Chicago may get a bad rap from some (wimps) when it comes to weather. Sure, there’s wind and cold, but that’s a non-issue for meeting planners and attendees.
To start, the Windy City is No. 3 on the list of best convention cities in the United States. It’s also the 2017 Restaurant City of the Year as voted by Bon Appetit and the 2017 Best Big City in the U.S., according to the readers of Condé Nast Traveler. Modis, a global IT and engineering staffing agency, named Chicago the nation’s top tech hotspot of the future. The city’s individual hotels, restaurants and attractions routinely garner accolades and awards of their own, and Choose Chicago, the city’s CVB, has comprehensive tools and programs for planners, whether it’s an executive meeting for 10 or an event for thousands.
There are more than 110,000 guest rooms in the Chicagoland area and almost 40,000 hotel rooms in the central business district, to say nothing of McCormick Place, one of the top convention centers in the nation. In short, the city has everything it takes to make meetings successful and to give planners plenty of choices.
Nina Cardillo, general manager of the AlliedPRA Chicago office, puts it this way: “Typical corporate events experience programs with higher than usual turnout in Chicago due to the attraction of the destination. Attendees may come for the meeting but they’ll stay for the vast array of things to do and see.” Cardillo lists meeting space; world-class attractions; culture; and a diverse range of venue selections, accommodations and sightseeing offerings as among the city’s assets.
While airlift is a major concern in many destinations, Cardillo says Chicago wins on the transportation front, too. “Centered in the heart of America, Chicago is a convenient airline hub with two first-class airports with over 80 carriers within an hour of downtown Chicago. O’Hare International has been named the best airport for 14 years running, also known as the world’s busiest for flight operations, making the destination easily accessible for local and international travelers. If flying isn’t in the works,” she adds, “Chicago is within a day’s drive for more than 46 million people, again adding to the appeal of the location for corporate events.”
When it comes to culture, Chicago is no one-trick pony, which gives it appeal for national and international groups alike. “Chicago is home to more than 1,800 foreign-based companies,” Cardillo notes. “Robust international business helps shape the city’s culture and expand its global presence. And with over 77 diverse communities offering their own distinct vibe, culture, attractions and cuisine, meeting attendees will appreciate the city’s distinctive art, history and languages.”
Cardillo believes Chicago’s unique and unconventional venues are a big draw for planners and attendees alike. “The Adler Planetarium offers a beautiful backdrop with three distinct theaters and stimulating exhibits with up to 60,000 sf for large group gatherings, and the terrace patios offer some of the city’s most amazing skylines. 360 Chicago, formerly known as the John Hancock Observatory, competes for dramatic views combined with its newly added special-event space on the 94th floor, accommodating groups of up to 600. If larger space is in order, the impressive and massive 1.45-million-sf Cinespace Chicago Film Studio should inspire guests to earn their 15 minutes of fame.”
When a large blank canvas for an opening-night reception or final-night gala is desired, Cardillo says Veriport fits the bill. “This 10-acre site in Chicago’s Illinois Medical District boasts a 30,000-sf hangar with three large bays that open to a five-acre tarmac. The raw space is easily transformable and lends itself to well-over-the-top concepts. A clear tent allows attendees to view the breathtaking skyline as a backdrop to the event and will eliminate any concerns about the chilly Chicago weather. Water venues are abundant as well for private corporate events, from luxury vessels to specially fitted private yachts set to cruising along Chicago’s River and Downtown Lakefront Harbor.”
As for the city’s justifiably lauded restaurant scene, Cardillo says, “Chicago may be referred to as the ‘Second City’ next to New York, but it refuses to play second fiddle when it comes to dining experiences. A gourmet dining epicenter, the Windy City is better known as America’s best restaurant city, with its several local specialties. Moving beyond the deep-dish pizza or classic Chicago-style dog, guests can immerse themselves in every imaginable food craving with unforgettable culinary experiences at Michelin-starred restaurants.”
Among the restaurants Cardillo and her staff may tap for functions and events: Spiaggia, which Cardillo calls a “must-dine” destination for locals and visitors alike; RPM Steak, in the River North neighborhood; Lena Brava, latest labor of love from Chef Rick Bayless; Gibson’s, an institution in the Gold Coast neighborhood; Swift & Sons in Chicago’s former meatpacking district; and Chicago Firehouse Restaurant, housed in the 1905 Romanesque Revival building that was once home to Engine Company 104 of the Chicago Fire Department.
Cardillo adds one critical culinary note about eating Chicago’s famous hot dogs: “No ketchup!”
Some of Chicago’s most famous attractions are also the most popular for functions and attendee experiences, including Second City Improv Theatre, the 95th floor of the Hancock Center and the renowned architecture riverboat cruise.
Planners may not know, however, that Chicago also offers outdoor summer adventures. “During the warmer months, guests can try their hand at sailing lessons on Lake Michigan, kayaking on the Chicago River and biking down the lakefront path,” Cardillo says. “And there’s no doubt Chicago is known for its sports and even more so for its colorful fans. Home to the World Series Champion Cubs and iconic Wrigley Field, guests can appreciate a baseball game at a private Wrigley rooftop while eating a Chicago hotdog, or an event along the sidelines at Soldier Field.”
