In July, David Whitaker took over as CEO of Choose Chicago (replacing Don Welsh) after more than 25 years’ combined experience with Brand USA, Tourism Toronto and the Greater Miami CVB. The Windy City already sees more than 51 million annual visitors, a figure Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to see hit 55 million by 2020. Connect had the chance to speak with Whitaker a few weeks after he took over to discuss his new role and the city’s future as a meetings destination.
How have you spent your first few weeks on the job?
I call it the “listening tour.” It’s open ears, open eyes and an open heart, listening to the good advice I can get. I’ve reached out to current board leaders, leading partners, community leaders and government leaders. I’m also spending a great deal of time internally with our senior team, different department heads and key staff, learning where they are and what’s needed. So it gives me a chance to come in at the ground level and start looking at what’s worked well, what we can do better and what new opportunities are in the future.
With Chicago already near the top of most rankings of meetings and events activity in the United States, how much room does the city have for growth?
It’s fueled by two things. One, there are always consequences to growth, in terms of the competitiveness of our industry. Competitiveness is very healthy, and it’s good for the customer at the end of the day. We’re averaging over 5 percent growth in inventory. In the last couple of years, you’ve seen new hotel products come online: LondonHouse, the Kimpton Gray brand, the Virgin Hotel, the Chicago Athletic Association [Hotel], Loews Chicago. That’s good for the customer and that’s good for the meeting planner because it gives them more choices. It will be more impactful next year when we collaborate with McCormick Place to open the new 1,200-room Marriott Marquis. So while these are tremendous opportunities for convention delegates and planners, it creates a layer of added need to bring more volume to the destination.
Secondly, because some of the largest conventions in North America meet here, sometimes dates are hard to come by for smaller meetings. By adding more inventory, we’re opening more opportunities for smaller, self-contained meetings that can meet in the downtown core and not require the space of McCormick Place. It’s a perfect opportunity for the customer because we’re going to be more aggressive, reaching out and exposing customers to choices they didn’t have before.