Chicago on my mind

Hopefully I’m not alone in remembering former British foreign secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe complaining of having his bat broken before being sent into play by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The metaphor struck me as being how many convention bureaus in the United States must feel when the first impression for foreign delegates arriving for international conferences Stateside is invariably one of frustration.
What is it about a country that is famed for its magnificent service ethos and delivery in hotels, restaurants and most public outlets, yet cannot seem to find a system of passport control and customs that allows visitors to cross the US border quickly, efficiently and with dignity?
The palaver of having to reclaim baggage and re-check it, while in transit in the US, seems to be another time-wasting exercise designed to frustrate.
So, after minimum waits of two hours at Miami International and New York in recent visits, it was a real surprise to enter the USA at Chicago’s O’Hare airport this week (pictured) and be picking up luggage less than an hour after stepping off the plane. (It still rates slow compared to my trip to Singapore the previous month, when I was in a cab 15 minutes after stepping off the plane, but Rome wasn’t built in a day).
Certainly, everything I’ve seen about the US Second City as I prepare for the ibtm America event this year has got me thinking in line with the CVB’s new(ish) branding, ‘Choose Chicago’.
The city is clearly geared up for meetings, with good public transport and plenty of taxis at good rates (compared to Europe at least).
There is culture to be had in delegate downtime at the Museum of Science and Industry. It is housed in a building that, from the outside looks like it has been constructed by Nicolae Ceausescu’s builders moonlighting from his People’s Palace project in Bucharest, yet inside it boasts thriving modern halls full of interactive expositions and spaces that can be used after hours for receptions, meetings and dinners.
And TripAdvisor has voted, not in vain in my book, the Art Institute of Chicago the No.1 Museum in the world for its Readers’ Choice Award.
With modern halls built in 2009 complementing the old classical buildings that go back into the 19th century, the venue is another superb backdrop for oganisers to work with. Works by Monet, Van Gogh, Rodin and Hopper adorn the walls.
And if you are Old School and like your conference spaces big and in your face, then the country’s biggest convention centre of all, McCormick Place doesn’t disappoint. They’ve even brokered much better relations with the trade unions these days that mean you don’t get charged an arm and a leg for changing a light bulb on your stand.
Your only trouble in Chicago is going to be getting enough conference downtime to fit in a visit to a Blues Club, a river trip with the city’s architectural heritage explained along the way and a cruise on Lake Michigan.
The Millennium Park and next door Maggie Daley Park are ideal oases for a pre or post-meeting stroll – and even an event if you’re into outdoor gigs.
The city certainly has big meetings pedigree, hosting the G8 (when it was eight) a few years back and the World Fair of 1933.
Of course, it is not all rosy in the Chicago garden, as gang violence in the South Side of the city continues to claim far too many lives. Very different kinds of meetings are taking place daily there and in many other American city ghettos. Maybe some of our meetings charity initiatives in our richest countries should start nearer home?
Now, with a certain former Senator from Illinois and former Chicago civil rights attorney in the White House you’d think that should be possible.

Paul Colston

Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World.

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Paul Colston

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Paul Colston

Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World.

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