Increasing tourism in the Chicago suburbs

Suburbs may not dominate lists of where travelers want to vacation yet tourism is up in the Chicago suburbs:

Growth in tax revenue attributed to tourism from 2015 to 2016.

State receipts      Local tax receipts

Cook County          +4.5%                       +6.8%

DuPage County      +3.7%                       +6.1%

Kane County           +1.9%                       +4.2%

Lake County            +3.3%                       +5.6%

McHenry County    +6.5%                       +8.9%

Will County              +29.6%                     +16.1%

Sources: Illinois Office of Tourism, The Economic Impact of Travel on Illinois Counties 2014, a report prepared by the Research Department of the U.S. Travel Association.

It helps that every suburban region has carved out its own niche, focusing on different travelers. While they all woo convention and business travelers, Rosemont targets the international travelers who come through O’Hare International Airport; DuPage County emphasizes its forest preserves and natural spaces; Aurora focuses on attracting national youth sports tournaments; and Schaumburg eyes business travelers and mall-loving shoppers.

McHenry’s tourism — which saw the biggest gains in the latest reports — developed a niche with agritourism and fall festivities. Things like Richardson Adventure Farm’s world’s largest corn maze; giant fall festivals at local farms; and Quarry Cable Park, the newly renovated wakeboard park in Crystal Lake; are attracting more visitors to the area.

If you can get outsiders to come spend money in your community (rather than just relying on local revenues), it seems like a win for suburbs. Yet, there may also be downsides to increased suburban tourism:

  1. Some people move to suburbs to get away from people and crowds. Bringing in people might change the local atmosphere.
  2. More visitors may lead to a need to construct more infrastructure to support those visitors. This could include everything from roads to new facilities.
  3. As the article hints, this could turn into another venue for competition as suburbs try to draw visitors from other suburbs.

All of this highlights the changed nature of suburbs in recent decades: they are not just bedroom suburbs (and arguably never were) but rather are a diverse set of communities with a number of different attractions (from entertainment scenes to office parks to varied housing types to racial/ethnic and class diversity).

Film about McMansions on Martha’s Vineyard

Here is a review of how a film examining the larger and larger homes built on Martha’s Vineyard:

The premise of the film begins on familiar ground, with Bena casting a critical, almost dogmatic eye on the issue:

“On the first day that I arrived I landed several jobs and it wasn’t long before I was working seven days a week. My main gig was carpentry. At first I really enjoyed the work, but over time I found myself working on larger and larger homes. The larger the home, the more my sense of uneasiness increased. And the fact that they were often third or fourth homes seemed incongruous with their enormous size. They looked more like bus stations or hotels, not summer cottages.

The houses were heated year round and I found the waste of resources shocking and depressing. Not only did the “starter castles” dwarf the cottages and historic homes they replaced, they seemed out of keeping with everything that I love about Martha’s Vineyard. I felt like I was ruining the place that I wanted to call home. And that is why I took off my tool belt and picked up a camera.”

But as the film progresses, Bena’s approach becomes much more nuanced. In talking with other local carpenters who work on these huge houses, we discover that their livelihood depends on these large contracts. We hear from long-time residents, some of whom are uneasy about telling newcomers what to build or not to build. In his interviews with some of these owners of these oversize mansions, we hear the human side of their stories as well. But we also see how some of these wealthy homeowners take advantage of legal loopholes — or even flout them completely — with serious consequences.

This sounds interesting and surprisingly multi-faceted for a story about McMansions.

At the same time, I suspect the story is complicated here because of tourism. This is not a “normal” location but rather one that locals as well as thousands of visitors might consider “home.” Additionally, there is a lot of money involved with what it takes to visit and build (with limited land). When the president travels there and draws attention to this particular issue, this is a special place. The story of McMansions at Martha’s Vineyard might be able to reach more people because of the known location but it isn’t necessarily the same McMansion story as teardowns in Los Angeles neighborhoods or in suburbs outside of Washington D.C. or new McMansions in the exurbs.