And when the Windy City is a “winter wonderland,” Cardillo adds, “there are more than 40 world-class museums to explore. The Art Institute of Chicago is home to vast collections, which include the most Impressionist works outside of The Louvre; but art museums are just the start of what the city has to offer. From the Field Museum’s treasure trove of natural history, to more than 32,500 animals at the Shedd Aquarium to star gazing at the Adler Planetarium, the list is long and wide.”
Additionally, AlliedPRA can arrange a customized Grand City Tour.
Nicole Lavin, general manager of destination management company Hosts Chicago, points out another of Chicago’s many awards as one of the Top 10 Cities in the United States as ranked by CNN Travel. She, too, lauds the city’s embarrassment of riches when it comes to boosting attendance.
“Nearly 40 million people visit Chicago annually. We boast some of the country’s best music, theater, restaurants, festivals, art, attractions, sporting events and more. Our cuisine is unbeatable. Chicago has world-class convention facilities, easy and efficient public transportation and distinct, cultural neighborhoods waiting to be discovered. Simply put, it’s easy to fall in love with the Windy City.”
One thing Chicago knows how to do, Lavin says, is host a get-together. “We have world-class hotels, spacious convention centers, historic buildings, elegant theaters and beyond — many of them with a view of our spectacular skyline. McCormick Place, a famous Chicago landmark, offers the largest amount of exhibition space in North America, with over 2 million sf.”
And of course, that’s not all. “Want to see the Windy City from all different perspectives? Then the land, air, water tour is for you. You’ll hear the history behind the Wrigley building from the architectural river cruise, experience travel like a local on the El and soar about the city skyline in a helicopter,” Lavin notes. “And everyone wants to experience the city’s bustling food scene, especially Chicago’s famous deep-dish pizza. The neighborhood pizza tour takes guests throughout the city to experience the best deep-dish of the city.”
Chicago also has more for sports fans than its best-known teams. “In 2018, the Laver Cup will pit six top European players against their counterparts from the rest of the World in tennis as you’ve never seen it before at the United Center,” Lavin says.
She, too, gives thumbs up to Chicago’s varied warm-weather assets. “Summertime in Chicago — the 100 days that locals look forward to every year! The city is alive with packed patios, the bustling lakefront, packed rooftops and, of course, street fests. Cheers echo from the ‘friendly confines’ of Wrigleyville throughout Lakeview, beer gardens are filled with crowds desperate to have the token patio seat and scents from delicious outdoor dining waft through each neighborhood.”
But Lavin also points to a value-added use of another of Chicago’s most notable assets — excellent shopping — for meetings and incentives. “Take your employees shopping,” she says. “Our team is becoming specialized in tailored shopping experiences. For a recent software client, we secured a semi-private shopping experience in the Nike store located on Michigan Avenue, where guests enjoyed cocktails and hors d’oeuvres while being outfitted by Nike specialists with the latest in athletic gear. The client was thrilled with the daytime event because it offered a unique experience that provided employees with a customized takeaway item that reminded them each time they wore it how appreciated they were.”
The program was part of an incentive trip, but Lavin says this type of event works for other types of meetings, too. “The tailored retail programs are really good for client entertainment as well, or capabilities launches, to ensure high attendance numbers.”
And that’s what it’s really about. “These types of tailored experiences encourage participation,” she says.” Clients are consistently challenged to provide their guests with the next best experience to ensure strong turnout. When you offer something unique like a personalized retail experience, you are more likely to have higher attendance numbers, ensuring quality time with your employees or top clients.”
For planners considering a Chicago-based meeting, Lavin has a couple of suggestions. “Yearly conventions and city-wides are something to keep at top-of-mind when planning a meeting in Chicago. Many of these take up all of the hotel spaces in the city. The Choose Chicago Convention Calendar is a great resource when planning!”
And that infamous Chicago winter weather? “Don’t fear the cold!” Lavin says. “Hotels, bars and restaurants are embracing the long winter with retractable roofs, and now inflatable domes are popping up throughout the city. The domes can fit several guests in comfy chairs and accommodate a small table. Who says rooftops aren’t cool (or hot) in the dead of winter?”
Not surprising, things are always changing in Chicago. Ace Hotel Chicago made its debut in the West Loop neighborhood in August with 159 rooms, two restaurants and 9,000 sf of meeting space, and a handful of hotels wrapped up renovations. Hyatt Regency McCormick Place completed a $13 million restaurant renovation, while The Gwen Chicago recently upgraded its rooms and public spaces. Hyatt Regency Chicago added 12,000 sf of meeting space to its already expansive 228,000 sf, and Best Western River North Hotel spent $4.5 million, infusing its spaces with pops of color and a contemporary vibe.
