation is resolved, and the city’s black eye fades.
“You can’t throw good dollars against a bad situation,” Welsh said.