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David Whitaker is the new leader of Choose Chicago. | Photo from Brand USA website

Former Miami, Toronto tourism chief to lead Choose Chicago

SHARE Former Miami, Toronto tourism chief to lead Choose Chicago
SHARE Former Miami, Toronto tourism chief to lead Choose Chicago

A former tourism chief in Toronto and Miami was chosen Monday to lead the tourism agency known as Choose Chicago.

David Whitaker, chief marketing officer at Brand USA, replaces Don Welsh, who was hailed as a tourism “super star” before becoming embroiled in a contract dispute that prompted him to leave Chicago to become president and CEO of Destination Market Association International, a global trade association for tourism bureaus.

In a press release announcing the appointment, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he’s confident that Whitaker will become every bit the super star that Don Welsh was.

Welsh was paid $526,956 for 2013, with an additional $54,866 listed as deferred compensation, according to a Chicago Sun-Times Watchdogs investigation. His total compensation of $581,822 — up 18 percent from the year before — is more than double what Emanuel makes as mayor. When Welsh was hired, his annual salary was $375,309.

Whitaker’s annual salary will be $380,000, officials said.

“David Whitaker is a tourism champion with the vision and leadership required to steer Chicago’s visitor industry to new heights,” Emanuel was quoted as saying.

“Over the past five years, Chicago’s tourism industry has strengthened our city’s economy and provided more than 15,000 jobs,” the mayor said. “With more than 25 years in the industry, David Whitaker has the experience and expertise to build on this progress by bringing even more meetings and events to our city and all of the economic opportunities they create for Chicago’s residents.”

The City Hall press release described Whitaker’s eight-year stint as president and CEO of Tourism as having implemented an “aggressive and successful strategy to reinvigorate Toronto as an exciting leisure and business travel destination.”

The marketing and advertising campaign “focused on attracting high-value travelers from major U.S. cities, the United Kingdom, Germany, China, Japan and Brazil,” City Hall said.

The press release also credited Whitaker with helping to craft Miami’s “international image” during a 17 year-stint with the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. During most of that time, Whitaker served as executive vice president and chief marketing officer.

The search for Welsh’s replacement was conducted by a 20-member committee led by Choose Chicago Board Chair Desiree Rogers. Whitaker was the odds-on choice because of his “destination marketing expertise and strategic vision,” Rogers said.

“David is an industry veteran who has successfully increased domestic and international visitation to two major North American cities. He is the kind of leader we need to move the needle and exceed Mayor Emanuel’s goal of 55 million visitors by 2020 and propel Chicago’s position as a leading U.S. destination for international travelers,” Rogers was quoted as saying.

In February, the hospitality industry paid loving tribute to Welsh at Choose Chicago’s annual meeting. The hero’s send-off raised the question: If Welsh is the super star of the tourism industry that everybody says he is, why did Chicago let him go?

At the time, sources said Rogers either couldn’t nail down a contract renewal for Welsh or didn’t try hard enough. Instead, sources said she insulted Welsh with a proposal to “re-evaluate” his deal.

By the time Emanuel got involved, it was too late to keep Welsh in Chicago, the sources said.

Whitaker takes the helm of Choose Chicago at a difficult time.

For months, Chicago’s international image has taken a beating inflicted by the video played around the world of a white police officer pumping 16 rounds into the body of black teenager Laquan McDonald.

More recently, Chicago’s image has suffered from a 50 percent surge in shootings and homicides and high-profile crimes in previously safe areas.

And despite the record 52 million visitors last year, Chicago continues to lag far behind other major cities in the campaign for international tourists after two straight years of declines. Business travel also is down, in part because 2016 was supposed to be the year that Chicago played host to the Summer Olympic Games.

On the day Choose Chicago paid tribute to Welsh, Emanuel chose to accentuate the positive. He talked about the 2017 NHL draft he lured to Chicago and about the NFL Draft that returned to Chicago for the second straight year.

He also talked about the growth in Chicago tourism under Welsh’s watch. It went from 39.3 million visitors in 2010 to 51.8 million last year. That’s even though a $7.2 million chunk of the agency’s $32 million budget was held hostage by the state budget stalemate for much of last year.

Whitaker could face similar budget headaches.

Good thing the new Choose Chicago CEO has a sense of humor, which he flashed during a 2011 appearance before the Professional Convention Management Association.

“Although Mexico produces the second-most refrigerators in the world, we produce the most ice. We’re very proud of that in Canada,” Whitaker said then.

On that day, Whitaker applauded his colleagues in Vancouver for the great job they did hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics. During those Winter Games, Canada won the gold medal in hockey during a “thrilling” overtime victory over the United States.

“But, as you heard, we’re a peace-loving, friendly country. And I pledge to you now that the Toronto Maple Leafs will never compete for the Stanley Cup. We come in peace,” he said.

“Also the Toronto Raptors and the Blue Jays as well.”

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