A Global Welcome Mat
Chicago merges tourism with economic development
Tourism is big business in Chicago, which welcomes—the term enjoys official status—well more than 50 million visitors a year. However, only a small fraction of that horde comes from abroad. Back in the days when we talked about “foreign tourists,” I argued that city officials could boost their numbers by counting as foreigners day-trippers from Downstate Illinois. Even now, the “foreigner” the tourist encounters on the streets is likely to be a new Chicagoan.
The city does a better job than it did in the 1990s equipping the airports (for example) with multilingual signage, but it costs money to cater to the non-American, whose spending the city needs to cater to the non-American. The state agricultural department might know how to deal with such chickens-or-eggs dilemma but City Hall didn't.
“We don't use the word, 'foreign,'" explains James A. Morrissy, executive director of The International Visitors Center (IVC) of Chicago, as if correcting a child who's said a bad word. "We prefer, 'international.'" The transformation of yesterday's foreign tourist into today's international visitor says a lot about recent changes in the way Chicago sees the world—and how the world sees Chicago.
Chicago has always welcomed people from other countries who wanted to work. Now it is learning to welcome those who come here to play. Tourism will be one of Chicago's growth industries in the 1990s and the international traveler will be one of the reasons. It is estimated that Chicago sees roughly a million such visitors a year, from government junketers and trade delegates to pleasure travelers, exchange students and conventioneers, and their numbers are growing.
"Foreign travel to Chicago has increased tenfold in the last 10 years," says Donald J. DePorter, regional vice president and managing director for the Hyatt hotels. DePorter worked in San Francisco in the 1970s and saw occupancy by international travelers grow from six percent to 30 or 40 percent. He expects to see similar increases here.
The trend shows up across the country. According to the U.S. Travel and Tourism Administration (USTTA), 1989 was the first year in which the number of foreign visitors to the U.S. exceeded the number of U.S. citizens traveling abroad. Of those who came to Chicago, roughly one fifth traveled from Canada, with more than three-fourths coming from overseas, mainly Japan (169,000).
The presence in Chicago of so many ethnic groups with foreign roots also gives the city an exploitable international dimension. Mary P. Burns, manager of international tourism for the Illinois Bureau of Tourism, says the family ties of the city's large immigrant populations help tourism at least indirectly by boosting the awareness of Chicago among the folks back home. The amount of family-related visiting is hard to gauge. (Cousins and uncles seldom stay in hotels and thus are hard to track.) But Illinois's status as the leading destination for Mexican tourists among nonborder states may be attributed at least in part to home ties.
A larger percentage of Illinois's international visitors hails from overseas than is true in other states. The Hyatt hotels have seen increased registrations from Scandinavia and France that bolster the traditionally strong attendance from Germany and Australia. (Those latter nations are, along with Canada, the places whose customs and lifestyle, if not language, most resemble the U.S.)
DePorter reports that 6 percent of the chain's sign-ins in Chicago come from Japan. "Some of that is business travel," he says, "but a lot of it is tourism—people coming to look around." The non-Japanese Orient may soon catch up with the globe-trotting Japanese. The Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs (DCCA) has rented booths at Japanese travel trade shows for years but this year also worked Hong Kong and Korea. "These are not yet big markets for Chicago," says Burns. "But visa requirements . . . have been eased up and I think we're going to see a lot of people coming out of Korea and Hong Kong."
Chicago nevertheless remains a somewhat exotic choice for the footloose foreigner. Total foreign travel to the U.S. in 1989, according to USTTA figures, was 38 million people. The Council of Great Lakes Governors has joined the provincial authorities in Ontario to study the region's international tourism potential. It found that the Great Lakes especially tempt second-time visitors to the U.S., people who (as the group's economic policy director, Timothy McNulty, puts it) have already been to Disney World and the coasts.
Tourism may be the perfect postindustrial industry. Apart from the litter, it is non-polluting. It exploits a physical infrastructure already in place. (Who would have thought that the Picasso on Daley Plaza would turn out to be one of Chicago's most productive steel works?) And catering to the traveler, foreign and otherwise, is an essential source of low-skill jobs now that the factories of political patronage have been shut down. (As one former Convention and Tourism Bureau official observes bluntly, the hospitality industry is the only place that offers jobs that can be filled by Chicago public school grads.)
