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Tourists flocking back to Chicago in 2022, new figures show

The figures reflect a major uptick in travel demand last year that generated crucial tax revenue and began to pull local hotels out of a historic pandemic-induced hole. Choose reported that tourists spent $16.9 billion in the city last year, or 89% of their collective 2019 outlays, noting that the city’s hotels averaged 60% occupancy last year, up from 43% last year. previous year, but still below the average of 74% in 2019.

The resurgence in tourism also suggests that Chicago can still draw visitors despite public safety concerns, which lingered this year after widely publicized outbreaks of violence last weekend and in April.

Continued recovery is vital for a city and state that have relied more on taxes related to tourism and convention business over the past decade, but were slower than most other parts of the country to lift the COVID-related bans on large group gatherings. Chicago lags slightly behind other major urban centers like New York City and San Francisco, which reported 2022 visitation at 85% and 84% of the 2019 total, respectively. Los Angeles’ tourism promotion arm said the city drew 91% of its total pre-pandemic tourism last year, while Orlando, Florida, one of Chicago’s main competitors for large conventions, said visitation they were 98% of their 2019 figure.

Choice Chicago CEO Lynn Osmond, the longtime CEO of the Chicago Architecture Center who took the reins at the tourism organization just over a year ago, called 2022 a “really good payback year.” ” for the city’s tourism sector and said the city is on track to reach its 2023 goal of 54 million visitors.

“The energy that we’re seeing in people returning to travel is really significant,” Osmond said.

In addition to his 2023 goal, Osmond today released a strategic plan for Choose Chicago that sets a goal of attracting at least 61 million visitors by 2025. The plan also sets other planned benchmarks by then, such as increasing the economic impact of leisure travel by 20% and increasing the number of international travelers to Chicago to 1.8 million. That would be up from the nearly 1.5 million last year, but still down from the 2.2 million who came to Chicago from outside the country in 2019, Choose Chicago data shows.

Business travel has been slower to come back than leisure, as virtual meetings have replaced a segment of travel that used to fill many downtown hotel rooms midweek. Choose hopes to offset some of that slow recovery with new group business, working with companies at regular corporate meetings around town. “That’s a market opportunity we’re exploring,” Osmond said.

Helping your cause this year are some additional financial resources. Choose said his 2023 budget, which relies heavily on hotel tax revenue hampered by the pandemic, rose 10% year-over-year to $29.1 million. On top of that, the group recently received another $3.5 million raise from the state of Illinois under the budget passed last week. That one-time grant, which will be used during the second half of this year and the first half of 2024, will be dedicated primarily to national and international marketing campaigns.

Chicago hasn’t had billboards or ad campaigns in other markets in recent years because of Choose’s shrinking budget, Osmond said. “We need the additional funds to get the word out across the country (and) have more people in our global tour department,” she said. While some large cities have more than half a dozen employees who work directly with tour operators to attract them to the city, Choose Chicago has two.

Choose and the Metropolitan Pier & Exposition Authority, the agency that owns and operates McCormick Place, also recently got a reprieve to use the nearly $10 million left in an incentive fund to help recruit conventions. The fund, which the state legislature approved during the pandemic to help McCormick Place compete with rival cities, was previously only meant to be used for conventions due to take place in 2026. The group recently won approval to dole out those funds for events to take place. later, though all the money must be used by the end of 2026, according to a Choose spokesperson.

Choose faces a challenge rebuilding a convention lineup depleted by high-profile defections like the Sweets & Snacks Expo, which recently held its last talk in Chicago after meeting here for 25 of its 26 years.

A key win on the horizon is the 2024 Democratic National Convention, which Osmond said the city needs to tap into as a brand builder coming out of the pandemic. The same goes for a crucial conference due to take place in 2025 known as IPW, a meeting of international tour operators that has not been held in the city since 2014.

Osmond has added 14 people to Choose Chicago’s staff since taking over as chief executive, bringing the organization’s full-time staff to 62, up from 75 before the pandemic. Choose is close to hiring a new marketing director to help align its various departments “so we’re all singing from the same choir book,” said Osmond, who spent the early part of his career programming symphonies in California, New York and his native Canada before moving to Chicago.

Choose intends to keep its “When You Go You Know” marketing campaign going until at least the end of this year, a tagline it has primarily used on social media. For planned national and international traditional advertising campaigns, Osmond also plans to promote the title of “Best Large City in the US.” of Chicago awarded by Condé Nast Traveler in 2022, the sixth consecutive year the city has enjoyed the recognition.

“We’re going to market it to the max,” Osmond said.