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Official backs down from claim crime hurting city’s tourism efforts

DWelsh president CEO Choose Chicago January 2012 photo. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times files

Don Welsh, president and CEO of Choose Chicago, in a January 2012 photo. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times files

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Updated: August 13, 2012 1:58PM



Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office swung into full damage-control mode Wednesday after Chicago’s convention and tourism chief was quoted as saying that a 38 percent spike in the city’s homicide rate and a troubling return to mob attacks downtown was hurting efforts to promote the city.

Don Welsh, president and CEO of Choose Chicago, told the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board that he’s gotten five or six calls from meeting planners in recent weeks concerned about whether Chicago is still a safe place to hold their meetings.

So far, nobody’s cancelling any meetings just yet. But, that’s a possibility if the Chicago Police Department does not get a quick handle on the problem, Welsh was quoted as saying.

“We hope this sunsets quickly because all the good work we’re doing regionally, nationally and internationally, if this is not contained in a reasonable period of time, it will have an impact,” the Tribune’s website quoted Welsh as saying.

“There are inquiries that are coming in from meeting planners that are saying, ‘Hey, I’m reading about what’s taken place in your city. Is your city safe?’”

In a follow-up interview with the Chicago Sun-Times a short time later Wednesday, Welsh insisted that his remarks had been “misinterpreted” and “taken out of context.”

He acknowledged that Choose Chicago has gotten “five or six calls over the last five or six weeks” from skittish meeting planners who had read or heard about Chicago’s surging homicide rate and about mob attacks in the downtown area.

But, Welsh said, he has an answer for those inquiries.

“They’re asking if these issues are taking place in the downtown area or near McCormick Place and the answer we’ve given them is an emphatic, ‘No,’” Welsh said.

“There has never been a second thought about how we position Chicago as the safest big city in the world. The only issue we’ve run into is this isolated gang activity that the mayor has been aggressively dealing with. [Overall] crime continues to be down. The shootings we have seen have been almost 100 percent isolated to neighborhoods outside the downtown core of Chicago where tourists and visitors from around the world frequent.”

Reminded that there was a shooting right off Michigan Avenue that police attributed to “gang-related road rage,” Welsh said, “An isolated incident could take place in any city in the world. But crime is down and continues to be down.”

Apparently concerned that his earlier remarks might land him in Emanuel’s doghouse, Welsh then talked about all of the “positive trends” he has seen lately in the drive to meet the mayor’s ambitious goal of attracting 10 million more visitors by 2020.

“We just wrapped up what is probably the best June in the history of the city. We’ve announced the retention of over $3 billion in convention business. Last week alone, we opened international sales offices in Brazil and Japan,” he said.

“All the metrics we look at — from hotel occupancy to bookings and editorial support domestically and internationally — are all up with positive information about our city. … Chicago is an incredibly safe and clean city that’s got any amenity that visitors, convention and leisure visitors want. The hallmark of the city has always been clean, safe streets and that had not changed.”

Emanuel’s communications director Sarah Hamilton said Welsh’s earlier claim that crime and the perception of it is hurting tourism is “simply false.”

“More and more people are coming to Chicago. Our visitors rates are up and hotel occupancy was over 90 percent last month,” Hamilton wrote, “one of the most outstanding months the city has had in recent history.”

The occupancy rate in June was 91.8 percent, up from 87.7 percent last year, even though the average daily rate per room, nearly $224 was up 1.9 percent compared to last year.

“We expect the numbers to get better and better,” she said.

And she noted that despite the spike in homicides, “overall crime” is down 10 percent across the city.

McPier CEO Jim Reilly was asked whether he shares Welsh’s view about Chicago’s crime problem and the impact it could have on conventions and tourism.

“It certainly isn’t helping, but I don’t know that I would say it’s killing us,” Reilly said.

“Part of it is reality. Part of it is the way the story sometimes gets played. But, I don’t know that I would go as far as Don. It’s clearly not helping. That’s what I would say.”

Reilly said he has not gotten any calls from convention and trade show planners concerned about whether it’s safe to come to Chicago.

“In terms of our job conventions and trade shows — I don’t think it’s had much impact. Choose Chicago is the sales arm. He deals with tourists. We don’t. We aren’t directly getting any calls. If there are calls, they’d be going to Choose Chicago — not us,” Reilly said.

“The concern is that the perception would be that it’s not safe. I don’t know that it has thus far been a huge issue. But with the coverage, it has the potential to be that. To the extent there is a problem in terms of tourism, it is a perception problem. Clearly, there is a reality behind it and the mayor and the superintendent are working on that.”

Earlier this year, Emanuel merged Chicago’s two major tourism organizations to free up $1.3 million to market Chicago nationwide and overseas and set a goal of attracting 10 million more visitors by 2020.

At the mayor’s behest, the Chicago Convention & Tourism Bureau joined forces with the Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture. The new organization is now run by Welsh.

Choose Chicago subsequently opened international sales offices in Brazil, Germany and Japan bringing the city’s international sales efforts to eight offices on four continents.

Even with the expansion, Chicago spends the “least of any major U.S. city” on international marketing, officials said. Las Vegas has 22 overseas offices. New York (18), Los Angeles (15) and San Francisco (13) also run circles around Chicago.

As a result, Chicago claimed just 4.3 percent of the 27 million overseas travelers to the U.S. in 2010, compared to 32 percent for New York.

“We’re the third largest city in America and we’re 10th on foreign tourists. … And I do not believe that the best kept secret of America should be the city of Chicago,” the mayor told the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau at the time.

“We’ve consolidated three offices here in the city that deal with the tourism and convention business and we’re gonna open three offices around the world where the tourists exists. It doesn’t take a lot of geniuses to do that, but it took years of study to come up with that conclusion.”

Chicago currently attracts 40 million annual visitors, but only 1.2 million of them come from overseas.

Emanuel’s goal is to raise it to 50 million visitors by 2020 and to move into the top five cities for international tourists. Chicago currently ranks tenth among U.S. cities.

A 25 percent increase could raise visitor spending by $3.6 billion-a-year and boost annual tax revenue by up to $300 million.

“We have lagged in the tourism business. And it shows..”



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