How Lynn Osmond plans to revive Chicago conventions and tourism
But with inflation and a slowing economy weighing on travel budgets, hitting its ambitious target of bringing nearly 54 million visitors to the city next year – almost 90% of 2019’s record figure and up from 30.7 million last year – will likely require a dramatic improvement in Chicago’s real and perceived problems.
“We need to, as Chicagoans, get our mojo back and start talking about why we love this city,” Osmond said. “That’s my job. To start, locally, making the people of Chicago proud.”
Osmond spent his first five months on the job rebuilding Choose Chicago’s workforce, adding eight employees for a full-time workforce of 56 people today, up from about 75 before the pandemic. Most notable is Dustin Arnheim, hired by the Baltimore Tourism Agency as second-in-command. He is responsible for stabilizing Chicago’s convention and meetings industry, an industry that traditionally accounts for 1 in 5 hotel nights downtown.
Arnheim’s role was perhaps the most glaring vacancy for Choose, as convention organizers considered other markets that re-allowed large gatherings ahead of Chicago. The National Confectioners Association’s Sweets and Snacks Expo moved to Indianapolis last year for this reason, and recently announced that the show would begin rotating between Indianapolis and Las Vegas from 2024 to 2032.
Osmond says Chicago’s strongest selling points have always been the vitality of its hotels and restaurants and its arts and culture scene. That’s why she’s focused on convincing event clients and tourists that crime isn’t out of control and that the city center remains vibrant. She is quick to point out, among other positives, that Chicago was recently named the “Best Big City in the United States” by Conde Nast Traveler for the sixth consecutive year.
Osmond’s background is very different from that of his predecessors Don Welsh and David Whitaker, who were familiar with big-city marketing tactics after running tourism agencies elsewhere, and measured success primarily by hotel occupancy and room rates.
Osmond, a former clarinetist with a music degree from Queen’s University in Ontario, has spent the past 25 years overseeing a tourist attraction at the Chicago Architecture Center, known for its boat tours on the Chicago River. Her assessment of the well-being of local tourism is most closely tied to local cultural institutions like the one she ran.
It’s crucial to keep McCormick Place and the hotels as full as possible, “but it’s really important that the museums are healthy, it’s really important that the performing arts are (healthy), that our neighborhoods are healthy, that our restaurants are healthy,” she says. Convention and trade show planners “say, ‘We really want to sell Chicago (to attendees and exhibitors) holistically, not just McCormick Place. We want to sell you as a destination.’ So that’s really what we focused on.”
Osmond plans to leverage his connections in Chicago’s civic and corporate landscape to help spread the positive word about the city. The West Loop resident has ties to Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who in 2019 named her to the Chicago Landmarks Commission. His business connections include David Jacobson, president of BMO Financial Group, Jenny Scanlon, CEO of Underwriters Laboratories, and Curt Bailey, president of Related Midwest.
“She has intimate knowledge of what we do here,” said John Curran, a former Choose Chicago executive who is now senior vice president and general manager of tour bus operator Big Bus Tours. He says Osmond’s connections make her better suited than her predecessors to quickly rally support for her broad pro-Chicago push, and she has more marketing chops than most people realize. “She was very good at creating a ‘wind in your hair, sun in your face’ narrative” as her architectural boat tours grew to a fleet of six ships today, Curran says.
A former Choose Chicago board member, Osmond served on the original search committee to replace Whitaker after his contract expired last year. But after six months of fruitless hunting, Chicago’s hospitality industry grew concerned about the difficulty of the job and a potential lack of resources to do it – the committee turned to her. “I thought it was my obligation,” she says.
In a statement on Osmond, a spokeswoman for Lightfoot said “a fresh perspective was needed to rethink how to attract tourists and business travelers. Lynn is that fresh thinker who has an impressive track record at the head of the Chicago Architecture Foundation and is a passionate advocate for Chicago.”
Osmond ignores her lack of experience running a tourism agency, noting that she spent years marketing Chicago as a destination at architecture-related events around the world. She says her knack for forging strong relationships with CAC donors translates well to working with groups that host large meetings and conventions across the city.
Those skills came in handy after McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski called Chicago a city “in crisis” in his Sept. 14 comments to the Economic Club of Chicago. Osmond worked the phones as calls came in to pick and choose from event organizers, fearing their exhibitors might be scared away from attending. None withdrew from Chicago, according to a spokesperson for Choose.
“We have to be careful when we do our laundry in public because that tail comes back to hit us,” she says.
Osmond is using some traditional methods to try to shape public perceptions about Chicago, including a “When you go there, you know” ad campaign that launched in June and will continue “for a few years,” she says. Choose is also spotlighting Chicago’s best attributes on fast-growing video app TikTok, recently hiring San Francisco-based travel-focused production company Matador Network to help generate Chicago promotional content. on the platform.
Still, Choose’s reduced budget, which is heavily dependent on hotel tax revenues due to the pandemic, will require tough choices about how to allocate scarce resources. The agency had about $26 million to work with this year, up from $31 million in 2019. Its 2023 budget hasn’t been finalized, but a source close to planning says it’s likely to be close to 28. millions of dollars.
By comparison, New York’s tourism branch’s 2022 budget was $63.1 million, according to its latest annual report. The comparable budget for Orlando, Fla., one of Chicago’s top rivals for conventions and trade shows, was $67.3 million, according to Visit Orlando records.
Osmond has increased the ACC’s budget from $2.5 million to $25 million, and she sees opportunities to fill Choose’s coffers with more sponsorship revenue tied to high-profile events like the James Beard Foundation Awards. or major sporting events. She struck some great partnerships while leading the CAC, signing a deal with Allstate in 2011 to sponsor the first Open House Chicago weekend festival.
Osmond faces several recruitment tests in 2023, a slow year for some of the biggest shows at McCormick Place. His first chance at a big win is imminent as the city battles to host the 2024 Democratic National Convention, with a decision expected early next year.