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

New tourism chief to get 25 percent bonus for meeting targets

SHARE New tourism chief to get 25 percent bonus for meeting targets
SHARE New tourism chief to get 25 percent bonus for meeting targets

Newly appointed Choose Chicago CEO David Whitaker will be paid a base salary of $380,000 a year, but his total, five-year package includes an annual 25 percent bonus for meeting unspecified “tourism targets,” officials said Tuesday.

Whitaker’s predecessor Don 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 — was more than double what Emanuel makes as mayor. When Welsh was hired, his annual salary was $375,309.

Whitaker’s base salary will be $380,000. But his five-year contract includes “a 25 percent bonus annually, should he meet his targets,” said Choose Chicago spokeswoman Melanie Perez.

Perez did not disclose the specific targets, nor did she say whether the 25 percent would be compounded or simple.

If it’s a simple 25 percent attached to a $380,000 base, Whitaker could increase his total compensation by $95,000 a year and by $475,000 over the life of the five-year contract. If the 25 percent is compounded, Whitaker could end up with a salary of $1.4 million after five years.

After flying into Chicago on Tuesday, Whitaker said he assumes that the targets are based on the metrics normally used to judge tourism officials. They include: total visitors; hotel room nights booked; meetings and conventions; tourism spending and tax revenue. There are also marketing goals that include web traffic, memberships and corporate sponsorships.

A former tourism chief in Toronto and Miami, Whitaker said he’s more concerned about building on the record 52 million visitors Chicago attracted last year and about marketing the city to international tourists now skipping the city.

“Look at Canada. It’s everybody’s international market, but we take it for granted. Last year, 24 million Canadians visited the United States. It’s anticipated that could be down by as much as ten percent because of the exchange rate. We have to make up for that. We can’t have all of our eggs in one basket,” Whitaker said.

“That’s the beauty of coming into Chicago, where we have airports and great hotel products. We have an opportunity to tell our story, educate and invite people,” he said. “I see a tremendous upside here. We’ve been focused on conventions and domestic visitors. We have an opportunity to dedicate additional resources to the international market. It’s gives me an opportunity to build — a chance to come in and contribute.”

Under Welsh’s watch, Chicago went from 39.3 million visitors in 2010 to 51.8 million last year. That’s even though a $7.2 million chunk of Choose Chicago’s $32 million budget was held hostage by the state budget stalemate for much of last year.

Whitaker could face similar budget headaches, office closings and employee layoffs. But he’s hoping to rise above the marathon budget stalemate between Democratic legislative leaders and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner over Rauner’s demand for pro-business, anti-union reforms.

“The interruption in funding caused us to pause, [close] international offices [and retreat from the] international market. We have to recommit ourselves to finding a way with city and state partners. How can we re-energize our efforts to re-engage in international tourism. This just gives us an opportunity and obligation to educate people about the importance of tourism promotion. The solution rests with everybody being on the same page. It’s everything from resources to focus to commitment to dedication,” he said.

He added, “Look at Austin and Nashville. They weren’t thought of as international destinations. Now, those are two of the hottest cities in North America. . . . Portland now has international, direct flights. A number of cities are getting into the international game.”

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.

Ever the salesman, Whitaker doesn’t want to dwell on those negatives — or even discuss them.

He’s more concerned about selling Chicago for its fabulous strengths.

“The word, `Chicago’ is synonymous with power and magnitude. This city is a leading player in U.S. pop culture, banking, sports, theater, restaurants, the James Beard Awards, shopping, the museum scene,” Whitaker said.

“When you say, `Chicago,’ it’s as powerful as saying `New York’ or `Los Angeles.’ Choose Chicago didn’t create that. It’s been built over decades of greatness,” he said. “The key is harnessing that strength and matching the product to the audience to get people exciting about coming here and sampling this amazing product.”

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