The trends confirm the prescience of the Merchandise Mart's James Bidwill, who was one of Chicago's lonely early internationalists. Bidwill likes to call the Mart "a U.N. in the heart of America" where the products of more than 60 nations are bought and sold. A charter member of Illinois Ambassadors (a sort of internationally minded business Welcome Wagon), Bidwill also has been at Gov. James R. Thompson's side on many trips abroad. As senior vice president for corporate affairs at the Mart, Bidwill has been involved since 1969 in staging NKOCON, the largest conference and exposition in the contract furnishings industry. The event comes to Chicago in 1990 and is expected to attract more than 50,000 architects, interior designers, dealers and corporate space planners from 47 nations.
Bidwill is anything but a quiet American. When he travels abroad, he usually talks somebody into coming back with him—30 Swedish corporate travel executives one time, the "Mexican Ed Sullivan" (complete with TV production crew) another time. Once, in Italy, he made a cold call on Renato Minetto, editor of the Milan-based international design magazine Arbitare; the resulting trip to Chicago led Arbitare to devote a 232-page issue in 1986 to the city Minetto praised as "the capital of capitalism."
Bidwill does not draw much of a distinction between tourism and economic development. In 1991, the International Federation of Interior Architects/Interior Designers will hold its world congress in Chicago at the Merchandise Mart, followed in 1993 by the International Union of Architects and in 1994 by the world congress of the International Real Estate Federation. Such conferences, Bidwill argues, will send thousands of ambassadors back to nearly 100 nations with the message that Chicago is, in Bidwill's words, the only real city in the U.S. "We're not an Orlando. We're not a San Diego. We're not a Phoenix," Bidwill says. "What we offer as a business and pleasure destination is far superior." Telling the world about it, he adds, has implications for the long-term economic future of the city in trade and investment as well as tourism.
"All the hotels are really interested in going after the international market," confirms Burns. Because so many of Chicago's newer hotels are owned or managed by firms based abroad, they are more familiar with and thus more receptive to that market than their U.S. counterparts. Hyatt's DePorter has a staff of five devoted exclusively to promoting his Chicago hotels abroad. Hotel Nikko's connection to Japan Air Lines is not a small reason for the influx of visitors from that country. Local hotels now host a continual flow of travel writers and tour bookers on "fam trips," the familiarization trips on which foreign-based travel professionals scout new destinations. Fam trips are a highly cost-effective promotion. Says DePorter, "It's like turning on a faucet if you do it right."
The pump that supplies that faucet has been primed largely by DCCA. DCCA's foreign trade offices now officially peddle tourism as well as trade. And its tourism bureau has mounted the first significant campaign to advertise Chicago in foreign markets as part of its campaign to enhance the image of Illinois as a tourism port.
Bidwill notes that city government awakened to its international role more belatedly than did much of the private sector. The Convention and Tourism Bureau only now is making plans under its new chairman, Donald Petkus, to set up an international committee to encourage the foreign visitors that Petkus believes to be "of the utmost importance to the economy of Chicago."
The first tentative step was the sister cities program set up during Harold Washington's administration. (Chicago now has eight sister cities on three continents.) "Five to ten years ago we thought Chicago was rather provincial in recognizing tourism as an industry," recalls the IVC's Morrissy. "These days, every institution in the city, public and private, receives foreign delegations large and small. The Daley administration has become aware of that."
Indeed, by the standards of Chicago mayors, Richard M. Daley is a true cosmopolite. He has traveled to London, Dublin, even the suburbs (the first such foreign tour undertaken by a sitting Chicago mayor). His example has inspired the Chicago Office of Tourism, a city agency now managed out of the mayor's office after a recent reorganization. Busier than ever hosting fam trips, last year the agency for the first time sent representatives to the big travel trade shows in London and Berlin. The Economic Development Commission (EDC) helped fund the council's issuance of more than a million splashy "lure brochures" singing Chicago's praises in several languages as part of its larger marketing program meant to "tell Chicago's story worldwide." As Joseph J. James, the city's economic development commissioner puts it, "Any visitor is a business opportunity."
Tourism marketing is becoming indistinguishable from economic development in style if not in focus. Paul O'Connor, a DCCA deputy director of marketing, told an IVC symposium last fall, "Chicago's image abroad directly affects foreign investment in the state." Bidwill, for one, argues that it's not enough anymore just to stress land costs or location when you sell Chicago as a place to expand or relocate or invest. You have to sell what he calls "the total glamor of this destination." Ditto the convention business, where amenities are becoming as crucial as airline access and square footage of exhibition space.
