Crime and mayhem in downtown and beyond are keeping tourists away from Chicago, and experts say something has to change
CHICAGO (CBS) — Events such as the downtown chaos that led to a fatal shooting in the middle of Millennium Park have led people to cancel trips, meetings and events in Chicago because they don’t feel not safe.
As CBS 2’s Tara Molina reported on Tuesday, hotel, restaurant and city operators were hoping for a big comeback this summer — the first summer since 2019 in which COVID-19 restrictions didn’t limit the most options.
But Molina is told that crime drives some away – and the city can’t afford that.
“Chicago’s economy can’t afford hotels to fail. It can’t afford tourism to fail,” said Michael Jacobson, president of the Illinois Hotel and Lodging Association. “That’s why we have to find a solution to this problem.”
Chicago shines in summer – the shimmering blue waters of Lake Michigan, whether enjoying the boat or the beach, the lush greenery of Loyola Parks in Calumet, the Buckingham Fountain soaring into the evening sky, the blues, the pride parade, the fireworks at Navy Pier. And summer, of course, is when tourism typically spikes in Chicago — for good reason.
But last weekend, those picturesque images were replaced by video showing fights on downtown streets in the shadow of landmarks such as the Chase Tower, people throwing objects at cars and jumping on them, and gunshots that claimed the life of a 16-year-old. Seandell Holiday life in front of the Cloud Gate sculpture – or the Bean – in Millennium Park.
It comes as the number of crimes is near an all-time high in the loop. The charts below show violent crime trends for the year through May 9 compared to previous years — first for the entire city, then for the Loop.
Thus, for some, this great summer city has lost its luster.
“Our main headwind right now is public safety,” Jacobson said. “Unfortunately, we have seen the two individual leisure travelers begin to cancel their hotel rooms over the next few weeks and months due to what they heard on the news and saw happening downtown. More Worryingly, we’ve even seen conferences pull out of Chicago all together for other Midwestern cities.”
And that’s after downtown hotels were hit by the pandemic.
Fortunately, Jacobson says the recovery effort continues in Chicago — but still, Chicago lags behind other major US cities when it comes to occupancy rates. From New York and Boston to Orlando and Atlanta, we’re the latest.
In New York – a city very concerned about crime – the hotel occupancy rate was 77.6% from May 1 to May 7. In Chicago, that figure was 57.3%.
“The gap between the recovery is starting to widen,” Jacobson said.
And those public safety concerns — particularly when it comes to continued crime in Chicago — play a role.
“There’s no bigger city to visit. It’s a shame that because of a few hundred people who like to wreak havoc every weekend, the city center has the potential to undermine our entire recovery.” , said Jacobson. “Crime is a problem we need to tackle.”
It comes as all sorts of summer fun is back in the books – street fairs, concerts, farmers markets and all sorts of other events across the city. A total of 88 events are scheduled this month through September at McCormick Place alone.
Molina is told that industry leaders aren’t losing hope just yet. But there are ongoing conversations as they call on city officials to work on new solutions before the situation escalates.
“We just need to lay down all of our egos, put the rhetoric aside, and come up with some creative solutions to this,” Jacobson said. “The status quo does not work.”
He said the Illinois Hotel and Lodging Association is doing its part in the effort.
“I and other business leaders have repeatedly offered to come to the table and be part of the solution,” he said. “We have thousands of jobs available across Chicago right now. Putting some of these kids into those jobs, for the summer or long term, we have the ability to do that.”
Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced this week that she is moving the weekend curfew to 10 p.m. and also limiting the hours that unaccompanied minors can be in Millennium Park from Thursday through Sunday.
Michael Edwards, president and CEO of the Chicago Loop Alliance, said the new restrictions on Millennium Park are a starting point toward a solution:
“A safe and predictable Loop experience is critical to the safety of all Chicago residents and visitors and remains essential to the continued recovery of our great city. The Loop is everyone’s neighborhood, a place where we all come together. Our downtown is more than a business hub, but a mecca for arts and culture and a residential haven, the fastest growing downtown in the United States The future of Everyone’s Neighborhood depends on what that it is an accessible, safe and fair environment for the entire community of Loop and Chicago Park are a starting point towards the solution The potential for future incidents that put life safety at stake throughout along the loop is not something we take lightly, and we look forward to engaging with Mayor Lightfoot, CPD and the local community to ensure resources are in place to restore civility and trust in the Loop and the City of Chicago throughout the summer and establish increased security for the Loop.”
Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for McCormick Place issued this statement on the overall tourism outlook and crime concerns:
- Summer tourism looks very promising. STR’s latest forecast for spring-summer (May-August) suggests room demand will be 85% recovered from the same period in pre-pandemic 2019, suggesting a good to very good season. Moreover, external experts, such as Expedia and the World Travel & Tourism Council, predict a strong recovery.
- In Chicago, the dynamic is strong. For example, we see a lot of restaurant openings and re-openings, that’s a good indicator for the industry. Our arts and cultural institutions have a number of major exhibitions planned over the summer.
- There are also unique events in Chicago this summer. For example, in June, the United States Sail GP will be in Chicago for the first time at Navy Pier, and in July, the WNBA All Star Game will be in Chicago, also for the first time.
- Business-wise, we’ve had a strong start to meetings and events, and we have a solid schedule ahead. Between May and September, at McCormick Place alone, 88 events are scheduled, with nearly 700,000 hotel nights and an economic impact of more than $1 billion.
- This weekend’s incident at Millennium Park is tragic. Unfortunately, crime is a problem for all urban destinations, and it’s not unique to Chicago. Post-COVID, cities across the country are facing the problem of inner-city violence. Travelers understand that big cities require a level of awareness, and Chicago is fortunate to have a police department that works with the tourism and hospitality community. We know that ensuring the safety of visitors and residents is a top priority for the City. As an industry, we are committed to working with the city and the Chicago Police Department to ensure we address crime in all of our neighborhoods.