Donald Welsh wants to show you Chicago, no matter where you’re from
Donald Welsh wants to show you Chicago, whether you know the place well or not.
If you live in China or Mexico, he’s working to get Chicago on your U.S. itinerary. He’s putting out the word to East and West Coast dwellers that they needn’t go cross-country for a change of scenery.
He’s buying ads in St. Louis, Detroit and other nearby cities to get a bigger chunk of the so-called “drive” markets.
For lifelong Chicagoans, he wants you to see the city with new eyes, to behold, as the foreign visitors do, a cultural metropolis caressed by an inland sea.
He’s doing it as the head of a public-private agency with the rare distinction of raking in cash. Welsh, 57, is the president and CEO of Choose Chicago, the city’s official tourism and convention marketing agency that has absorbed functions from City Hall and gotten new revenue from the city, state and McCormick Place for its trouble.
As a result, it will spend more than $32 million this year, more than double its output for 2011. But with the money has come higher expectations from Mayor Rahm Emanuel and an energized board determined to see that Chicago undersells itself no more.
Welsh spoke with Grid about the possibilities and pitfalls of civic salesmanship.
Grid: What aspects of Chicago need better promotion?
DW: The geographic beauty of the city. Until you come here and you can experience walking along the lake and getting on a bike and passing the beaches, you can’t imagine what it’s like. The beauty of Lake Michigan, even in the dead of winter, is such a competitive advantage.
Number two is our whole restaurant scene. I’ve never seen better restaurants anywhere in the world including with all due respect Paris and London and New York and others. And I love the fact that the chefs here seem to be very approachable and they love the city.
Last but not least, I think of the whole cluster of arts and the culture scene here.
Grid: Is Chicago a place where foreign visitors will come? It’s easier for them to stop on the coasts.
DW: An emphatic yes to that. I think the mayor has coined the term, ‘We’re the most American of American cities.’ People from China or Brazil want to go to several cities in one trip. We want to make sure Chicago is on the schedule.
There are six to eight cities that are the average of what Chinese visitors will experience in the United States when they come here with a 10- or 12-day trip.
Grid:Reforms at McCormick Place were supposed to lower costs here, but some say convention exhibitors don’t always see savings. Are exhibitors benefiting from the labor cost cuts?
DW: We now have testimonials from exhibitors talking about how the money has flowed down to them. In some cases, you’re right, it’s not as black and white because in some cases the cost to an exhibitor is a bundled price that’s offered by the trade show. So whatever the decision is in terms of how the economics work between that trade show and its decorator and the exhibitors, we don’t get into that.
Grid: How do you deal with the boom-and-bust nature of the convention business?
DW: It can be highly frustrating, particularly in January and February. There’s a major focus now on the first quarter business. We know that for the most part the city does very well nine or 10 months out of the year. We fix January and February and move us from 50 percent occupancy to 60 percent, the city probably runs close to 80 percent annual occupancy, which is almost unbelievable for a Midwestern city.
Grid: News stories here are about flash mobs on Michigan Avenue and neighborhood violence. Does that negate some of what you’re doing?
DW: I just was in Mexico for three days. We probably had interaction with 75 to 100 different media outlets and in a 45-minute question session with the governor and me that question didn’t come up once.
We had close to a record first quarter. It [violence] is not deterring people from coming to the city of Chicago. I have not had one convention customer ask me for a meeting to discuss what they read about the crime situation.
Grid: Do people overseas still ask about Al Capone?
DW: Absolutely. Europeans are focused on Al Capone. The Chinese are a little more about Michael Jordan and ‘where are you, where are you located?’
Grid: Are you close to signing any big new conventions?
DW: We’ve got about three that we are in the final stages of decision and in probably the case of two of them, we were never under consideration before the labor reforms.
Grid: Does Chicago need a casino?
DW: That’s come up. I spend a couple of years with MGM in Las Vegas. I think that if a casino is done in Chicago, I hope that it’s put in a location that is somewhat central for people to enjoy. I hope it’s walkable to downtown. I think a casino, if it’s done properly, will be viewed as just another amenity, another entertainment option for the city. But I don’t wake up in the middle of the night saying we’ve got to have a casino to be competitive.
I am a proponent of a casino but not on McCormick Place land. I think right now the city has built a reputation that you come here and you work and then you enjoy the elements of the city.
Photo by Sara Mays