Conventional wisdom in the trade professes that every business traveler is also a pleasure traveler, that the German plumbing wholesaler who is a businessman until 5 o'clock at McCormick Place becomes a tourist the moment he sets foot onto Rush Street at 8 o'clock. The city's Convention and Visitors Bureau renamed itself the Convention and Tourism Bureau, Inc., in part to reflect its resolve, under President Gerald Roper, to exploit this "crossover" market. The bureau's advertising talks up the Art Institute as much as airplane arrivals, all to entice attendees to bring spouses on convention and trade show trips, to extend weekday business visits into fun weekends, and to make return trips with the family for vacations.
One important fallout from increased foreign travel to Chicago is increased reverse investment. Historically, Chicago firms have considered exports to be the natural form of international business dealing. But lately both the city and DCCA have officially added the promotion of reverse investment to their list of Important Things To Do. Six months ago, for instance, the EDC formed an International Trade and Investment Committee to (among other things) "capture foreign investment as the world economy continues to integrate." The group is still assessing how to accomplish that mission.
James already is persuaded that marketing alone won't capture much. "We don't handle business prospects in general as well as we need to," James admits, adding that the system is not geared to foreign business delegations in particular. One result is that, apart from investments in downtown real estate, a lot of the foreign nationals' investment in new plants is going to the suburbs. "We need to find out why that is and what we can do about it," James says. Mary C. Tittman, a consultant to the EDC staff, adds that there's little effort to figure out how to get businessmen to see more of the city than O'Hare International Airport. ("Venture capitalist" may be defined as an entrepreneur who is not afraid to take a ride on the el.)
Of course, Chicago already has in place an extensive system by which business people from other countries are provided with loans, translators, help in scouting locations and advice on how to cope with local laws and regulations. That system, or rather systems, are the family and ethnic group networks of the city's immigrant tradesmen, restaurateurs, dry cleaners, neighborhood grocers, etc. It is a venerable model for neighborhood economic development in Chicago, going back to the first German and Irish settlers, and it still works today.
James' office maintains formal relationships with business people in the city's Vietnamese, Chinese and Mexican communities, among many others. Bringing a cousin or brother-in-law in from Korea to open a second family dry cleaning shop is a world away from the Merchandise Mart's expos; he is unlikely to have his picture taken with a mayor and his views on the dollar's decline are not likely to be solicited by the Tribune. But those investments of money and manpower are essential to the retail and service economies of the neighborhoods.
Economic development is deal-making that, like other forms of diplomacy, ultimately is personal. EDC Executive Director Joseph H. Abel recently talked to a group of 25 Japanese businessmen sent to his office on a go-talk-to-Joe visit by DCCA. "The first question they asked was 'Why is Chicago against Japanese investment here?' " Abel recalls. He assured them the city was not against it and traced the misapprehension to news accounts in Japan that emphasized isolated cases of Jap-bashing. Without that visit, the misapprehension would have stood uncorrected.
David Mellon, an area director in foreign affairs for Anoco and a member of The International Visitors Center, attests that international travel to Chicago provides valuable opportunities for international networking. (An IVC-hosted visit was a source of contacts for what became Amoco's current operations in Somalia, for example.) Some of the payoffs from such contacts may be years in coming, of course, especially in the still-developing parts of the world. But the IVC's guest list for spring 1990 is ripe with potentially fruitful possibilities: three bankers from the Republic of Cameroon eager to learn about minority banking and investment opportunities; three top economic advisors to Argentina's national government; and one of Yugoslavia's leading advocates of market-oriented economic reform.
Promotion requires only good salesmanship but elevating tourism into an industry requires services. The typical Chicago cab driver may be able to steer the Rotarian to Ed Debevik's but he is less equipped to give advice about the location of the nearest Buddhist temple, how to translate a club schedule into French, or where the weary traveler might get Shiatsu.
Language is the most obvious barrier. Most foreign visitors come to Chicago from nations with functioning education systems and thus speak some English. The rest usually find more multilingual staff at the upper-end hotels than ever before. (Hyatt's DePorter says that his 2,000 employees speak 70 languages among them.) However, M. J. Gapp, media relations director for the Chicago Office of Tourism, notes that few of Chicago's museums publish their brochures in languages other than English. (They do better in the suburbs; the Frank Lloyd Wright home in Oak Park makes self-guiding tour cassettes available in Japanese and German as well as English.)
