When it comes to meetings, Chicago isn’t a ‘Second City,’ because it has everything planners need to plan any type of small or large event.
Chicago offers one of the nation’s top, big-city combinations of nightlife, entertainment, airlift and cultural and culinary experiences. Most of all, the ‘Windy City’ provides a large collection of hotels with ample meeting and guest room space.
Conde Nast Readers’ Choice Awards recently named Chicago the “Best Large City in the U.S.” for the third consecutive year. In addition, Chicago ranked No. 3 after Las Vegas and Orlando on Global DMC Partners’ 2018 Global Destination Index of the most popular North American meeting and incentive destinations.
“The city continues to grow as a destination, having surpassed 58 million visitors a year in 2018, up 5.7% from 2017, including achieving a record 31 million overnight visitors and record leisure visitor volume of 44 million, an increase of 6.4%.” David Whitaker
It’s no wonder that Chicago has developed a reputation for attracting groups nationwide and worldwide. Chicago’s expanding infrastructure will attract even more visitors and groups in the future.
According to David Whitaker, president and CEO of Choose Chicago, “The city continues to grow as a destination, having surpassed 58 million visitors a year in 2018, up 5.7% from 2017, including achieving a record 31 million overnight visitors and record leisure visitor volume of 44 million, an increase of 6.4%.”
“An eight-year plan to expand O’Hare International Airport is in motion, as is a $400 million modernization program at Midway International Airport, giving Chicago the needed capacity to receive rising numbers of visitors, and giving planners and delegates more options to get in and out of the city,” Whitaker says.
O’Hare and Midway offer flights through a combined total of more than 80 carriers. The expansion of O’Hare marks the first improvements to its terminals in over 25 years. Construction is expected wrap up by 2026.
The growing popularity of Chicago among planners stems partly from efforts by Choose Chicago to attract a wide range of meetings, conventions and events. While Choose Chicago’s sales team works diligently to secure long-term, multiyear meetings, there’s also a focus on short-term bookings.
Overall, says Whitaker, “The primary goal is to educate prospects on the multiple factors that make Chicago an excellent place to convene and to showcase its attributes, such as airlift out of our city’s two international airports, convenience and accessibility throughout the downtown core and surrounding neighborhoods, the wide array of unique venue options, and an increase in hotel inventory among other factors.”
Choose Chicago also ensures that efforts to provide value accompanies the growing variety of properties. “We work closely with our partners to provide competitive pricing and incentives to best facilitate meetings looking to host their groups in Chicago,” Whitaker says. “Our dedicated team works with clients every step of the way to ensure they have the best possible meeting.”
One of Chicago’s biggest attractions for groups is its multitude of offerings.
According to Whitaker, “It’s a diverse destination and this gives corporate meeting planners variety and flexibility when planning meetings for groups both large and small. The diversity also allows planners to account for options and experiences available to their attendees outside of the meeting – cultural attractions, food and drink establishments, theater and entertainment, and neighborhood explorations. Moving throughout the city is also manageable and easy, and the connectivity available through Chicago airports makes it an ideal choice.”
Jessica Jonas, client engagement manager, BCD Meetings & Events, has held several corporate meetings in Chicago. “We choose Chicago based on ease of travel,” Jonas says. “For one particular event, the company had a clear goal of allowing attendees to quickly utilize and implement the meeting content following the event. Chicago proved to be the best destination for a variety of reasons: Its centralized location has countless hotel options, while O’Hare and Midway offer plenty of airlift, including international.”
Chicago was also ideal because the headquarters of the company was located within short driving distance of the hotel. “These attributes allowed meeting attendees to quickly travel in and out of the city, easily get to headquarters and extend their stay to visit with clients,” Jonas says. “Whether they needed to implement their knowledge in their home office, at the corporate office, or immediately onsite, Chicago delivered.”
Chicago’s many meeting hotels offer spacious rooms that allow the creation of imaginative attendee experiences.
During the 2018 Winter Olympics, for example, Tracy Gleason, general manager of Hosts Chicago, planned a reception for a corporate group at a popular Chicago meeting property. “We were charged with bringing the ballroom to life and delivering an experience filled with Olympic spirit,” Gleason says.” We brought in live coverage of the Olympics to play throughout the space and pulled together activities that mimicked a variety of winter sports.”
