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Chicago’s new normal: When will tourists come back?

Unlike some places that have hurtled toward a rapid reopening, Chicago wants to be viewed as an intelligent destination that visitors can trust.

Millennium Park, a tourist mecca, sits empty. The coronavirus means fewer tourists will be visiting Chicago this year.
Millennium Park, a tourist mecca, sits empty. The coronavirus means fewer tourists will be visiting Chicago this year.
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Chicago has drawn more than 55 million domestic and international visitors annually for the past several years, lured in part by summer offerings like Lollapalooza and Millennium Park concerts, as well as year-round draws like the Art Institute and Navy Pier.

The city also has benefited from a travel and tourism boom boosted by the strong economy that followed the 2008 Great Recession, with 153,700 jobs tied to Chicago tourism in 2019.

But that was before the coronavirus pandemic upturned the whole world. Now, it’s clear that Chicago tourism numbers won’t reach anywhere close to previous levels until there’s a COVID-19 vaccine or effective treatment.

Since March, numerous trade shows have been canceled, and many summer festivals have been called off.

Choose Chicago, the organization charged with boosting Chicago’s image, was hit hard by the loss of hotel and airline passenger tax revenues, which the privately run organization says funded $24 million of its $31 million budget last year.

The tourism group is now throwing its efforts into showcasing Chicago as a safe place where reopening protocols are based on public health and science, says board chairman Glenn Eden, an executive vice president with the public relations firm Weber Shandwick.

Its new campaign, called “Tourism & Hospitality Forward,” encourages hotels, restaurants, museums and other attractions to pledge to keep “socially responsible” health and cleanliness measures top of mind for both visitors and employees, and to prominently display that info on websites and other communications.

Unlike some places that have hurtled toward a rapid reopening with a patchwork of measures, Chicago wants to be viewed as an intelligent destination that visitors can trust, Eden says.

“The science will always prevail,” he says.

With the drop in international visitors, the organization sees locals, as well as residents of the Upper Midwest, as the most likely to visit here first. The city plans to highlight neighborhood attractions as a way to offer “exploration and adventure” for these nearby visitors.

Experts agree that trust will be key to restoring Chicago’s tourism.

“If you already have a trustworthy brand, this is the time to use it,” says Kent Grayson, a marketing professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

Tourists, like customers of any business in the post-pandemic world, will need to feel confident that the places they visit are run by people who are competent to keep them safe, Grayson says, noting that “the stakes are much higher now.”

Public attractions will need to feel clean and not cramped. Hotels will need to advertise sanitation.

Several big hotel chains already have announced new cleaning protocols, and the Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association’s new “Clean + Safe” program will grant badges to local hotels that meet standards for safety and cleanliness for guests and employees.

With U.S. air travel down about 94% and expected to slump for many months, it’s likely that the first wave of post-pandemic visitors to Chicago will be coming from within driving distance.

In its weekly tracking surveys of 1,000 U.S. travelers since early March, travel consultancy Longwoods International is finding that about 70% of Americans say they plan to visit a domestic destination in the next six months.

“That’s a big pent-up demand,” says Amir Eylon, the firm’s chief executive officer.

But with people missing loved ones, that first venture out probably won’t be to some exotic locale. Instead, it will be driving to see friends and family, he says.

Eylon expects to see a phased-in return to travel as the coronavirus threat lessens: first, locals returning to their beloved city attractions. Next, day trips involving a four- to five-hour drive, especially to anywhere with wide open spaces.

After that, slightly farther driving trips, then longer-haul domestic trips by air. “The last piece of the puzzle will be international,” Eylon says.

Airlines battered by cancellations are cutting prices now, but that isn’t likely to last, which means air travel could become less attractive to casual travelers over the next 18 months, says Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition.

“In the short term, there’s going to be a fare war like there’s never been a fare war before,” Mitchell told a recent forum sponsored by Consumer Federation of America. But after the excess capacity is bought up, prices are likely to rise over the next year and a half, he says.

Grayson says that until people fully return, tourist attractions can get creative, like combining virtual tours with online classes.

“You can use this as an opportunity to innovate,” he says.