Indifference to the international traveler is most evident at O'Hare. Airports such as New York's Kennedy boast new terminals for international arrivals, including hotels that cater specifically to travelers from abroad; O'Hare still welcomes such travelers in the basement of its parking ramp, where its temporary international terminal is located. And while O'Hare is an international gateway, you'd never know it to walk through it. Signs and PA. announcements nearly always communicate in English only. Diana Paluch, director of convention and tourism marketing for the DED, notes that the new international terminal at O'Hare will have "fleets of translators" when it opens in 1994 but acknowledges that many foreign visitors who fly into O'Hare bypass the international terminal, arriving instead on domestic carriers from their first stops in New York, L.A. and elsewhere.
Tim McNulty reports that the Great Lakes tourism plan will include steps to improve what he calls "the international user-friendliness of the region." Among other problems, many of the region's international airports have only a single currency exchange with limited hours and some have none. "We're trying to do more regarding signage and information booths, especially at O'Hare," Gapp assures. (Joe Abel adds that an EDC committee will recommend improvements that can be made in the short-term at O'Hare prior to and in addition to the opening of the new international terminal; recommendations are expected before the end of this year.)
In short, a formal infrastructure of services for the unescorted foreign visitor can hardly be said to exist in Chicago. That the informal one works as well as it does must be credited to the improvisational skills of tourism agency staff and the friendliness of the natives. Mary Burns recalls how three members of a 50-person Japanese delegation housed at the Hotel Nikko wished to see the studio of Frank Lloyd Wright, who they know as the designer of Tokyo's Imperial Hotel. They spoke no English, so Burns wrote out a series of instructions in English on cards that the travelers were to hand to friendly strangers at each stop — the first to help the trio board a west-bound train on the Lake el, the next asking another anonymous Samaritan to direct them to Oak Park's visitor center and so on. It worked and the three returned from their adventure delighted, but such service makes tourism an astoundingly labor-intensive industry. It's also a fallible one. People like Burns stay awake at night worrying about the visitors who went home remembering Chicago as the place they were mugged, lost, scared or bored.
McNulty points approvingly to Utah's efforts to provide Japanese language services at each of its popular ski resorts. "There's a lot of potential for economic development in building that kind of capacity," he insists. The vacationer who gets an intelligible answer when he asks the way to the bunny slope on the weekend just may be emboldened to ask the way to the industrial park come Monday morning.
James Bidwill admits, "We need vast improvement, sure." Trade and convention facilities still are not being built in Chicago with soundproof booths needed for optimum simultaneous translations but Bidwill recalls that only a few years ago you wouldn't think of booking a big foreign conference into the city because you couldn't have scrounged enough headsets to go around no matter where the translators sat. "It's a matter of growth and evolution," says a confident Bidwill. "We're getting there." □
Last winter, writer Calvin Trillin regaled an audience of fans during a reading at Guild Books on Lincoln Avenue. They'd come to hear the humorist and New Yorker correspondent read from his new collection, Travels With Alice. He explained that he'd found the perfect method of cowing imperious French functionaries. Just bend forefinger and thumb into a pistol shape, point it and say in a menacing tone, "Shee-ca-go." Said Trillin, "Worked every time."
Chicago's gangland image is both durable and universally recognized. Every Chicagoan has a story about how people react upon learning that he or she hails from Al Capone's hometown—the cabby in Damascus who imitated a clattering machine gun, the aunt who asked which gang her niece belonged to, the newly disembarked corporate trainee afraid he'll be gunned down in the streets.
The Capone legend is the most popular of the misconceptions about Chicago that endure in the wider world but it's hardly the only one. Much of the world still envisions the U.S. as a wide open range with muggers on one side, actors on the other and nothing but cowboys in between. Once here, most international visitors seem surprised to find such a big lake next door to Chicago. They are dazzled by our buildings. (And apparently have been telling their friends; one of every five visitors to Frank Lloyd Wright's Oak Park home is from outside the U.S.) Perceptions have not kept pace with deindustrialization, so visitors are surprised that the stockyards are closed and the air is relatively clean. And Chicago's reputation for chicanery, political and otherwise, remains something of a comic stereotype; in Wolker Schlondorff's 1979 film version of The Tin Drum, the hero's grandfather flees the police and settles in Chicago to become a rich businessman specializing in the sale of lumber and fire insurance—and matches.
