As cities and towns across the U.S. rebound from two years of covid-restrictions and travel bans, we looked at how one city is getting back on track. We talked to Lynn Osmond, President & CEO of Choose Chicago on the changing travel landscape and what’s next for the Windy City.
How are Chicago’s tourism numbers? Are visitors back?
Chicago’s recovery post Covid-19 pandemic has surpassed our expectations. We’re seeing an expression of pent-up demand, welcoming more visitors than we predicted in 2021 and moving closer towards full recovery now in 2022. In July, hotel occupancy was at a 94% recovery share when compared to July 2019. We expect hotel room demand to continue to move toward full recovery by the end of 2023 if not sooner. Our airports are seeing increased traffic – O’Hare Airport saw a 28% increase in flights in the first half of 2022, one of the largest increases in the nation, and scheduled flights into O’Hare and Midway are expected to finish this year at near 80 % of 2019 levels. We are thrilled by these numbers and excited for the full recovery, which is expected by 2024 – at the latest!
Talk about the demographic of Chicago’s visitors. Is it changing?
Given all of the fluctuation over the last few years, it would be too soon to make any definitive statements about how the Chicago traveler may be changing. Traveling trends are still very much in flux, but what I can say is that we are seeing an increase in all types of leisure travelers across the board. For example, on an international level, while our Asian markets are a bit slower to recover, we are seeing a substantial increase in travelers from across the world, with some markets (like Mexico and India) exhibiting stronger than average growth through the first six months of this year, matching or exceeding their pre-COVID levels.
How has Covid affected things in Chicago?
Just like every big city, COVID hit us hard in Chicago. We are thrilled now to be open and on the path to full recovery, but the way people think of travel and how they carry it out has changed.
On an industry level, people have a greater understanding of the impact of travel, both for business and pleasure. Local residents may have never thought of their favorite restaurant as a tourist spot but when it was struggling because of lack of visitors it became real. There is a greater appreciation for the importance of tourism in ensuring our hospitality industry keeps thriving.
On an individual level, while there is greater interest and concern about health, there is also an increased desire for meaningful travel – we are seeing the expression of pent-up demand. That’s why it is important that we deliver the authentic travel experience that people are seeking and do so in a safe and responsible manner. We are also seeing more locals from the Chicagoland area getting to know their own backyards and surrounding neighborhoods – they now see Chicago as a destination when choosing what to explore.
How is traveling to Chicago now different than pre-covid?
In most observable ways, Chicago is not different at all. Visitors to Chicago can still experience the same amazing city that drew record numbers of visitors prior to the pandemic. Our restaurants, theaters and museums are open for business, hotel demand is approaching full recovery and we still have so many incredible cultural experiences in all of our 77 neighborhoods. One change that may be new for travelers that haven’t been to Chicago since before the pandemic is a newfound commitment to more outdoor dining experiences. Outdoor dining was essential during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Chicago moved quickly to make it easier for restaurants around the city to operate outdoors. Now, creative and fun outdoor spaces have become a fundamental part of the dining experience throughout the city. Our museums, theaters and other cultural institutions have also committed to the kind of authentic experiences that our visitors crave in this new world, sometimes with timed ticketing to ensure visitors can receive a genuine and personal experience in a safe manner.
What do you wish people knew about Chicago?
People may also be surprised to know that, while our downtown area is incredible, some of the best parts of Chicago can be found in neighborhoods across the city. So when you visit Chicago, you should absolutely check out the downtown Chicago Art Institute for its world-class collection that rivals the best museums in the world, but also check out our neighborhood cultural institutions the DuSable Black History Museum and the National Museum of Mexican Art.
What are some insider tips for travelers?
Chicago is a great city for biking! Our amazing Lakefront trail offers over 18 miles of scenic biking with Lake Michigan’s blue waters on one side and a combination of lush parks and dramatic skyline views to the other. We also have the 606, a 2.7-mile elevated park and trail that was built on what was once an industrial train line, and over 200 miles of on-street protected, buffered and shared bike lanes throughout the city. With rentals available throughout the city, visitors would love a bike trip to Chicago.
Chicago has hundreds of festivals every year, visitors may want to plan their trip around the festival of their choosing – check out Choose Chicago’s Festival and Event Guide. Some of my favorites include the Mole de Mayo, Open House Chicago and the Chriskindlmarket. Visitors should also consider planning their visit around weeklong citywide events that highlight our local hospitality and entertainment industry, such as Chicago Restaurant Week or Chicago Theatre Week.
We often talk about the things to do in Chicago, but just as impressive is all the things you can see. We have magnificent views on our lake and river, world-class architecture and hidden gems to see in every neighborhood. One of my favorite excursions to recommend is an architecture tour on the Chicago River.
Does Chicago get a lot of repeat visitors?
Over and over again, we hear that Chicago is a great city to visit because it is not a one attraction town, and people say that they are excited to return after their first trip for a completely experience. For example, a family might visit in the summer to catch a baseball game and come back in the fall for theater. We have great pizza and hole-in-the-wall Italian beef locations, but we also James Beard award-winning and Michelin-starred restaurants and a world-class fine dining experience. Visitors can spend a trip exploring one neighborhood and then come for an entirely different experience across town.
What’s next for the Windy City?
Hotel investment continues to be a part of Chicago’s future landscape. The recently opened LaSalle Hotel, upcoming CitizenM, and later next year the St. Regis will add more than 700 rooms to Chicago’s inventory and provide visitors with even more premier lodging options. We are also very excited to host the first-ever street race in NASCAR’s 75-year history next summer, which will add to our reputation as a premier location for marquee events of all kinds. We also recently launched a new marketing campaign, When You Go You Know, to promote the city as a tourist destination. Like the successful “Welcome Home” marketing campaign, which launched in 2017, When You Go You Know is telling Chicago’s story while elevating everything the city has to offer visitors. With more hotel rooms today in our city than before the pandemic, we are eager to continue welcoming people back to Chicago.