Choose Chicago has two finalists for new CEO
It’s unclear how close the city and its nonprofit tourism promotion agency are to hiring, either. But the hunt has narrowed again three months after the Choose Chicago board relaunched the search, a surprising move that followed a fruitless first six months pursuing candidates for the job.
The protracted process has left the city’s convention and visitors bureau rudderless at a bad time, with the local hospitality sector laboring to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and Chicago grappling with both real and perceived crime issues. Now it appears the task of overcoming those problems and boosting visitation to the city will be handed to one of two figures with longstanding connections to the local civic scene, but no experience running a tourism bureau for a major city.
A Choose Chicago spokeswoman said in a statement that the search process “has been conducted with the utmost diligence and dedication” but declined to comment on any potential candidates. Neither candidate responded to requests for comment.
The candidates are both well known in the local tourism sector—each has served recently on Choose Chicago’s board of directors—but have backgrounds that are major departures from the people that have led Choose Chicago over the past decade.
Former CEO David Whitaker, whose contract expired last summer, and his predecessor, Don Welsh, were veterans of tourism agencies in other cities and rising industry stars.
Gamble is perhaps best known locally for his 17-year run with Chicago Tribune Media Group, where he last served as publisher of Chicago Magazine before leaving in 2014. He then spent six years as chief operating officer of the Chicago Zoological Society, overseeing a $65 million budget and hundreds of workers, according to his LinkedIn profile.
Gamble served a 2-year term as board chairman of the Mag Mile Association that ended last year and now works as a business consultant.
Osmond is a longtime staple in the local architecture community, having spent 25 years leading the nonprofit Chicago Architecture Center. She oversaw the creation of the 20,000-square-foot CAC space along Wacker Drive in 2018 and has ties to Lightfoot, having been appointed by the mayor in 2019 to the Commission on Chicago Landmarks.
Either would be taking on a complex challenge at Choose Chicago. The tourism agency’s budget relies heavily on pandemic-gutted hotel tax proceeds, for one. The chief executive role has also proven to be intricately tangled in Chicago politics, with questionable autonomy from the mayor’s office. Those issues were said to complicate the initial CEO search, which began last spring after the agency announced that it would not renew Whitaker’s contract.
Lightfoot has also injected some confusion during her tenure about the role of the tourism group. She hired advertising agency veteran Michael Fassnacht as the city’s chief marketing officer and recently announced a new “Chicago Not in Chicago” promotional campaign without involving Choose Chicago.
A Lightfoot spokeswoman said in a statement that Choose Chicago “is a vital arm of the city in bolstering tourism and the mayor has full confidence they will do their due diligence in selecting the future CEO of the organization.”
The first task for whomever is hired will be to bring in other top executives to help sell the city to visitors and convention and trade show organizers.
Former Choose Chief Operating Officer Marc Anderson departed last May to run San Antonio’s convention and visitors bureau. And Julie Mullins, who led the Chicago agency’s convention sales team, left in September.
The downtown hospitality market is counting on Choose Chicago for help as they slowly climb out of the pandemic hole. The recovery of the city’s hotels has lagged most other major markets, with revenue per available room at Chicago area hotels last year down 40% from 2019 levels, according to hospitality data and analytics firm STR. The nation’s top 25 largest markets averaged 33% below 2019 levels, while the national average trailed 2019 performance by just 17%.
Key to boosting Chicago’s numbers will be a meaningful return of convention and trade show business, which typically accounts for 20% of all downtown hotel rooms booked each year, according to Choose Chicago data. Choose Chicago leads the convention sales effort on behalf of the Metropolitan Pier & Exposition Authority, which owns and operates McCormick Place.
McCormick Place has hosted nearly 80 events since July 1, though the events only drew about 65% of their forecasted attendance, according to MPEA. McCormick Place this weekend is hosting its largest event since the start of the pandemic with the International Housewares Association’s Inspired Home Show. That was the first major show to cancel in March 2020 and has historically drawn close to 60,000 attendees, making it one of the convention center’s largest annual events.