Choose Chicago, the city’s tourism and convention bureau, is expecting its annual budget to nearly double this fiscal year, to $32.6 million, as it pulls in a portion of the city’s hotel tax increase, enacted last year, as well as a relatively new tax on airport taxi rides.

While still outgunned by such rival convention cities as Las Vegas and Orlando, whose marketing budgets are $113.9 million and $49.8 million respectively, Chicago is now within the range of such tourism competitors as New York, at $40 million, and San Francisco, at $27.4 million.

“We’re extremely grateful for what we have now,” said Don Welsh, president and CEO of the nonprofit organization, said at a City Club luncheon address. The organization, which gets most of its funding from state and local government sources, had a budget of $13.8 million in fiscal 2010, and $17.8 million last year.

The organization, renamed last year after a merger between the city’s convention bureau and its tourism office, is using its additional funding to beef up marketing.

It has opened nine international offices over the past 15 months and translated its promotional materials into eight languages in an effort to boost Chicago’s standing as a destination for international travelers, who on average spend $4,000 per person per stay.

Of the 26 million overseas visitors to the U.S. last year, almost 34 percent visited New York, while only 3 to 3.5 percent came to Chicago, Welsh said.

“This is just wrong; we’ve got a lot of efforts in this,” he said.

The organization also spent about $2 million on regional ad campaigns, targeting potential drive-in visitors from Detroit, Grand Rapids, Indianapolis, Milwaukee and St. Louis.

Most recently, it is partnering with Second City to produce videos highlighting Chicago neighborhoods as destinations, with the first to feature Bucktown and Wicker Park. The organization is in negotiations with a potential corporate sponsor for this program, and hopes to roll out the first videos within weeks, said Warren Wilkinson, chief marketing officer.

As well, it is planning a public relations push among East and West Coast media.

The 1 point hike in the city’s hotel tax, bringing the rate 16.5 percent, brought the city close to $20 million in new revenue last year, of which $5 million will go to Choose Chicago.

The organization also expects to get $7 million from the airport departure tax and $4.5 million in city funds stemming from the organization merger, among other funding sources.

The merger resulted in a reduction in overall staffing, from 147 in two organizations to 91 full-time and 14 part-time staffers at the combined agency, Welsh said.

Welsh projected the city attracted more than 45 million visitors last year, though the figures will not be available for about six weeks. This would be an increase from 43.6 million visitors in 2011.

He expressed optimism the city would surpass Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s goal of 50 million visitors well before the target date of 2020.

(c)2013 the Chicago Tribune. Distributed by MCT Information Services.

Tags: chicago
Photo Credit: The "Bean" in Chicago's Millennial Park. Cesar Russ Photography / Choose Chicago