Suburban tourism thriving
A new dining pavilion at Woodfield Mall, a renovated golf course in Addison, the addition of Great Wolf Lodge in Gurnee and new hotels and restaurants spotting the suburbs are just a few new aspects helping tourism thrive and grow in the area.
In 2017, visitors spent a whopping $39.5 billion in Illinois, according to the U.S. Travel Association. That's an increase of $1.1 billion or 3 percent from 2016.
Visitor outlays for goods and services generated $2.95 billion in state and local tax revenue, up $75 million from 2016. Tourist spending saves the average Illinois household over $1,300 in taxes each year.
Local tourism leaders say the suburbs are mirroring the positive state figures.
Expenditures for travel in the Aurora area exceeded $200 million in 2017 and represent a 3.7 percent increase over the previous year with local tax receipts generated from travel up 4 percent to $3.9 million, said Cort Carlson, executive director for the Aurora Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.
"Looking at the Chicago Northwest hotel community, in 2017 we delivered a solid 2 percent guest room revenue over 2016," said Dave Parulo, president of Meet Chicago Northwest. "In the first six months of 2018, we are pacing slightly above that at 2.2 percent."
Strong results are also being seen in Lake County. "Hotel occupancies are up 5 percent," said Maureen Riedy, president of Visit Lake County. The remodeling at Marriott Lincolnshire Resort and the opening of Great Wolf Lodge have attracted new visitors to the area, she said. The grand opening of Great Wolf Lodge in Gurnee in late June was a monumental highlight. The $65 million investment and year of construction transformed KeyLime Cove Resort into a premier family destination with an expanded indoor water park and an array of amenities and entertainment options on site. Additionally, the property offers nearly 7,800 square feet of banquet space with breakout rooms for meetings and events, Riedy said.
The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity's Office of Tourism said that 2017 marked the seventh consecutive year of record-breaking tourism in the state.
Visitors to Illinois hit an all-time high in 2017. Gov. Bruce Rauner said nearly 114 million people traveled to the state last year and gave a $1.1 billion boost to the state's economy.
Last year's visitor totals were 1.4 percent higher than 2016, which also was a record year. Travelers came from all over the world for business (17 percent) and pleasure (83 percent). In the past 10 years, travelers visiting Illinois increased by more than 22 million, and tourism has become one of the state's most important industries. The Illinois tourism industry supported 335,500 jobs in 2017, an increase of 18,600 jobs since 2015.
"Tourism is a critical part of our economy," Rauner said. "There is so much to see and do in our state. It is gratifying to know that so many people come here each year to experience what we have to offer."
Despite the gains, local tourism bureaus privately worry about challenges posed by Illinois' dismal finances, combined with increased competition from surrounding states. Every $1 invested in Illinois tourism generates about $9 in economic impact, the Illinois tourism office says.
In DuPage, tourism represents more than 23,000 employees and produces more than $2.6 billion in visitor expenditures, including $46 million in local tax receipts for communities and the county, said Beth Marchetti, executive director of the DuPage Convention & Visitors Bureau.
"While tourism in DuPage is growing, so too is the competition," she added.
Competition is fierce. Aggressive campaigns by neighboring states threaten to cut into the suburban tourism business, experts say.
To stay competitive, the suburbs continue to add and upgrade attractions and venues. For example, Woodfield Mall opened a new dining pavilion this year. In Addison, following two years of construction and renovation as a result of a devastating fire in 2009, The Preserve at Oak Meadows, an 18-hole championship golf course owned by the DuPage County Forest Preserve District, welcomed golfers back for the first full inaugural season, Marchetti said. The 288-acre property is home to wildlife, fish and other aquatic species and access for hikers, joggers and cyclists.
Community development projects help foster the hospitality industry, Parulo said.
"We've seen the active community development in converting the Motorola Campus to a mixed use development and Elk Grove Village has an Industrial and Tech Park under construction. Arlington Heights has committed to improving the Arlington Heights Corridor and downtown Roselle is coming together to great downtown destination," he said.
The Aurora area has seen recent additions and conversions of several hotel properties.
The new My Place Hotel in North Aurora has opened to rave reviews and the recently re-branded Homewood Suites Aurora and Comfort Inn and Suites North Aurora are seeing great gains with their new brands, Carlson said.
He added that a new Holiday Inn Express is set open in Yorkville and Aurora is looking forward to a new Best Western Premier with meeting/banquet space to break ground later this year.
Hotels in the Elgin area have also experienced growth, said Krisilee Murphy, executive director of the Elgin Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
She said the area is seeing new restaurants. Gifford's Kitchen and Old Republic recently opened and in downtown Elgin, Bricks Firewood Pizzas and Kubo Sushi are new.
In addition to hotels and restaurants, events are often planned to attract tourism.
The Aurora area was the host location for four major Ultimate disk tournaments including the USA Ultimate Masters Championships in July.
The bureau's success since focusing on the sports marketing sector and launching the Aurora Area Sports Alliance less than two years ago is starting to hit, Carlson said.
The Aurora area was recently selected by readers of Sports Destination Management as a "Favorite Small Market Destination" for its outstanding collection of athletic venues for professional, amateur, and youth sports; convenient location relative to Chicago along I-88; and family-friendly tourist attractions including Raging Waves Waterpark, Chicago Premium Outlets and the award-winning Paramount Theatre.
"Being recognized on a national level for our sports destination was a definite highlight this year," Carlson said.
The Elgin area also held some new tournaments in various sports from baseball to handball to lacrosse, Murphy said.
The suburbs this year are following many global industry trends.
Farm-to-table, locally sourced food and other products are still in demand for meetings, Riedy said. "Many of our hotels and other venues are capitalizing on the trend."
She added that they also launched Lake County Libation Trail to highlight craft breweries, wineries and distilleries throughout the county.
Microbrews and the craft industry are also hot in the Northwest suburbs.
"We are seeing a great upswing in microbreweries opening and being planned," Parulo said. "With that is the craft movement with food trucks with food truck festivals at Arlington Park, in Rolling Meadows and around Roselare in Roselle."
The recent Food Truck Festival at Grand Victoria Casino was a big draw in Elgin.
Murphy added that the Craft Brew Fest on the Riverside promenade brought many visitors from outside the area to enjoy the downtown.
Meanwhile, the thriving suburban hospitality industry brings a common problem to the area -- filling jobs.
"The biggest concern right now is filling jobs," Murphy said. "A few years back people would have begged to have this problem. Now with the hospitality industry doing well there are lots of jobs to be had in the Elgin area," she said.
It is a concern because our hoteliers and restaurants want to continue giving excellent service to their customers but it is a good problem to have, she said.