Hosts Chicago also provided snowboarding and skiing simulators, an après ski bar, transformative lighting effects, celebratory music and flags from around the world. “It was truly amazing and so festive. Guests were very engaged and loved the opportunity to participate in activities that were relevant to what was going on,” Gleason says.
Chicago is also popular because it is jam-packed with a plethora of unique venues that can match the needs of any meeting or event.
Heather Brown, CMP, DMCP, general manager of PRA Chicago, says venues that corporate groups enjoy include the Untitled Supper Club, which offers a contemporary revival of the prohibition era. “It’s one of our most popular venues for corporate guests,” Brown says. “Groups enjoy its Chicago-centric themes such as prohibition and the gangster era. Untitled offers the perfect space for receptions and seated dinners for groups of all sizes. There is ample space to add entertainment and experiential elements such as whiskey tastings.”
Brown adds that corporate guests love entering the Untitled Supper Club through its unmarked doors and experiencing the feel of a true speakeasy. The décor also provides a masculine feel with exposed brick, striking bars and textured seating.
Other popular venues among corporate groups include the Flight Club, a high-tech dart bar that offers a relaxing retreat.
Says Brown, “We had a smaller group looking for an off-site activity that offered a casual setting that would give them the opportunity to unwind after a long week of meetings. This particular group was tired of the formal sit-down dinner feel and Flight Club was perfect for what our client had in mind. The group was able to enjoy a fun, interactive evening of playing social darts, dining on casual bites, and taking in gorgeous views of the city. We received great feedback during and after the event.”
Theater on the Lake, a restored 1920s-era performance venue, is another favorite of Brown’s corporate clients. “The space can accommodate event themes and décor of just about any kind,” Brown says. “This historic venue offers gorgeous floor- to-ceiling views of Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline. It is a venue unlike any other and is truly unique to Chicago.”
Other popular venues include The Adler Planetarium, which offers three different theaters with a total of 60,000 sf of space and distinct exhibits and views of the city’s skyline. Another venue, 360 CHICAGO, formerly the John Hancock observatory, accommodates groups of up to 600 people and offers views from the 94th floor of the former John Hancock Center.
In addition to its unique venues, Chicago is also known for top restaurants. Popular options include: Bar Ramone, specializing in Spanish tapas; Crab Cellar, known for its all-you-can-eat Alaskan King Crab; Galit, a contemporary Israeli restaurant; The Hampton Social, inspired by the lifestyle of the well-to-do in the Hamptons area of New York; Aba, which serves Mediterranean dishes; Tao, a 300-seat multilevel restaurant; and four RPM restaurants, each specializing in steaks, Italian or seafood.
The variety of restaurants has grown greatly in recent years. According to Gleason, “Ten years ago, there were fewer options and innovative ideas. The bar has been raised and our local chefs are at the forefront of that change. From celebrated and abundant food festivals to our Michelin-rated restaurants and James Beard Award winners, Chicago’s restaurants are the soul of our city.”
Gleason adds, “Chicago’s star chefs are continually recognized for their achievements and regularly exceed expectations of diners and critics. It’s about the dining experience, the views of the city, the hospitality and the heart poured into each meal.”
Brown agrees: “The Chicago restaurant scene is one that never disappoints,” Brown says. “As one of the leading cities in the country for celebrity chefs and Michelin-rated restaurants, it’s truly a place that offers a variety of options. Everyone can find a true ‘taste of Chicago’ that they will enjoy.”
Chicago also offers some of the nation’s most iconic entertainment venues, including the world famous The Second City improv theater, the career launching pad for many “Saturday Night Live” performers.
Several stage performance options offer a change of pace for corporate attendees. “Pairing music to this experience is incredible and the possibilities are endless,” Gleason says. “There are so many amazing stages in the city, from the iconic The Chicago Theater to The Pritzker Stage at Millennium Park to the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Guests feel like they are part of something special.”
One of Chicago’s biggest off-site attractions for activities are those related to the Chicago River. “Chicago revitalized and redesigned 1.25 miles of the river path, running from Lakeshore Drive to Lake Street,” Brown says. “This new recreational stretch has brought a gorgeous accessibility to the river with popular river cruises highlighting the city’s incredible architecture, walking tours, restaurants, gathering spaces and water taxis.”