The historic 1,544-room Hilton Chicago, on Michigan Avenue across from Grant Park, completed a $7 million renovation in fall 2017. The newest revamp enhances the third-floor meeting spaces and Salon C in the Stevens Meeting Center, leading to the finalization of an all-encompassing $150 million renovation and restoration initiative. The third floor is home to seven separate meeting rooms, accommodating up to 850 attendees. Salon C, which spans 28,000 sf, is one of four event spaces in the 115,000-sf Stevens Meeting Center. Other renovations completed as part of the overall $150 million renovation include the 10,080-sf Continental Ballroom, 600 accommodations and the 5,000-sf Conrad Hilton Suite, the largest suite in the Midwest. The Hilton Chicago offers a total of 234,000 sf of versatile meeting space, including the Grand Ballroom, which has hosted every United States President.
The 1,641-room Palmer House, a Hilton Hotel, is America’s longest continually operating hotel and is located in Chicago’s Loop where business and finance districts intersect with theater, dining, shopping and cultural arts. The hotel’s 130,000 sf of meeting space, all of which has been fully renovated, includes four ballrooms, 77 breakout rooms and 16,909 sf of exhibit space with floor-to-ceiling windows.
In all, Hilton boasts more than 30 full-service, luxury hotels in the Chicago market, from suburban locations to city center. Currently, Hilton is offering meeting groups a free morning coffee break or free evening cocktail reception for meetings booked by February 28, 2018 and actualized by December 31, 2018 (hilton.com/coffeeorcocktails).
Chicago isn’t the only meetings gem in the region. Cook County is the second most populous county in the United States. It stretches northwest and southwest of Chicago and includes two of the region’s stellar meetings destinations, away from the city yet within easy reach of downtown Chicago and O’Hare International Airport.
Located southwest of downtown and just over 40 miles from O’Hare International Airport, Tinley Park, in Chicago’s Southland, is home to the Tinley Park Convention Center with 70,000 sf of event space, 58,000 of it contiguous. Its 35-foot ceilings give exhibitors a lot of flexibility, as do the 21 breakout rooms of various sizes and the fact that the convention center is connected to 202-room Holiday Inn Tinley Park. Another 600 hotel rooms are located nearby.
Tinley Park has its own dining and attractions, and all that downtown Chicago offers is only 30 miles away.
Another town with a convenient hotel-convention-center pairing is Schaumburg, one of Chicago’s northwest suburbs. The Renaissance Schaumburg Convention Center Hotel is just 15 miles from O’Hare International Airport, giving planners a break on pricey Chicago transportation costs and attendees less time in airport shuttles. Schaumburg is about 30 miles from downtown Chicago.
The hotel and convention center provide planners with 148,624 sf of total space, 42 meeting rooms and capacity for more than 6,000 attendees, making it ideal for Connecticut-based Design-2-Part shows, one of the nation’s largest design and contract manufacturing trade shows. The May 2017 event attracted 2,200 attendees.
“The Schaumburg convention center is the perfect fit for our show,” says Jerry Schmidt, president of the company, noting that the key features that work so well for them include “easy access to the highways, free parking, column-free exhibit space and a large ballroom, all connected to a full-service business hotel.”
All show events were held at the Schaumburg Renaissance Hotel and the convention center. “We produce a two-day trade show with a large exhibitor reception, Schmidt says. “The catering department does an excellent job with our reception, which includes entertainment, an open bar and hand-passed appetizers for more than 300 guests. Having everything under one roof — seminar rooms, ballroom, hotel, convention center — makes it much easier to manage a successful show.”
In addition, the city of Schaumburg itself has benefits. “It has easy access to the Chicago manufacturing market without having the high prices and traffic issues of downtown Chicago,” Schmidt says. “I moved our show from St. Charles, Illinois, in 2007 and since that move our show has doubled in size and attendance. It’s one of the best business decisions I have made in the past 10 years.”
Nearby Itasca, Illinois, is another convenient northwest suburb just outside of Cook County, located 27 miles from downtown Chicago and 17 miles from O’Hare International Airport. Among Itasca’s meetings-friendly venues is Eaglewood Resort, the area’s go-to for groups looking for a resort setting for business meetings and conferences close to Chicago.
The 295-room resort, which received a $7.7 million renovation in 2015, offers more than 37,000 sf of IACC-certified function space as well as onsite planning services. Set on 106 wooded acres, Eaglewood combines its conference facilities with plenty of nature and a multitude of activities to keep attendees engaged and onsite before and after meetings. The resort has four restaurants, a 6,017-yard golf course and 10,000-sf spa, to say nothing of a six-lane retro bowling alley, bocce ball court, an Olympic-size pool, and fitness classes and equipment for all levels. Everything planners and attendees need is in one place.
In addition to being a short drive from Chicago, Eaglewood is also under four hours drive time from Indianapolis, Madison and Milwaukee, and 6.5 hours or less from Minneapolis, Des Moines, St. Louis and Detroit.
Whatever the size of your meeting, whatever your parameters for conference venues and goals might be, one thing is sure: Chicago and the surrounding area offer whatever you want, not the least of which are a central location, two airports and renowned dining.
But Cardillo points out something else planners should take into consideration, too. “Chicago,” she says,” is a city that embodies Midwest hospitality.” C&IT