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Chicago’s convention industry’s recovery trails rival cities

Bzdawka says meeting planners’ perception of Chicago as a destination has been harmed by harsher COVID restrictions and a loss of vibrancy downtown. Some events moved to other cities that were more open during the pandemic, raising questions about when or if they’ll be back.

The National Confectioners Association, which held its annual Sweets & Snacks Expo in Chicago for more than two decades, moved the 16,000-person event to Indianapolis last year because the city was allowing large gatherings. The event returned to Chicago this year and will be held here again in 2023, as per its current contract. But the confectioners association recently announced the show would begin alternating between Indianapolis and Las Vegas from 2024 through 2032.

Though it’s harder to measure, Chicago’s struggle with violent crime is another big obstacle, meeting planners say. Chicago ranked 18th for safety in a 2021 index of the 25 best large event destinations compiled by event planning research firm Northstar Meetings Group, dragging the city’s overall rank down to No. 8th.

Tammi Krone, an associate regional vice president at event planning firm Helms Briscoe, who helps corporations choose locations for major meetings, says she has not had any clients cite crime as a reason to leave or steer clear of Chicago. But frequent headlines about violence downtown add to questions about whether the city is as much of a draw as it was before the crisis and can prevent event organizers’ primary goal of getting people to attend.

“It’s the perception of what’s going on there that’s hard to overcome,” Krone says.

The recovery looked anything but slow at McCormick Place in recent weeks. Despite rising COVID cases in the city, tens of thousands of visitors swarmed the convention center campus late last month as the National Restaurant Association Show and Sweets & Snacks Expo ran simultaneously. The restaurant show drew more than 51,000 attendees on its busiest day—blowing by its projected peak of 40,000 and its reported 42,000 peak in 2019—and international attendance for each event surpassed their 2019 levels.

Although MPEA CEO Larita Clark says recent attendance figures exceeded the authority’s expectations, the agency is still budgeting for a 2025 return to pre-pandemic performance levels. She contends Chicago’s more conservative approach to COVID rules can be an advantage to make attendees feel more comfortable about showing up. She also stresses the importance of tourism agency Choose Chicago—which books events on behalf of MPEA—filling leadership vacancies and staying connected to leaders of events that have moved to other cities.

After a protracted search process to find Osmond as its CEO, Choose Chicago is close to hiring a new executive to run its convention sales, a role that has been vacant since September. Osmond, who took the reins at Choose Chicago last month, was not available to comment.

“I’m looking forward to us getting out there and kind of reinventing Chicago and letting folks know what we really have to offer,” Clark says.

Event planners say group bookings have been picking up throughout 2022 and that some meeting organizers can’t find space at hotels and other venues downtown because of events that were canceled by COVID and rolled over into this year.

Yet there is also concern that companies will scale back meeting plans as airfare and shipping costs skyrocket, says Chris Gowe of event strategy consultant Tradeshow Logic. That would have industrywide impact, but would especially hurt markets like Chicago, where 20% of the hotel rooms booked each year are tied to conventions and trade shows.

“People will compare it to the experience of not having (events) and say, ‘We spent X amount to go to that show—did we get more leads? More sales? More networking?’ Gowe says, “If they didn’t, they’ll continue doing webinars or cut down on the number of events they attend.”

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