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Chicago Tourism Industry Improvements at O’Hare

By Amanda on June 7, 2012


At the Choose Chicago Annual Meeting in April, Chairman of the Board Bruce Rauner encouraged feedback on our ideas for promoting Chicago tourism. We all want the city to be a top destination for business and leisure travelers. Here is one person’s two cents on how to make it happen.

Two Cents Ideas on Chicago Tourism

Promote Chicago Tourism Through Marketing

We need to better communicate the amazingness of Chicago to potential visitors (do you like my fancy marketing language?). The strategies I would like to share have been swimming around in my head for some time. I’ve wondered why people who visit Chicago always love it, while those who haven’t assume it to be unspectacular.

Surely I’m not the first to come up with the ideas I’d like to outline. Or maybe some aspects of them are new? Either way I’m pretty sure they are important and hope this may fuel some discussion.

The two primaries marketing ideas I have are so dense that I’ll divide them into two posts. My perspectives on promoting Chicago tourism come from lots of face-to-face contact with tourists. As a tour guide (and Executive Director) of Chicago Detours, I interact with a variety of guests in our fine city: from suburban students on field trips, to law firms here for conferences, to Midwestern families on vacation.

I keep a sort of mental catalog of the positive and negative impressions of Chicago that guests communicate to me. I’ve also worked for 9 years as a tour guide with Rick Steves for groups of Americans traveling around Italy. That work has given me great insights into the kinds of experiences that guarantee a good time and create vivid memories, and ultimately resonate positive feelings that catalyze the big, numero uno marketing term of “word of mouth.”Chicago Tour Detours

Improving O’Hare to Boost Chicago Tourism

Enough background and build-up, right? I’ll get to the point. The O’Hare Airport is the biggest missed opportunity for promoting Chicago as a destination. Last year 67 million people moved through this airport. This would be enough people to populate about 25 clones of the city of Chicago (with a current population of 2.6 million). This is huge! Many of these people do not go into the city – they are just on a layover for a few hours. And though they won’t actually see anything of Chicago, they do leave with impressions.

And with the current O’Hare, they really, really do not see anything. It’s a very boring airport, and with its delays, sub-par concessions, and blah design, people come through there and take home negative or lackluster feelings about the city of Chicago. As a primary point of contact for so many visitors, the O’Hare airport could leave a positive impression on people, one that would fire up word of mouth and intrigue that could spark people to actually visit the city.

Chicago Visit Airport

Two Big Projects

I see two primary projects at the airport that would help generate positive impressions, create intrigue to visit the city, and spread word of mouth about how incredible Chicago is:

1. Make a visitor’s time at the airport into a surprisingly awesome experience unlike any other airport in the world.

So how does one make one of the worst-rated airports into an “awesome experience”? You won’t be able to prevent weather delays, and infrastructure is a whole other thing, but how does one make the airport cool? Help people work or help them have fun – whichever they are hoping to do.

Design areas with work stations with outlets. Offer free wi-fi. Have gaming centers, perhaps where you even play a game against a stranger standing next to you. Get people to interact with each other. Project video on a giant wall. Have entire exhibits (hopefully with interactive elements) set up by Chicago museums – not the arbitrary boxes with artifacts displayed that are currently around (and boring). Install more architectural art installations like Michael Hayden’s neon walkway. Set-up stands that sell Chicago-centric and Chicago-made products – not the same junk at any other airport. Diversify the food offerings so that we can show off how much of Chicago food goes beyond deep-dish pizza and hotdogs (look a little at Midway for this one). Make an O’Hare app that enhances their experience and ability to find what they need.

Have jazz or blues musicians playing live at every terminal, travel frustration chicago11am-11pm!

2. Market the hell out of Chicago as a destination to these people.

Make the O’Hare airport into a model airport for the rest of the world, and see how that word of mouth would spread. Instead of “I had a layover in Chicago and all I could find to eat was a $8 pizza that tasted like cardboard, and then my flight was delayed for 2 hours” would become “I had a layover in Chicago Traveler HappyChicago, found an incredible Indian restaurant, used the free wi-fi and got some work done, and when I heard the flight was delayed I went to go watch a live blues musician perform at a lounge.” We need to make travelers love the airport so much that they do jazz hands (just kidding).

