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Chicago draws a record 57.7 million visitors in 2018

Mayor Rahm Emanuel was presented with a Chicago Bulls jersey with a special number - the number of visitors to the city last year: 57.7 million. | Twitter

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s laser-like focus on tourism helped draw a record 57.7 million visitors to Chicago last year, underscoring the wisdom of his successor’s abrupt about-face on her proposal to increase the hotel tax to support local artists.

In an annual report released Thursday, the tourism agency now known as Choose Chicago said tourism grew by 4 percent in 2018.

In 2013, Chicago was stuck at a disappointing, 48.3 million visitors. Those numbers have grown steadily ever since — from 50 million in 2014, 52.6 million in 2015, 53.8 million in 2016 and then to 55.3 million in 2017 before reaching the record 57.7 million last year.

The report credits a “Welcome Home” marketing campaign with bringing in a “record number of regional, national and international visitors.”

The continued focus on growing the number of overnight and leisure visitors also translated into a 4.4 percent increase in hotel occupancy — to 11.8 million rooms, the report states.

The $5.3 million “Welcome Home” campaign featured a shift from “traditional media to a digital-first approach that connected people on their devices through behavioral targeting,” the report states.

Instead of a “regional-only” focus, the marketing campaign honed in on “national and international” visitors. It generated 929,969 trips, up 22 percent from the year before, the report claims.

The Chicago Sports Commission hosted a dozen sporting events, including the Laver Cup, generating 106,800 room nights.

McCormick Place reported “81 total future meetings secured,” 20 more than the year before. The convention center also reported 60 new “major future meetings and conventions” booked, 10 more than 2017. Fifteen of those meetings will convene in Chicago for the first time.

For Emanuel, the report represents yet another notch on his legacy belt.

“By continuing to set new tourism records and bring millions more people to Chicago every year, we are generating economic opportunities that reach every neighborhood,” the mayor was quoted as saying in a press release.

Choose Chicago CEO David Whitaker added, “We all know when the city is hopping and full of tourist and convention delegates — and sadly, when they are not here. It reaches far beyond the jobs supported and the taxes generated. A great city to visit or meet in first has to be a great city in which to live, work or play. And the visitor economy helps fuel the ability for Chicago’s tourism and entertainment assets to thrive.”

At Choose Chicago’s annual meeting, the retiring mayor was given a Bulls jersey with the number 57.7 on the back in honor of the tourism record, according to a photo posted on Twitter by the mayor’s office.

For eight years, Emanuel has followed the advice that former New York City Michael Bloomberg once gave him: to focus intensely on boosting tourism.

He merged the city’s three tourism marketing agencies into Choose Chicago. The mega-agency proceeded to open more offices around the nation and the world, with help from an increased marketing budget — at first locally then with the help from the state after Illinois’ budget stalemate finally came to an end.

He worked with labor leaders — including now-indicted former Teamsters Union boss John Coli Sr. — to broker two rounds of work-rule changes at McCormick Place that made Chicago more competitive against up-and-coming convention cities like Las Vegas, Orlando and Atlanta.

The full-court press continues to produce such impressive results, Lightfoot was quickly convinced to put the quick kibosh on her own plan to raise the 17.5 percent tax on hotel rooms.

“I misspoke when I talked about that earlier. … What I meant to say is this: I want to make sure that we’re dedicating a portion of that tax for the arts. That’s what I mean to say. And I misspoke,” Lightfoot told the Sun-Times on April 5.

“It’s a very significant tax. Increasing it is not gonna help our entertainment and hospitality industries. I want to make sure that we are careful about that and we’re doing everything we can to support it. Tourism is huge for our city. It’s gotta continue to be huge. And I don’t want to do anything that impedes that.”