Skift Take

Chicago needs to make a bold statement about who it is and what it offers to attract the growing number of foreign tourists ready to spend time and money in the U.S.

International tourists are bolstering the economies of major U.S. cities with one notable and surprising exception. Chicago, the home of deep dish pizza, blues and President Obama, has yet to see the many benefits of global tourism growth.

The windy city welcomed 1.378 million overseas visitors in 2013, capturing just a 4.3% market share and coming in ninth among U.S. cities most visited by international visitors, according to data from the U.S. National Travel & Tourism Office.

This is far fewer tourists and lower market share than obvious competitors New York (29.9% market share) and Los Angeles (11.8%), San Francisco (9.5%), Honolulu (8%) and Washington, D.C. (5.3%).

Competitive Markets

Chicago’s O’Hare surprisingly has a lack of international air connections when compared with passenger volumes at major metropolitan airports for the five months through May 2014, and this highlights Chicago’s lag in international visitors.

International passengers accounted for 15 percent of O’Hare’s total passenger volume, but 48 percent of Miami International Airport’s total passenger volume, and 27 percent of traffic at LAX.

International passengers actually outnumber domestic passengers at New York’s JFK International Airport, where they accounted for 51 percent of flyers in the five months through May 2014.

New York City has long ranked as the top U.S. international destination, claiming one-third of all international visitors while Los Angeles’ and Miami’s recent tourism growth is being fueled by booming economies in Latin America and Asia.

Miami’s domestic visitation remained flat in 2013, but tourists from several Latin American markets increased 4.4 percent, contributing to 7.13 million international guests. Los Angeles has reported record visitation numbers for the past three years in a row, bolstered in large part by visitors from China.

Looking For Change

Choose Chicago, the two-year-old organization tasked with marketing Chicago in the U.S. and abroad, sees itself playing a game of catch-up.

Chicago previously had two destination marketing organizations, one dedicated to entertainment programming for residents and a one focused on corporate travel. Both were replaced by Choose Chicago.

Choose Chicago spokeswoman Meghan Risch describes the city’s international efforts prior to 2012 as, “zilch,” while trying to highlight the advantages of its late start.

“Being new and without much historic marketing, we’ve been able to really dissect the data to see where overseas visitation originates,” Risch explains. “We’re taking our time to do a lot research.”

Choose Chicago now has 10 international offices, which house foreign agencies hired by the tourism board to work with local media outlets and tour operators.

The organization is also focused on creating marketing initiatives that make sense for each market.

Although it launched a traditional ad campaign in London last summer, Choose Chicago is noticing that social media has a stronger impact in many markets, including China and Mexico. It is even looking to expand marketing initiatives throughout Canada, its closest and largest international market.

It’s important to not overplay the importance of marketing and to look at the impact of soft power plays in elevating a destination’s recognition among foreign travelers.

Film and TV have proven to be strong trip motivators, as well as raising the awareness of a place’s history and culture through storytelling initiatives.

Choose Chicago is planning to launch a new city branding campaign, which may or may not extend overseas, before the end of 2014.


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Tags: chicago, los angeles, miami, tourists

Photo credit: An empty street in downtown Chicago. Bradhoc / Flickr

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