Chicago sets new record for tourism

The city of Chicago may have problems but the number of tourists continues to increase:

An estimated 54.1 million visitors came to the city in 2016, up 2.9 percent from the previous year’s record-setting count. The increase marks a step towards reaching Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s goal of annually attracting 55 million out-of-towners to Chicago by 2020…

Leisure proved to be the primary attraction behind Chicago’s rising tourism numbers. About four in five visitors last year (nearly 41 million) came to Chicago for fun, city officials say…

The long-running Blues Festival, the NFL Draft and the Chicago Cubs World Series victory parade were three major events last year that helped boost tourism numbers, Kelly said…

City officials also cite business visitation, which grew by 2.1 percent from the previous year, as another factor. Some 31 major conventions and meetings were hosted citywide throughout last year, drawing nearly one million attendees; 35 business meetings are slated for 2017.

I’d love to see how these numbers were calculated. Just take the suggestion that the Cubs World Series parade and rally are part of these totals; how big were those crowds? Early estimates were high but there was little commentary later about more solid figures. Were suburbanites who came in for the day counted as tourists? If the 5 million figure holds, then this one event on its own pushed the city from a lower number than the previous year to a record number.

President Obama and McMansions on Martha’s Vineyard

The president is vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard and this has become part of a local controversy over McMansions:

But film-maker Thomas Bena says the house the Obamas are renting this year is a prime example of the kind of mega-construction that is threatening to destroy the character of the island.

Bena has spent 12 years making a film called One Big Home, which is being shown to islanders this weekend. It documents an issue that is as tricky for residents of the Vineyard as it is for beach destinations everywhere: how to protect small communities from the distortions created by an influx of wealthy visitors who come for just eight weeks of the year. The film chronicles Bena’s crusade against the proliferation of outsize homes in the town of Chilmark, where he lives with his wife, Mollie, and daughter, Emma.

Bena argues that the giant homes – often referred to as McMansions – are not only out of proportion with their environment but are wasteful symbols of the over-reaching vanity of their absentee owners. Over the past 20 years, what started as an aberration is now a trend – Mansionisation, or the practice of building the largest possible house on a plot of land…

A backlash has started, with people in Martha’s Vineyard – and in the Hamptons on Long Island – questioning the wisdom of land being turned over to mansions that sit empty – but heated – for 10 months of the year. In Los Angeles, the city planning commission recently voted to eliminate various loopholes, including one that grants a 20% square footage bonus for building “green,” that has been contributing to bigger-is-better mansionisation…

Bena believes McMansions have contributed to a new sense of “us and them”, local people and summer visitors. “In the summer you feel that tension wherever you go,” he says. “People put a smile on their face because they don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them, but it’s there.”

It seems that there are three issues at hand:

  1. The construction of large houses – McMansions – within long-standing communities leads to tensions in many communities, not just prime vacation spots. The situation is exacerbated here because the large house owners aren’t in the community all year long and so there is likely less interaction between them and the long-time residents. Of course, having neighbors that know each other doesn’t necessarily limit the anger regarding McMansions.
  2. The limits of tourism to transform existing communities. On one hand, tourism is often viewed by places as an excellent opportunity: other people come in, spend money (and can be taxed at higher rates – see the hotel taxes in many major cities), and then go home (the community doesn’t have to provide long-term local services like schools for the tourists). This may be preferable to polluting factories or evil corporations. On the other hand, tourism can bring in an influx of people who have their own ideas of what they want and can swamp the smaller local population.
  3. Having the President visit provides an opportunity for locals to draw attention to their particular concerns. Should they be proud the President is visiting or unhappy that such visits can be disruptive? This may just depend on one’s political leanings and which party is in office.

In this case, if outsiders want to spend big money on large homes (providing some local construction money and increased tax money) plus spend some time there during the year (spending more money), what limits should a vacation spot put on them?

McMansion tourism in Austin

One visitor to Austin, Texas wants help from Reddit in finding good examples of McMansions:

I’m visiting Austin and heard about these McMansions. It’d be really cool to drive around and see some of these beasts. Which neighborhoods or streets are worth seeing?

