Tourists and business travellers have returned to Chicago, but the city needs to regain the confidence of corporates.
On a calm summer evening, runners follow their usual route in River North, a trendy area just outside Chicago’s downtown business district, their path now converging with lively restaurant patios – a welcome change from the quiet pandemic era.
Like many downtown business districts around the world, the Chicago Loop became a ghost town during the pandemic. Commuters are now trickling back into the neighbourhood while the return of international visitors has prompted the reopening of several luxury downtown hotels, with an additional 1,338 daily rooms expected to be added to the city’s inventory by the end of 2023.
Leisure travellers have driven Chicago’s recovery, with the city welcoming a total of 31 million (predominantly domestic) visitors in 2021, an 86 per cent increase on 2020. In a tourism update this summer, Mayor Lori Lightfoot described the turnaround as “a true testament to Chicago’s resilience and strength as a top destination for tourists, businesses, and events”.
The city also expects to reach pre-Covid levels of 2.1 million international visitors by 2024. Lightfoot added that the tourism numbers “show that visitors throughout the United States and the world are hungry to return to our incredible city”.
The optimism is, in part, attributable to the growth in bleisure, with travellers’ increasing tendency to combine business and pleasure boding well for the city.
“This new climate works well for us – Chicago has so much to offer to travellers, from world-class meeting spaces to some of the best restaurants in the world to cultural and sports experiences that could supplement a business trip,” says Lynn Osmond, president and chief executive of Choose Chicago, the city’s tourism agency.
Chicago is, after all, a bustling city where you can bookend meetings with lunch on the beach in the shadows of skyscrapers, catch a comedy show after work or deep dive into the designs of legendary American architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe and Louis Sullivan, en route to an important corporate dinner.
“People don’t take travel for granted, so if someone is going to hop on a plane for a meeting or a convention it has to be for a good reason, and they have to get something meaningful out of that trip,” Osmond adds.
Boeing’s big move
Amidst this upturn, however, comes a considerable blow to Chicago’s business scene, with three Fortune 500 companies announcing their departures from the city during the summer of 2022 alone.
Boeing, which moved its headquarters to downtown Chicago two decades ago, is set to move to a Virginia suburb of Washington DC, and Caterpillar, a leading manufacturer of construction equipment, is heading to Irving, Texas, despite having been based in Illinois for nearly 100 years.
The third corporate to say farewell is Citadel, a US$51 billion hedge fund, which is relocating its global headquarters to Miami, where founder Ken Griffin and his family now reside. This move won’t go unnoticed, with the company employing more than 1,000 people in Illinois and Griffin reportedly having donated more than US$600 million to local organisations over the years.
Chicago’s infamous crime rates have played a large role in corporate exits, with Griffin blaming crime and employee preferences, as well as Illinois’ tax policy, for the company’s move. While gun violence has increased in several US cities since the onset of the pandemic, crime has surged in Chicago. In 2021, it saw more murders than any other US city, with the police recording 797 homicides – its deadliest year in more than two decades.
“Like every other big city in the country, we are certainly facing challenges related to public safety, but the inflamed rhetoric around this issue has created a perception of crime that does not reflect reality in Chicago,” Osmond says. “The fact is that millions of Chicagoans and visitors enjoy everything this city has to offer safely every day.”
Concrete measures are needed to boost confidence in the city. Enter the Chicago Loop Alliance, a local group set up in 2005 which aims to “promote businesses and lead revitalisation efforts” in the namesake area.
To help alleviate safety concerns, it expanded its Alliance Ambassador Program in June this year, which sees representatives patrol city streets from 4pm to midnight six days a week. Ambassadors receive training in de-escalation tactics to help ward off violent behaviour in the city, and offer services including assisting individuals in need of social services or experiencing homelessness. Beyond the Loop, the city is also launching 12 further Corridor Ambassador programmes in other neighbourhoods.
At the time of writing, the crime rate appears to be returning to lower pre-pandemic levels, with the city recording 205 homicides in June, July and August 2022, compared to 277 during the same period last year. It remains to be seen if this will continue over the next few years.
A convention comeback
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Meetings, conventions and events are making a comeback. Since reopening in July 2021, more than 1.3 million people have attended events at Chicago’s McCormick Place, the largest convention space in North America. The International Manufacturing Technology Show – the largest and longest-running industry trade show in the Western hemisphere – alone drew an estimated 100,000 visitors.
“I go into work every day and am filled with hope when I see our amazing McCormick Place campus thriving with a new convention or meeting every week,” says Osmond.
The convention space is expected to host at least 183 events this year, serving more than 1.5 million visitors. Those events alone are expected to drive nearly US$2 billion in economic activity, city officials estimate.
“There is no doubt that there is a pent-up demand for meetings, conventions and business events,” says Larita Clark, chief executive of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which owns McCormick Place. Clark adds that her team is seeing demand for meeting space across industries. “From medical to manufacturing to education to retail – people are excited to be back in person,” she says.
Google doubles down
Big health and tech businesses are also moving to downtown Chicago. Health firm Abbott Laboratories recently leased office space in the city’s best-known skyscraper, Willis Tower, while Meta (formerly Facebook) celebrated its 15th anniversary in the city by taking over 11 floors of a 35-storey high-rise in the Loop – its largest office in the Midwest.
Google, meanwhile, is placing a big bet on Chicago. The tech giant entered the city in 2000 with just two employees, later expanding to a sprawling 1,800-employee office building in the trendy Fulton Market neighbourhood. It’s now time for an upgrade, with Google purchasing the 17-storey James R. Thompson Center in the Loop, where it plans to move employees in 2026. “By establishing a presence in Chicago’s central business district, we will be getting in on the ground floor of a broader revitalisation of the Loop,” the company said in announcing its real estate acquisition.
For now, Googlers remain at the Fulton Market office, hashing out the details of day-to-day work in conference rooms, gathering in kitchens for special events, and letting off steam in the retro games room. Walk through the neighbourhood on any given weeknight and you’ll see groups of colleagues congregating at local bars for happy hours.
This is a city that’s as lively as New York, but with sandy beaches, more affordable prices and better urban planning. Visitors to the city may find its corporate landscape has shifted considerably since the pre-pandemic era, but confidence from the likes of Google shows Chicago’s resilience in the face of further challenges.
Take me there
You can book your next trip to Chicago with United Airlines at united.com. It flies twice a day to Chicago O’Hare from London Heathrow on a 767-300 featuring 46 United Polaris® business class seats, 22 United® Premium Plus seats and 99 United Economy seats. Customers travelling in business class can enjoy access to the United Club℠ at Heathrow’s Terminal Two and the Polaris lounge at Chicago O’Hare airport.
Words: Meena Thiruvengadam