To business leaders, Dem convention’s real payoff is in civic promotion

They hope that by bringing a global spotlight to Chicago, the political event will show off the city’s best features and accelerate its post-pandemic resurgence.

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Cars drive under a “Welcome to Chicago” LED sign near Chicago O’ Hare Airport, Sunday, July 5, 2020.

Michael Jacobson, president and CEO of the Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association, called the Democratic National Convention a “game-changer.”

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

Chicago’s sluggish comeback from the COVID-19 pandemic got a little push Tuesday from President Joe Biden and the Democratic National Committee.

With the DNC’s announcement that Chicago will host the party’s convention in August 2024, business leaders exulted that the city will again have a national forum for showing off its best side. But they hope the real payoff comes from other conventions and tourism drawn to Chicago.

“It’s a game-changer,” said Michael Jacobson, president and CEO of the Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association. He said the four-day gathering that draws 24/7 media coverage could “change the perception of people who perhaps haven’t been to Chicago in years.”

Michael Fassnacht, president and CEO of World Business Chicago, called the convention “an amazing opportunity for the city to showcase its beauty, values and diversity.”

Embedded in their hopes is the knowledge that Chicago can get rough treatment from the media for its rising violence, even though other cities have higher crime rates. The region has lost a few high-profile corporate headquarters but other employers have moved in, as shown in the area’s No. 1 ranking for business expansions and relocations in the annual count of Site Selection magazine.

It also ranks high as a tourism destination. Jacobson said that with more visitors coming, hotels now can charge room rates almost equal to those of 2019 — before the pandemic. But he said occupancy rates are still trailing and might not hit pre-pandemic par until 2026.

The west building at McCormick Place, a complex that is expected to get some events tied to the Democratic National Convention.

The west building at McCormick Place, a complex that is expected to get some events tied to the Democratic National Convention.

Provided

On its own, the Democratic convention is a sizable event, with an estimated 50,000 attendees. Choose Chicago, the city’s convention promoter, estimated it will generate $150 million to $200 million.

But its real value is in TV exposure. As a direct economic engine, it’s just another big event in a city known for them. McCormick Place, the city’s convention complex, is expected to host at least seven events in 2024 with attendance equal to or exceeding that of the Democrats’ gathering, said spokesperson Cynthia McCafferty.

A few weeks after the Democrats depart, the International Manufacturing Technology Show is due at McCormick Place. McCafferty said it might draw 100,000 people.

In May of this year, McCormick Place hosts the National Restaurant Association show, with a projected attendance of 56,000, many of them eager to see what Chicago chefs can dish out.

Or in November, there’s the Radiological Society of North America, which promises about 39,000 people, many free-spending medical professionals, heading out on the town.

By comparison, the direct spinoff from the Democratic convention may disappoint. Delegates sometimes have little time or inclination to venture around the city, mostly because political organizations and other groups have a full slate of receptions and parties. Political activists say that if you pay for a meal at a party convention, you’re not really trying.

Nevertheless, Sam Toia, president and CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association, is thrilled by the announcement. “We got the mother of all conventions,” he said. Toia called it a “shot in the arm” for a city already seeing a tourism comeback.

Restaurants will welcome anything that helps them cope with inflation and continued trouble rehiring labor that found other opportunities early in the pandemic, Toia said. In addition, many downtown eateries are suffering from a slow return to daily office attendance.

The nightly televised sessions leading to a presidential nomination will be at the United Center. Some conferences and gatherings will be at McCormick Place and perhaps other venues.

“We don’t have mountains or palm trees. We have the largest and best convention center in the United States,” Jacobson said.

Michael Jacobson, president and CEO of the Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association

Michael Jacobson, president and CEO of the Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association

Sun-Times files

“I just think it’s an amazing opportunity for us to showcase the city,” said Larita Clark, CEO of the agency that runs McCormick Place, the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority. She said some DNC events will be in the West Building and possibly in other parts of the McCormick campus.

Overall, business at the 2.6-million-square-foot facility has reached 75% of its level of 2019, and about 88% of the agency’s workforce is back on the job, she said. Clark thanked her team for their work during the DNC’s site visit, saying they demonstrated the service and hospitality the city will provide.

A coalition of Chicago business and labor leaders made the city’s case for the convention. Party leadership warmed to the idea that Chicago can highlight the importance of Midwest votes in the presidential election.

The DNC announcement also said the convention will show off “Chicago’s and Illinois’ democratic values, commitment to labor and world-class amenities on the global stage.”

Chicago topped a convention bid from Atlanta, which has a less friendly relationship with organized labor.

“The Midwest is the heartland of the American Labor Movement and Chicago is a strong union city,” said Robert Reiter Jr., president of the Chicago Federation of Labor. “We look forward to welcoming allies of labor from across the country to show how the skilled trade show workers and folks in the hospitality industry deliver every day.”

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