Mary Laney, director of the Chicago Office of Tourism, reportedly is working on a new slogan that she hopes will dispel those old ghosts. It will have to be a good one to undo what both Hollywood and history have done in the last 70 years. The whole world was watching, after all, during the 1968 Democratic National Convention and Chicagoans still gun each other down in the streets—even if they politely desist from doing it near any of the top tourist hotels.
Recapturing Chicago from the Capone mob won't be as bloody as it was in the '20s but it will be expensive. In 1989 for the first time the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs (DCCA) was allocated $1.5 million to buy international advertising promoting Illinois (mainly Chicago) as a destination. Twelve print ads were published in the English-language editions of Time and Newsweek in Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and Great Britain.
The campaign was designed by the Chicago firm of McConnaughy Barocci Brown and was aimed at what agency executive Geoff F. Kehoe describes as "Euro-elites"—upscale types who speak English and who are predisposed to transcontinental travel. The series bore the title, "Chicago. The American Renaissance." It plugged Chicago's architecture, its intellectual and artistic accomplishments, and its recreations, including shopping, music, and the lakefront. The ads were clever and no more misleading than advertising is obliged to be; DCCA may be the only outfit nervy enough to imply that the Bears are adjunct faculty of the University of Chicago.
The international promotion was funded again for 1990, running this time in cooperation with American Express, which concluded from the first year's strong response that Chicago is a viable product to sell through its international travel service.
The ads have been redesigned, using less copy and jazzier graphics, and now appear in Japan as well as Europe. They've been translated where necessary and appear in the target nations' domestic magazines such as Der Spiegel, Punch, and L'Express. Kehoe reports that response calls so far are running 20 percent higher than last year.
The two people most directly responsible for changing Chicago's image—Lynda Simon, head of DCCA's tourism office, and Mary Laney of the Chicago Office of Tourism—come to those jobs from backgrounds in TV, where image can create its own truth. Many of the promotional pieces published by their agencies, such as the "lure brochure" titled "Chicago Welcomes," which was printed in several languages for distribution to the international market, recall Chicago's reputation as a boastful "windy city." The Sears Tower is an engineering marvel, all agree, but to say that it "graces the skyline" may strike many natives as a publicist's hyperbole. One of the American Renaissance ads asserts, "Chicago would like to remind everybody that the first four letters of its name are chic"; the copy explains in the best everything's-up-to-date-in-Kansas-City style that the fashionable clothes made in Paris, London, New York, and Milan nowadays can be purchased in Chicago. A magazine ad run by the old Convention and Visitors Bureau points out that the Art Institute houses works by "such folks" as Picasso and Rembrandt. (We don't know much about art in Chicago, ma'am, but we buy what we like.)
If some of these come-ons would offend the locals, others risk offending their audience. One Chicago Welcomes photo shows ten charming kids brandishing hot ears of corn on the cob at what looks like a Taste of Chicago booth. Corn on the cob is an American delicacy that the French denigrate as "pig food"; touting it in a tourist brochure won't do much to undo the Midwest's reputation for culinary barbarism.
Avoiding gaffes is easy if you know your audience but one sometimes gets the impression that DCCA's advertising targets not the prospective visitor but other Chicagoans. The Chicago being pitched to the rest of the world is the lakefront Chicago of beaches, parks, shops and museums, the city whose new street cafes were found to be such an affectation by writer Jan Morris, the city where people go (as described in DCCA's lure brochure) to the "theatre" instead of the "the-A-ter." That Chicago is a product of an essentially North Shore sensibility, a Chicago for people who really don't like Chicago much, a place that sometimes must seem to hundreds of thousands of its own residents who live west of Halsted Street to be as exotic a place as Paris.
The traveler who yearns to see the genuine United States instead of an imitation Europe may nudge the industry toward an understanding that Buddy Guy and the City Council represent a reality that the symphony and Michigan Avenue do not. Other nations have Monets at home but where else can the foreign tourist get on a bus chartered by Untouchable Tours, "Chicago's original gangster tour," and see the surviving landmarks of the City That Shoots? As a city tourism administrator concedes, "They're doing gangbuster business." ●