Events in Chicago: Fit Right In

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Events in Chicago: Fit Right In

By Jason Hensel | Aug 23, 2019

When asked why Chicago is such an attractive destination for so many meetings and events, Kevin Jackson, CMP (MPI Chicago Area Chapter), says that’s when he becomes a walking billboard for the city. Figuratively, of course.

“The city is a large, urban, world-class destination that offers all the amenities you’d expect to find such as restaurants, theater, hotel availability, travel options, etc.,” says Jackson, a Chicago-based business events consultant. “It’s easy to navigate the city, whether by foot, public transportation, taxi or rideshare.”

Compared to other Tier 1 cities, some labor costs are higher, but Chicago’s easy accessibility often makes it cheaper for attendees.

“Since it is easy to get around, visitors can also easily find a restaurant that will be perfect for a business meeting or save on meal costs and still have excellent food at a local restaurant,” Jackson says.

A Thriving City

For the past two years, more than 40 percent of major meetings hosted in Chicago have set attendance or participation records in terms of registered delegates, exhibit space sold and/or number of exhibitors, says David Whitaker, president and CEO of Choose Chicago.

“This not only catches planners’ attention, it catches the attention of exhibitors and decision makers who are looking to maximize the financial numbers that are essential to planners and their organizations,” he says.

According to Choose Chicago, the city set a new tourism record in 2018 with 57.7 million visitors, 2.4 million more than in 2017. A continued focus on growing the city’s overnight and leisure visitors contributed to this increase, which also helped raise hotel room occupancy. Chicago increased the number of occupied rooms by 4.4 percent to a total of 11.8 million rooms in 2018.

“The impact of our tourism, meetings and hospitality industry is increasingly noticeable,” Whitaker said in a prepared statement. “We all know when the city is hopping and full of tourist and convention delegates—and, sadly, when they are not here. It reaches far beyond the jobs supported and the taxes generated. A great city to visit or meet in first has to be a great city in which to live, work or play in. And the visitor economy helps fuel the ability for Chicago’s tourism and entertainment assets to thrive.” 

A Flexible City

With Chicago adding more than 25 new hotels and 20 percent more inventory in the past five years, planners now have more options and flexibility, Whitaker says, allowing for smaller meetings and more windows of opportunity in peak periods.

Chicago offers many flexible event options, Jackson says, especially if you want something other than a traditional hotel or convention space.

“There are theaters and museums throughout the city that can easily fit into the theme of an event or be of interest to attendees for an offsite,” Jackson says. “Event planners should take advantage of the natural beauty of the city by hosting an event along Lake Michigan or the Chicago River.”

Jackson also recommends creating a team-building event that involves local restaurants and showcases the city’s architecture.

“There are also many free cultural activities offered throughout the year,” he says. “Yes, even in the winter.”

A Neighborhood City

Chicago is also a city of unique neighborhoods.

“Even when you are in the central business district (the Loop), you’re in a neighborhood where people live, eat, shop and play,” Jackson says. “When you get outside of the Loop, you can still find great restaurants that don’t require a three-month wait.”

While there are always new things coming online, Whitaker says, one of the most exciting and transformative developments is the continued expansion of McCormick Place and the surrounding campus, including the addition of a 600-room Hilton triplex that opened last fall.

The 23-story triplex includes the 184-room Hilton Garden Inn Chicago McCormick Place, the 187-room Hampton Inn by Hilton Chicago McCormick Place and the 95-suite Home2 Suites by Hilton Chicago McCormick Place. A skybridge connects to McCormick Place, and the three hotels offer a collected total of 7,000 square feet of event space throughout 10 meeting spaces.

“We are thrilled to bring three powerhouse hotel brands, as well as inventive new dining concepts to the continuously-evolving landscape of McCormick Place and the Motor Row District,” Stephen Schwartz, First Hospitality Group Inc. founder and chairman, said in a prepared statement. “This tri-brand hotel will serve as a convenient ‘one-stop shop’ for convention-goers looking to rest and recharge or enjoy the local flavors of Chicago while remaining just steps from their convention events.”