Look to the Old World

Follow the great Mayor R.J. Daley and his Chicago predecessors on this one: study what they’re doing in Europe. I got off a plane at 11:45am on a Tuesday in Zurich and a flamenco jazz guitarist was playing live right as I stepped out of the gate. On the ride on the airport tram I was welcomed by the audio of cows mooing, cow bells, and yodelers – the sounds of Switzerland. It was kind of funny, and really memorable.

In order to “market the hell out of Chicago,” visitors at O’Hare need to be bombarded by the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of Chicago. The easiest of these would be images of the city, first and foremost. I recently arrived at O’Hare internationally, and made a point of observing on my route from the plane, through customs, and to the CTA station if there was anything that caught my attention or showed me what Chicago is about.

This is what I found: Just beyond the gate, on the way to customs, some exhibits of stained glass in boxes were set up. I had no idea what stained glass windows had to do with giving a first impression of Chicago. Since the display was in a space where no one would ever linger, I naturally did not stop to read the tiny placards, and I highly doubt anyone ever does.

Promote Chicago as an American Icon

The line for passport control took about 30-40 minutes, or at least it seemed like it. In this time, imagine all the impressions (I mean this in both the standard and marketing sense of the word) that could be made upon new arrivals. Instead, a small television screen shows images of America, most recognizably the Statue of Liberty. Yes, we arrived in Chicago and we are being shown the Statue of Liberty. This beyond boring video serves to show text with indications of how to expedite passport control. Imagery could at least be local – AND BIGGER. Make an amazing video and present it on a large screen. Why not engage and entertain people why they wait (ever gone through security in Vegas?)Chicago Skyscrapers

From passport control and into baggage claim pretty much nothing communicated anything about Chicago – no pictures, exhibits, flags, signs, or sounds. Then just as I was exiting customs, I saw two color photos of the Chicago skyline on a side wall. If it weren’t for the fact I was actively paying attention to these things, I would have not taken any notice.

Also images of skylines are so overused in business marketing, whenever I see a skyline picture my eyes just keep on moving. I’ll get more into this in the next post, which will focus more on what people, places, things of Chicago make it into marketing materials. Which images grabs you more – this photo by music journalist Marc Pokempner, or another skyline? (p.s. 6 seats left for Sat, June 9th Blues Tour).

Chicago blues

What Makes Chicago Tourism Unique?

So how do you market Chicago in the airport? Well that’s a full-time job for someone, but just for the sake of brainstorming…giant photographs of the city – beyond the skyline, show architectural details, people’s faces – famous and everyday Chicagoans, festivals, museums, class rooms, food, parks, neighborhoods, people going places, doing things, people, people, people. Massive video projections of everything above. Create the local sounds of Chicago for the tram, as previously mentioned with Switzerland.

And how about utilizing the Choose Chicago marketing partners? I know there’s all kinds of minutia and contracts, etc, etc, that might get in the way, but for brainstorming sake…American Airlines could have the pilots say a sentence or two upon take-off about Chicago. Play a two-minute video about the city. Partner with hotels to offer a special promotion for a one- or two-night layover in Chicago – marketed to travelers who would have normally just passed right through the city. Make that Chicago layover an option – with no extra charge.

Moments of flux create a particular openness among the “higher ups” to out-of-the-box ideas,¬†and I’m excited to share a few during this time of transition with our new mayoral administration and all the changes with Choose Chicago.

-Amanda Scotese, Executive Director and Founder


Chicago Detours offers guided walking and bus tours of architecture, history and culture to public and private groups. We are a passionate team of educators, historians, artists and storytellers, and are proud to be one of very few tour companies in Chicago that is rated five stars on both Google and TripAdvisor.


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