If Choose Chicago CEO Don Welsh really is the “rock star of the tourism industry” that everybody says he is, why did Chicago let him go?
That was the question looming over the tourism agency’s annual meeting Thursday, as Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Choose Chicago Board Chair Desiree Rogers and a who’s-who of the hospitality industry paid loving tribute to Welsh.
“The drive, the passion, the vision, the energy — it was infectious,” said Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts, recalling his first conversation with Welsh, held at the request of Bruce Rauner, the governor then serving as chairman of Choose Chicago.
“I called Bruce right away and went, ‘Don’t let this guy get away. Get that contract done.’ Because I knew that he had something very special.”
Rauner followed Ricketts’ advice and buttoned down that first contract with Welsh. But Rogers either couldn’t nail down the renewal or didn’t try hard enough.
That’s why he’s leaving Chicago to become president and CEO of Destination Marketing Association International, a global trade association for tourism bureaus.
“For her to let the rock star of the industry get away is a shame,” said a source familiar with the behind-the-scenes maneuverings that culminated in Welsh’s departure.
The source said Rogers was warned months ago to “lock this guy down” or lose him to another city because he was a “known commodity” nationwide. Instead, sources said she insulted Welsh with a proposal to “re-evaluate” his deal.
Welsh was paid $526,956 for 2013, with an additional $54,866 listed as deferred compensation, according to a Chicago Sun-Times Watchdogs investigation. That put his total compensation of $581,822, up 18 percent from the year before and more than double what Emanuel makes as mayor. When Welsh was hired, his annual salary was $375,309.
“By the time the mayor got involved, it was too late” to keep Welsh in Chicago, the source said.
Rogers, CEO of Johnson Publishing, could not be reached for comment.
During her speech, Rogers said the “strategies and initiatives developed” by Welsh and his team are “clearly working. . . . Chicago is experiencing an unprecedented travel boom that promises to deliver enormous economic benefits.”
Welsh was visibly moved by the tribute, the crystal statue and by the standing ovation he received from the crowd at the Cadillac Palace Theater. But he shed no light on the reasons for his departure.
“I can’t begin to thank you,” Welsh said, his voice breaking.
“This is a city that I’m not from. But you’ve all adopted me and I’ve adopted this city. It’s the greatest city in the United States. We’ve got a great product. We’ve got great partners. Last year was a tough year. . . . I know it wasn’t easy, but we got through it. . . . And I will forever cherish and honor this award.”
The circumstances surrounding Welsh’s departure were not the only elephant in the room ignored during Thursday’s meeting.
So was the three-month beating to Chicago’s international image inflicted by the video played around the world of a white police officer pumping 16 rounds into the body of black teenager Laquan McDonald.
Instead of focusing on the negative, Emanuel chose to accentuate the positive. He talked about the 2017 NHL draft he lured to Chicago and about the NFL Draft that’s returning to Chicago for the second straight year.
Before introducing a filmed tribute to Chicago from television producer Dick Wolf, the mayor bragged about the showcase created by Wolf’s hit shows: “Chicago Fire,” “Chicago P.D.” and “Chicago Med.” It’s soon to be joined by a fourth Wolf-produced show, “Chicago Law.”
The mayor closed by talking about the growth in Chicago tourism on 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.
“We professionalized the way we look at the industry and market the city of Chicago — not just around the United States, but around the globe,” Emanuel said Thursday.
“I was teasing Don Welsh, who’s made a lot of this possible. When we started, we had 39 million visitors. And I said, ‘Don, by 2020, let’s get to 50 million.’ We’ve now crossed that mark in 2015 at nearly 52 million. I gave him a recognition from the city and I wrote him a little note: ‘Don, 52 million is not 55 million [the mayor’s ultimate goal]. Thanks for making it a reality.'”
When the audience chuckled, Emanuel said, “You’re laughing. He wasn’t.”
Welsh’s abrupt departure is not the first time Desiree Rogers has been at the center of controversy.
During her tenure as White House social secretary, Virginia socialites Tareq and Michaele Salahi managed to crash a 2009 state dinner for the prime minister of India.
The Democratic-controlled U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security declined to subpoena Rogers. The Secret Service wore the jacket for the embarrassing breach that ultimately cost Rogers her White House job.