Illinois needs a plan for bringing back conventions

Lifelong Chicagoans of a certain age remember the decades of Mayors who slinked away from the idea of conventions, tourism, and film production.

But our city sprung alive and a new era began when Mayor Jane Byrne brought the Blues Brothers to town. Street fairs and Chicago Fest transformed Chicago into a world-class tourist and convention destination.

Chicago invented conventions, and now our city and state are a first-class destination from visitors across the globe.

Pre-pandemic, there were roughly 550,000 jobs between restaurants, hotels, conventions and museums. This sector is the second-largest employer in Illinois, with nearly 63 percent of these folks being people of color. It is estimated that we have lost 120,000 of those jobs in 2020.

Now for the big numbers: In 2019, tourism generated $43 billion of economic activity in Illinois. This economic engine fuels $3.5 billion of revenue into state and local government bank accounts every year.

Enter COVID-19. Everything changed overnight.

Governor J.B. Pritzker deserves high marks for his management of the pandemic, considering the abysmal lack of leadership and inadequate support from Washington.

But now we are at the one-year mark. Vaccinations for all adults are promised by May. In any case, the light at the end of the tunnel is visible, making it critical to unveil a plan to bring back conventions now.

Conventions and other events like weddings require at least a six-month planning ramp. Choose Chicago has estimated that Chicago has lost more than 60 conventions, with just 29 remaining on the books for 2021. Radio silence on a plan from decision makers has resulted in three conventions pulling the plug just last month.

Comparable states like Michigan, Colorado, Nevada and Ohio have unveiled forward-thinking plans allowing convention centers to increase their numbers of visitors, albeit incrementally. These mitigation plans act like a thermostat dial, rather than an on/off switch.

Illinois must hastily adopt a similar strategy or more events will be in peril and perhaps even lost forever to other states.

Sara Feigenholtz is Illinois State Senator and Chairperson of the Illinois Senate Tourism and Hospitality Committee.

via Crain’s Chicago Business

March 10, 2021 at 09:22AM

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