But what is more unsettling for some of the city’s biggest tourism stakeholders is that a once-coveted job promoting visitation to a market world-renowned for its major airport, convention center, restaurants, theaters and hotels is apparently now difficult to fill.
It’s a revelation that spotlights the way today’s tourism industry leaders view the complex challenge of marketing a city grappling with both real and perceived crime issues, as well as the precarious financial resources Choose Chicago has at its disposal. It also raises questions about how motivated top travel pros are to take a role intricately tangled with Chicago politics, which has questionable autonomy from the mayor’s office and which comes with little clarity about the city’s future leadership as the 2023 mayoral election approaches.
And at a time Chicago can ill afford it, a growing sense that the job of the city’s top tourism advocate is one no one might want could have ugly ramifications for the city’s hotels and restaurants, its convention business and the hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue they generate for the local economy.
“It’s concerning,” says John Curran, senior vice president and general manager of double-decker tour bus operator Big Bus Tours and a former Choose Chicago executive. Between a marketing budget that has historically been smaller than those of peer cities and the political baggage that comes with the job, “I don’t think (the Choose board) has the correct package to offer to get the right person,” he says.
A Choose Chicago spokeswoman declined to share details about the candidates the agency targeted in recent months. Interim CEO Jim Meyer told Choose members in a letter earlier this week that “it became clear that we did not find the best fit” for the position. Multiple sources familiar with the search process, however, said two finalists withdrew from the running or couldn’t come to an agreement in late-stage discussions with Choose Chicago and city officials.
One factor said to be a point of tension is Choose’s precarious funding. The agency, which relies heavily on COVID-drained hotel tax proceeds, saw its budget slashed by almost half to roughly $16 million this year and its headcount cut at a similar scale.
Choose Chicago’s board of directors last week approved a $26 million budget for 2022 and plans to fill more than a dozen vacant roles next year. But the outlook for the recovery of hotel tax revenue on which it relies remains cloudy. Average revenue per available room at downtown hotels in October was just 60% of the average in October 2019, according to hospitality data and analytics company STR, illustrating the slow recovery for a key performance metric that accounts for both room rates and occupancy.
Still, the role of Choose Chicago CEO has been a prized gig since the agency was created in July 2012 as a combination of the Chicago Convention & Tourism Bureau and the city’s office of tourism. Former CEO Don Welsh and recently departed top executive David Whitaker were considered rising stars in the industry when they started their respective five-year contracts.
Yet both encountered heavy political turbulence that may be casting a harsh light on the role today. After unsuccessfully lobbying city and state officials to beef up Choose’s financial backing, Welsh’s budget took a hit when it got caught in the crosshairs of a two-year stalemate in Springfield over the state budget.
More recently, as Whitaker worked to steady the agency during the pandemic, he watched Mayor Lori Lightfoot bring in advertising agency veteran Michael Fassnacht as the city’s chief marketing officer, muddying the role of the city’s tourism bureau.
The Choose CEO role “is a wonderful job, but (the city) can’t let politics and budget constraints get in the way,” says David DuBois, president and CEO of the International Association of Exhibitions & Events and former head of the convention and visitors bureau in Fort Worth, Texas.
The agency’s protracted search isn’t necessarily stopping today’s trade show and convention organizers from wanting to book events in the city, DuBois says, but the top tourism role in Chicago is known in the industry for its challenges.
“If you want to attract the right lady or gentleman, you have to build the right employment mousetrap for them to say, ‘I want the Chicago job,’ he says. “Right now in the marketplace, that’s not the sentiment.”
Choose Chicago board Chairman Glenn Eden says in a statement that nothing should be made of the length of time it is taking to find a CEO, and the board “will not sacrifice quality for speed.”
“To assume that because the process is taking longer than anticipated because there is not interest in the position is not accurate,” the statement says. “There has been significant interest from some of the top markets in the U.S. as well as globally, but our search process isn’t focused on an arbitrary timeline, it’s focused on finding the right future leader.”
A Lightfoot spokeswoman said in a statement that Choose Chicago “does vital work by way of bolstering Chicago tourism” and the city supports “their due diligence in finding the best person for the job.”
But those who bank on city tourism can hardly wait. Wendella Tours & Cruises Chief of Operations Andrew Sargis says he feels good about the industry veterans still at Choose Chicago that have continued working with city attractions like his throughout the pandemic. But having top executives in place to coordinate marketing across the city will be crucial during what he expects to be a strong comeback in nationwide leisure travel in 2022.
“There’s a legitimacy stamp if there is someone there saying, ‘This is what we’re doing,’ and there’s not a cloud hovering over (the agency) that a strategy or initiative may change next year,” Sargis says. “For the long-term health of Choose Chicago and its members, someone needs to be in that role.”