CHICAGO — Whether it be for business or pleasure, visitors poured into Chicago at record-breaking levels last year, according to new tourism figures Mayor Rahm Emanuel plans to release Friday.
Annual visitor projections reported by Choose Chicago, the city's tourism bureau, show an unprecedented 57.6 million visitors in 2018 — a 4.3 percent jump over 2017's record of 55.2 million.
The rate of growth was greatest among domestic travelers, whose numbers ticked up by 4.4 percent from 2017 to 2018. Chicago welcomed more overseas visitors too; their ranks swelled by 2.9 percent.
The boost comes despite the city's well-publicized problems, including gun violence and strained police-community relations — issues that don't appear to be deterring visitors, at least not in droves.
"Travel and tourism is a word-of-mouth business," said Emanuel, noting that Chicago has no shortage of assets that make it an easy sell, especially on social media.
"For two years in a row, Conde Nast Traveler readers voted Chicago the No. 1 (big) city," Emanuel said. "That's about the restaurants, the theaters, the music, the museums. That's about the hotel room, the view out of the hotel room. What Conde Nast captured was a vibe."
Speaking by phone on Thursday, Emanuel made it clear that he views tourism as one of the success stories of his mayoral tenure. When he took over the city's top job in 2011, Chicago logged 39 million visitors a year. As he prepares to wrap up his second and (presumably) final term, that number has ballooned to nearly 58 million.
"We didn't just ride the national wave; we're ahead of it," Emanuel said. "No city has seen that kind of exponential growth, from 39 million to more than 57 million."
Emanuel said he decided to make tourism a priority shortly before he took office, when, as mayor-elect, he had a breakfast meeting with then New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
"I said, 'Talk to me about something I haven't discussed as a candidate -- something I don't know anything about," Emanuel recalled. "Within a blink of an eye he said, 'Tourism.' I said, 'You've got to be kidding me.' He said, 'If you do it right, you can instantly create jobs, a construction boom, etc.' "
After that breakfast, Emanuel had his team do a "top to bottom scrub" of the city's tourism industry. As a result, he focused on fixing problems plaguing the city's premier convention center, an "under-performing McCormick Place," and streamlined various entities charged with marketing the city into one office, Choose Chicago.
The city also aggressively pursued big-ticket draws -- the NFL Draft, the James Beard Foundation Awards, the Laver Cup -- and bolstered tourism-friendly offerings with attractions like the Riverwalk and, more recently, Art on the Mart, as well as events that showcase Chicago's craft beer scene, such as Friday Night Flights.
One of the statistics Emanuel is particularly fond of relates to the workforce: More than 22,000 tourism-related jobs have been added in Chicago since he took office in 2011, for an estimated total of 150,616.
The mayor plans to release the latest tourism stats Friday morning at McCormick Place during the city's first major convention of the year, the United Soccer Coaches Convention and US Youth Soccer Workshop -- an event that hasn't been in Chicago since the 1980s. The multiday affair is expected to draw more than 6,300 coaches and 13,000 attendees, with an anticipated economic impact of $31 million, according to the mayor's office.
Of the 50 largest events at McCormick Place last year, Choose Chicago said 20 of them broke attendance records. And some 59 new "major conventions" have committed to meet in Chicago in future years.
Business travel was up 3.5 percent in 2018 compared with 2017, according to the new figures, while leisure travel made an even heftier gain at 4.7 percent.
Where are the international travelers coming from? Airline Passenger Information System data from the first 11 months of last year show a 16.2 percent increase in visits from Brazilian passport holders. The numbers were up 14.1 percent for passport holders from the U.K., 10.9 percent from Italy, 9.2 percent from South Korea, 7.4 percent from Mexico, 2.5 percent from Canada and 2.1 percent from China.
While Chicago's tourism totals have consistently been on the rise in recent years, growth in 2018 took place at a faster-than-usual clip.
"It's encouraging to not only see growth, but to see the pace of growth increase," said David Whitaker, president and CEO of Choose Chicago, in a news release announcing the numbers. "The previous year, visitor volumes grew 2.7 percent, so to see the pace improve with now a 4.3 percent annual increase is a reflection of the momentum that Chicago is enjoying."
Several new hotels -- Moxy, St. Jane, Sophy and Aloft, to name a few -- opened in the city last year, when hotel stays reportedly grew by 4.3 percent from 2017 to 2018. That growth in demand helped drive up the average daily room rate by 4.6 percent. All told, Chicago hotels generated a record $140 million in city hotel tax revenue, according to Choose Chicago.
While Emanuel won't be mayor when tourism numbers get rolled out for 2019, he expects the results to continue to be rosy in the coming years.
Seven more hotels plan to debut in the city's central business district in 2019, and in the not-too-distant future, Chicago will add a marquee attraction with the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park.
"I think President Obama's library can do for tourism what McCormick Place has done for business travel in the city," he said.