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Chicago Is Making a Comeback. How the City Is Set Up for Meetings and Events Success

Chicago Riverwalk

The winds are changing in the Windy City. After a difficult few years following the pandemic, demand and interest in Chicago as a meetings and events destination is on the rise.

“I think there's a lot of pent-up demand for Chicago,” said Dustin Arnheim, senior vice president, sales and services for Choose Chicago. “There’s a lot of excitement and people kind of waiting to see, ‘Is Chicago back?’ And now they have the confidence that it is. In 2023, that meant 1,900 meetings and conventions for us, which was over 2 million attendees and $2.6 billion in economic impact.”

Arnheim added that 3.2 million hotel rooms were filled from group business, which was 7% higher than 2022, representing an 89% recovery share from 2019.

The 2024 outlook is looking up, too. From record-breaking attendance to new developments bolstering the city’s attractiveness, there are many reasons for meeting planners to take a second look at Chicago.

Big Events Are Back in Chicago

ProMat at McCormick Place
ProMat at McCormick Place

Events are back in a big way in Chicago. Not only are stats up across the board, some groups coming to Chicago are seeing record-breaking attendance. ProMat, a major manufacturing and supply chain industry event that typically comes to Chicago every other year, saw more than 50,000 attendees at its 2023 show at McCormick Place, beating 2019 numbers and setting a record. The show plans to return to Chicago in 2025.

Similarly, American Society for Clinical Oncology (ASCO) holds its annual event in Chicago and likewise broke records, with 40,000-plus of the brightest minds in clinical oncology gathering at McCormick Place. The event saw a 3% increase in attendance from 2019, its last record-breaking year.

ASCO annual event at McCormick Place
ASCO annual event at McCormick Place

One group is even finding big success in the depths of winter. The AHR Expo (International Air-Conditioning, Heating, Refrigerating Exposition) for HVACR professionals saw more than 48,000 attendees at McCormick Place this past January and plans to keep Chicago in its rotation, returning in 2027.

Even more is on the horizon. One of the most anticipated events coming to Chicago in 2024 is the Democratic National Convention, which chose Chicago as its host city over New York and Atlanta. The event will put a major spotlight on the city as thousands descend on the United Center amidst an extremely contentious election year. Always a notable case study in safety, security and risk management, many planner eyes will be on the Windy City in August to note how the local and federal governments work together to host a safe, secure and successful event.

Chicago is no stranger to the DNC, having hosted the event multiple times (the last being in 1996), and further, is a pro at managing large-scale citywides.  

“It's such a dynamic, complex event. There are going to be millions of eyes on the city of Chicago,” Arnheim said. “Public safety and attendee safety is on the minds of all event organizers, whether you're hosting a political convention or a medical conference, right? Chicago's not a stranger to hosting these tier-one global events. Ones that we'd like to tout are anything from Obama's victory speech in 2008 to the NATO summit in 2012. It’s argued that the Cubs parade in 2016 was the largest gathering in the U.S. We host Lalapalooza on an annual basis and now we got NASCAR. So, our city is very familiar with hosting these larger, complicated, very sophisticated events.

“It all comes down to communication and collaboration, right? What's great about hosting a political convention is that, in addition to the city resources, we also have state and federal resources,” he continued. “So, really, we have to make sure we have a seat at the table, have strong communication at the city level, which we do on a regular basis. And then, how do we carry that over to success at the state and federal level? And the great thing is we have great partners with the DNC committee as well as the host committee.”

[Related: Chicago’s Meetings and Events Industry Thrives With Local Partnerships]

New Developments in Chicago Ramp Up Excitement

St. Regis Chicago exterior
St. Regis Chicago exterior. Credit: Angie McMonigal Photography

Chicago already has a very strong hotel portfolio that can cater to any group size or type. The May 2023 opening of St. Regis Chicago adds to that and has drummed up major interest from luxury travelers and executive groups. While Chicago has a lock on the luxury market with properties like The Peninsula, The Four Seasons and more, St. Regis Chicago’s lures include: the first St. Regis property to open in the Midwest, is housed in the third-tallest building in the city and in the tallest building designed by a woman in the world, and is the first luxury new-build hotel in the last 10 years in the city.

The 159-room, 33-suite property offers 10,000 square feet of meetings and events space and enjoys a central location near some of Chicago’s most famous landmarks, including Millennium and Grant Parks, the Magnificent Mile and Navy Pier.

On the horizon, Arnheim said that one of the most-anticipated openings is the Obama Presidential Center, coming in late 2025.

“It's going to be a transformative attraction and will probably become Chicago's major attraction for the foreseeable future,” he said. “I had the privilege of walking the grounds, probably about two months ago, three months ago, with a prospective customer, and I definitely see it as a potential event venue.”

The center will go beyond a traditional presidential library and museum, putting an emphasis on community with plans to feature a Chicago Public Library branch and public gathering spaces. According to Arnheim, the center is expecting roughly 700,000 visitors per year.  

[Related: 8 New Hotels Transforming Meetings and Events in 2024]

Chicago's Location Is a Key to Success

View of downtown from Olive Park
View of downtown from Olive Park. Credit: @tequilagraphics

It’s clear that Chicago is bouncing back, and there could be many reasons that point to why. Arnheim thinks it’s important for planners to remember that the city’s location and size have long played in its favor and will continue to be major assets.

“What is great about Chicago, and one of our greatest strengths, is that we are a flexible destination. We have so many different assets and offerings to accommodate those different needs,” he said. “We can host the mega events like IMTS, which is the largest manufacturing tradeshow, which will have 100,000 attendees right after the DNC, or some of those smaller, more intimate events. We've got some of the best portfolio hotels in the country here in Chicago, for the executive board retreat or higher-end, sophisticated events.”

That’s all in addition to McCormick Place, the city’s convention center, which is the largest center in North America.

Being home to two major international airports in the center of the country and within easy driving distance of many major metro areas also adds a convenience factor that is hard to beat.  

As the third-largest city in the country with a rich history, Chicago also offers a world of experiences and culture—something the modern attendee increasingly craves.

“What we're finding, at least in the conversations we've had here recently, is that event organizers are wanting more of the city authentic destination versus maybe the fabricated fun. They want that real experience,” Arnheim said. “And in a city like Chicago, you've got a bit of everything for everyone, whether it's world-class restaurants, hotels, cultural attractions, live music. We're not just a city of one story. We're a city of many.”


Choose Chicago

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About the author
Danielle LeBreck | Senior Content Director

Danielle started at Meetings Today in March 2019 after seven years of editorial experience in the travel and food industries. She oversees all of the destination content for Meetings Today and collaborates with the team on digital content strategy and content marketing initiatives.