Beyond hotel options on its campus, Whitaker says, McCormick Square has now evolved into a complete neighborhood all its own with the renovation and opening of more than a dozen new event venues and restaurants in a district known as Motor Row (along Michigan Avenue) just steps from McCormick Place.

“In addition to Motor Row and all that is happening on campus at McCormick Place, at the heart of the city is the expansion of our now incredibly popular Chicago Riverwalk along the Chicago River—including the recent completion of Chicago Riverwalk East,” Whitaker says. “Chicago Riverwalk is an asset and attraction that serves and is walkable to and from almost all of the host hotels in the core of the city.”

Jackson says that West Loop/Fulton Market is home to many trendy restaurants and corporate offices such as McDonald’s and Google and that hotel space is also expanding in the area.

“Pilsen is home to great venue spaces such as Thalia Hall,” he says. “Uptown already has some great music venues, but I’m excited for redevelopment of the Uptown Theater and the opportunities that space will offer.”

A Cultural City

If you are planning a cultural tourism event, Jackson says, Chicago is unbeatable.

“There are locations in Bronzeville that highlight the migration of African Americans from the south and the growth of history and gospel and R&B music,” Jackson says. “You also have the Copernicus Center on the northwest side that showcases the culture of Chicago’s large Polish population.”

Chicago is also a great place to see live theater.

“In addition to the theater produced by Broadway in Chicago, there are world-class theaters such as the Goodman and Steppenwolf that are easily accessible from downtown hotels,” Jackson says. “But Chicago is also home to many storefront theaters found throughout the city. Storefront theaters are not only launching pads for innovative productions and acting careers but visiting them enables attendees to explore parts of the city outside of downtown.”

Whitaker finds most people are impressed with Chicago’s sincere Midwestern hospitality and friendliness.

“It is not coincidence that Chicago is enjoying a wave of accolades as a top city to meet, work or play in,” he says. “Home is not just where you are from, it is where you and your guests fit right in. That is the Chicago we love sharing with those who ultimately choose us.”

What’s New in Chicago

The 297-room 21c Museum Hotel Chicago is set to open in winter 2019. The hotel will feature 10,000 square feet of exhibition and meeting space, a restaurant and a free contemporary art museum open 365 days a year.

The 36,000-square-foot Offshore Rooftop & Bar on the third floor of Navy Pier’s Festival Hall recently opened. Touted at the nation’s largest rooftop bar, the space features a 60-foot bar that can accommodate up to 100 guests, outdoor space for events and retractable glass walls.

The Hoxton hotel is now open in the West Loop neighborhood. The 182-room property features a rooftop restaurant, a basement cocktail lounge, a Mediterranean restaurant and meeting space across five separate rooms.

The former Essex Inn is now the Hotel Essex Chicago after a $250 million renovation. Located in the South Loop, the 274-room hotel offers a French bistro, a bi-level bar, retractable glass walls and space for private events.

The two-level Barton G. The Restaurant recently opened in the River North neighborhood and features dramatic dining experiences that aim to “shock and awe your senses and push the boundaries of your imagination and culinary expectations.” The restaurant’s second floor is available for private events.

The meeting space at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Chicago - Magnificent Mile recently underwent a renovation and now includes the new LaSalle Ballroom, which can seat up to 400 guests, along with a foyer for events such as cocktail receptions. Overall, there is 16,000 square feet of meeting space at the 500-room hotel.

The Rose Hotel Chicago O’Hare, Tapestry Collection by Hilton opened in Rosemont in fall 2018. The pet-friendly, 165-room hotel offers 6,000 square feet of meeting space and an onsite restaurant and bar.

The Frederick C. Robie House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, reopened in spring 2019 after a $3 million restoration. The venue is available for events of up to 60 guests.  

The Obama Presidential Center plans to open in 2021 in Jackson Park on the South Side of Chicago. The center will include a museum, an auditorium, a library, a public plaza for events and an athletic center.



Jason Hensel
Jason Hensel

Jason Hensel is a freelance writer and former editor for The Meeting Professional. He likes improv comedy, bacon and books.