Saturday, October 27, 2012

Before I post a Chicago Travel Guide, some thoughts on the state of Chicago tourism

Concept and design by Seth Arkin © 2012. Do not reproduce without permission.
Earlier this year, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel expressed his desire to boost Chicago’s popularity as a tourist destination, particularly among foreign travelers.

Emanuel’s hopes to elevate Chicago from the 10th most visited U.S. city among international tourists to #5 by the year 2020—when he also hopes to reach 50 million overall tourism visits (from  40 million now)—prompted the merging of the Chicago Convention & Tourism Bureau with the Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture. This was meant to reallocate $1.3 in administrative costs in order to better market the city.

Mind you, I have not seen that any city money was newly allocated to building additional city attractions or improving the ones we have. And Chicago’s annual tourism budget of $17.8 (per this story published on February 1, 2012) is relatively low compared to many other major cities.

So while I believe in the power of effective marketing—although the rebranding of the city’s tourism website from to is all I’ve really noted to date—and am an ardent champion of all Chicago has to offer residents and visitors, I suspect the kind of influx Emanuel imagines may be tough to achieve.

Supposedly, hosting the NATO summit was going to raise the city’s international identity, but does anyone really think it did? And between the way locals were inconvenienced and protestors were hassled, I can’t imagine Chicago appealed to the uninitiated European, Asian, African, etc. as, “Wow, that looks like a place I really want to go.”

While I love Chicago and would recommend it to anyone, I am not surprised that it ranks behind New York, Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Orlando, Washington, Honolulu and Boston as a destination for international tourists. I’m actually a bit surprised that we outrank Philadelphia. Given the wealth of their historical attractions and fantastic museums, Philly must be doing an even more mediocre job of marketing itself than Chicago has.

In a separate post, I will soon publish a Chicago Travel Guide highlighting several of the city’s top attractions—as I have in travel pieces on London, Washington, San Francisco and Detroit—but in preparing it, I couldn’t help but be struck by some of the Windy City’s tourism challenges, the types of attractions we lack (and perhaps should add) and how I might view the city as a first-time visitor or prospective one, especially in comparison to other major cities to which I’ve been.

As someone who has visited many major cities around the world and also pretends to know a little something about marketing, three observations come to mind in considering Chicago as occasional travelers in Belgium, Japan or Brazil, etc., might:
1) While Chicago offers a whole lot for any visitor to do, whether here for 2 days, 2 weeks or 2 months, our appeal lies more so in the depth and quality of what we have—in the realms of museums, theater, culture, dining, sports, architecture, public spaces, etc.—than in easily advertised distinctiveness. Yes, we have an awesome art museum, cool parks, lots of great architecture and some of the best theater anywhere, but it’s hard for anyone to think about traveling thousands of miles, for considerable cost, to see things rather similar to what they can find a lot closer to home.
On that note…
2) Chicago lacks a truly compelling, singularly iconic image on the level of the Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty, Leaning Tower of Pisa, Golden Gate Bridge, etc. I’m guessing the Sears (i.e. Willis) Tower might be Chicago’s most instantly identifiable landmark and still often used as visual shorthand when our city is referenced. But I don’t think it has the caché it once did, especially with newer, cooler and/or taller buildings in places like Dubai, China, Kuala Lumpur, Taiwan and London. And while some might suggest The Bean (i.e. the Cloud Gate statue in Millennium Park), the Water Tower, Picasso statue or Marina City, I’m not sure any would mean much to someone in Vienna, let’s say. Nor would Wrigley Field.
Designed by The Postcard Museum;
posted on
Our best postcard images are of the skyline in full (I like to shoot it from near the Shedd Aquarium) or of Buckingham Fountain in front of the Sears Tower and a few buildings along South Michigan Avenue. These evoke the city’s beauty, but I don’t know if the pull is as strong as, say, even a photo of the Hollywood sign.

I know the financing evaporated, especially after the financial crisis, but I would have liked to have seen Santiago Calatrava’s Spire skyscraper get built. We could use a new touchstone image, such as shown below. 

3) Chicago hasn’t done a good job at leveraging the things—i.e. people—that are identified worldwide with the city, in terms of turning them into reasons for masses to visit. President Obama, Oprah, Michael Jordan and yes, Al Capone—and to a more cultured crowd, Frank Lloyd Wright and Ernest Hemingway—still hold considerable worldwide appeal, or at least awareness. Other than the Wright sites in Oak Park, how are any of them celebrated within attractions tourists can visit? Yes, I’ve been to the Chicago History Museum and it has some merits, but not in much in terms of pop cultural panache.

In a somewhat related vein, perhaps Chicago should hire former Mayor Daley--if he's interested--as a roaming ambassador for the city. Whatever one may think of the job Daley did (and I generally liked it, albeit as a non-resident), he is, I believe, fairly well recognized, even around the world. 
Separately, it’s probably a good thing I don’t have substantial money, because I’d probably lose it trying to develop some new sights for visitors (and locals) to see. Here's are my thoughts on some...

Museums/Attractions I believe Chicago should add to its landscape:
• Chicago Sports MuseumThe National Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame on Taylor Street has some nice displays about athletes of Italian descent, but how about a museum showcasing Michael Jordan, Walter Payton, Dick Butkus, Bobby Hull, etc., etc. and the teams we love. There is a small Chicago Sports Museum at Harry Caray's on Navy Pier, and something like this was rumored to be in the works for the “Triangle building” near Wrigley, but I think something more major is in order.
Charlie Chaplin at his old Chicago haunt
• Pop Culture Chicago – Why not celebrate Chicago’s prominence in the worlds of television, advertising, radio, film (including Chaplin), theater, music, improv/comedy, publishing and more. It’d be a bit of a stretch, but you could probably loop Capone into this one as well. I know there’s a newly relaunched Museum of Broadcast Communications and Blues Heaven in the old Chess Records studio (which really deserves to be expanded in scope), but done right, something along these lines could be much more expansive and a destination with real international pull.
• Chicago Architecture Museum – Yes, Chicago is an architectural museum in itself, with tours by the Chicago Architecture Foundation and others being among our top tourist attractions. But a full-fledged museum dedicated to Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe and the art of the skyscraper would seem rather appropriate as well.
• My Fair City – Perhaps this would better fit within the Field Museum, Museum of Science and Industry or Chicago History Museum, but one day I hope someone figures out how to enable me to take a virtual tour of the “White City”—from Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893—as well as The Century of Progress, the less celebrated World’s Fair Chicago hosted in 1933.
With a lack of these types of (admittedly a bit kitschy) Chicago buzz-centric museums, I can see where Chicago lacks tailor-made international tourism marketing pizazz.

And while I truly believe Chicago is a great city in which to live (or at least live near) and can be a pretty fantastic one to visit—particularly if one is willing to venture out to Oak Park or Hyde Park, take in some theater and explore the myriad ethnic neighborhoods—I can see where it has some shortcomings as a tourist city.

So rather than letting all this serve as a lengthy, and perhaps dissuasive, preamble to a listing of the attractions I would most recommend to any Chicago visitor (or resident), I’ll let these observations and suggestions stand on their own and will post my Chicago Travel Guide separately in the coming days.

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