The other thread participants then offer some good feedback for a city that recently instituted guidelines intended to reduce the number of new McMansions. But, if your city is known for its big houses, why not take advantage of this? Most cities would love to bring in more tourists who then spend money and demonstrate that the city is worth visiting. According to critics, McMansion owners want these homes in part because they want to impress others with the square footage and attention-grabbing architecture. Match this desire for visitors with the attention McMansion owners want (at least according to critics) and you could include such homes as important sights to see.

Of course, some cities might not want to highlight McMansions that are criticized for a variety of reasons. I’m guess Austin wants to be known for creativity and tech, not the poor architecture of overlarge homes. Similarly, I imagine many McMansion owners would not be thrilled if tour buses started regularly driving slowly past their homes giving tours.

At this point, I could only imagine regular McMansion tours being given by those who don’t like McMansions.

How much money a third observation deck in Chicago might generate

Potential buyers of the Aon Tower in downtown Chicago are looking into making money through the addition of an observation deck:

A third observatory could generate tens of millions of dollars in annual revenue for the 1,136-foot-tall office building overlooking Millennium Park. The building, owned by Johns Creek, Ga.-based Piedmont Office Realty Trust, is attracting bids above $650 million, people familiar with the sales process say…

It would cost millions of dollars to design the space, to create an entrance and elevator access separate from those used by office tenants, and to promote and operate the observatory. Plus, unlike in most cities, two formidable competitors already are in place.

“It’s not a build-it-and-they-will-come type of operation,” says Randy Stancik, who has been general manager of the Skydeck for 10 years after eight years at the Hancock’s observatory. “You really have to work at it to build a visitor attraction. You have to be prepared to stay with it through some rough times.”…

There is little precedent to indicate whether a third observatory can thrive here. New York is the only city in the world with three, says Daniel Thomas, executive director of the World Federation of Great Towers, a group dedicated to generating tourism for its 49 member towers. New York has the Empire State Building Observatory, Top of the Rock at Rockefeller Center and the recently opened One World Observatory atop the new One World Trade Center.

This could be another front of the ongoing Chicago-New York City feud: could the two cities have an equal number of observation decks?

I would guess the Aon Center could have two major selling points compared to its competitors:

1. A different location. The Sears Tower deck is quite good for looking out into the suburbs but its views to the east are filled with buildings. The John Hancock observation deck offers different views to the north and over Lake Michigan. But, the Aon Center would be the only one with unobstructed views of Millennium and Grant Parks.

2. It is the newest. This may not mean much these days with a sort of arms race between the other two observation decks: the glass floor protruding deck at the Sears Tower and the Tilt at the John Hancock. I imagine the Aon Center buyers could come up with something unique that could attract people.

Perhaps this could lead to some sort of price wars between three observation decks leading to great deals for visitors…this is something I imagine people could get behind.

Chicago Epic marketing cut due to state budget

Chicago rolled out an “Epic” campaign this spring to attract tourists but it is now no more due to a lack of state funding:

Chicago’s latest tourism campaign, Epic, is about to end two months early thanks to epic budget cuts at the state level.

Choose Chicago, the city’s tourism program, is losing 40 percent of its operating budget in the latest set of state budget cuts, according to Crain’s. That means Epic, the (perhaps unimaginative) summer tourism campaign launched in April with a TV ad encouraging viewers to “be part of something epic,” would end July 1 rather than run through the summer. Unless they are talking about an epically rainy June, the campaign ending this early wouldn’t leave much sizzle in the summer tourism industry.

Choose Chicago CEO Don Welsh said in statement that the program will lose most of its funding, from the state hotel tax, unless there is a last-minute approval of the state’s 2016 fiscal budget—increasingly unlikely as the week progresses…

The loss of Epic could deal a blow to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s vow to boost tourism to 55 million visitors by 2020. Crain’s says Rauner, who was once the chairman of Choose Chicago, believes tourism is a boon to the local economy.

Two quick thoughts:

1. If you go with a catch term like “epic,” it is bound to be used sarcastically if something goes wrong (like the campaign ends early). Not exactly epic…

2. How do we – the public – know that such marketing campaigns work? Even though the Epic campaign is ending early, did it have any influence? Did the slogan catch on? What does this mean for future Chicago marketing campaigns? Just because a big campaign was out there doesn’t mean that it did much in this media and advertising saturated world.