Another activity corporate groups enjoy is customized brewery tours. “Going into winter,” Brown says, “it’s one of our most popular off-property activities for groups. We take clients through some of Chicago’s most historic neighborhoods and make stops for tastings at some of our favorite breweries such as Haymarket Pub & Brewery and the On Tour Brewing Company. Groups always enjoy receiving the behind-the-scenes look at how beers are created.”
Planners seeking one of the most unique meeting venues in the Midwest can’t go wrong with the Navy Pier, located along Michigan Avenue near thousands of hotel rooms. Navy Pier is ideal for meetings, receptions and private events in the 18,000-sf Aon Grand Ballroom, and the 15,000-sf Lakeview Terrace, both of which offer lakefront views.
The Greater Chicago area offers over 110,000 guest rooms, including more than 46,000 in the central business district. And that doesn’t include the nearly 3,000 rooms physically connected to McCormick Place.
Whitaker characterizes the growth in Chicago’s meeting space in one word – “booming.”
According to Whitaker, “Chicago opened nine new hotels in 2018 and five in 2019, providing planners more options and product categories. Between expanded hotel offerings, new city attractions, venues and restaurants, Chicago has continual growth and investment in the meeting and hospitality spaces. The added housing supply near McCormick Place alone has created greater ease and access for those hosting meetings in and near the convention center.”
McCormick Place has been a key driver of Chicago’s record-breaking performance. “We’re pleased to say that of the meetings and events that took place in Chicago in 2018, nearly half have broken some kind of record whether it be in attendance or exhibitors,” Whitaker says. “This speaks to the ongoing promotion and the rising appeal of Chicago as a meetings destination.”
At least six new hotels opened in Chicago last year, including the 1,205-room Marriott Marquis Chicago, which is connected to McCormick Place, and the 466-room, tri-branded Hilton Garden Inn Chicago McCormick Place, which is divided between the Hilton Garden Inn, a Hampton Inn and Home2 Suites extended-stay property. The Hilton property is connected by a skybridge to McCormick Place. Hilton operates over 30 hotels in the greater Chicago market.
Another Hilton property, the 1,544-room Hilton Chicago, on Michigan Avenue across from Grant Park, finished a $7 million renovation that includes enhancements to the third-floor meeting spaces and Salon C in the 115,000-sf Stevens Meeting Center. Hilton Chicago offers a total of 234,000 sf of meeting space.
Meanwhile, Hyatt Regency Chicago added 12,000 sf of meeting space, bringing the total to 228,000 sf. Another Hilton property, the 1,631-sf Palmer House, also renovated its 130,000 sf of meeting space.
All Hyatt Chicago hotels feature the chain’s Hyatt Planner Portal, which allows planners to use one tool to manage meeting details, including contracts, attendee information and costs as well as meeting history.
There are some top-flight meeting options outside Chicago that offer convenient access to the city and its hotels, airports and convention facilities.
Tinley Park: Once named “The Best Place in America to Raise Kids” by Business Week magazine, Tinley Park is located 30 miles south of Chicago. The expanded Tinley Park Convention Center offers 70,000 sf of meeting space, including 21 breakout rooms. Planners have a choice of 800 rooms in the area, including the 202-room Holiday Inn Chicago-Tinley Park-Convention Center, which is connected to the convention center.
Schaumburg: Located about 26 miles from downtown Chicago, Schaumburg is one of the city’s newest suburbs. Planners seeking a meeting space away from the bustle of Chicago can consider the Renaissance Schaumburg Convention Center Hotel, about 13.5 miles from O’Hare International Airport. The convention center and hotel offer 500 rooms and suites along with 160,000 sf of meeting space.
Itasca: Located about 30 miles from downtown Chicago and about 15 miles from O’Hare International Airport, Itasca is home to Eaglewood Resort & Spa, a popular place for business groups to focus on meeting goals amid elegance without distraction. Following the 295-room resort’s $7.7 million renovation, it offers 37,000 sf of IACC-certified meeting space and several activity options, including a golf course, bowling alley, spa and Olympic-sized pool.
While other Midwest destinations have much to offer planners, Chicago remains the biggest draw in the region.
According to Whitaker, “The city’s position in the Midwest and the connectivity through O’Hare and Midway airports help make it a prime location for bringing attendees from across the nation and the world.” C&IT