Why tourism is thriving in the suburbs
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 dotting the suburbs are just a few additions helping tourism thrive and grow in the area.
Visitors spent $39.5 billion in Illinois in 2017, up 3 percent from 2016, according to the U.S. Travel Association. Spending by visitors generated $2.95 billion in state and local tax revenue, up $75 million from 2016, the association reported.
Local tourism leaders say the suburbs mirror those gains.
Among examples: Expenditures for travel in the Aurora area exceeded $200 million in 2017 and represent a 3.7 percent increase over 2016 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.
The Northwest suburbs saw 2 percent growth in hotel guest room revenue in 2017, 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."
And 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, she said.
The grand opening of Great Wolf Lodge in Gurnee in late June was a highlight, she said. The $65 million investment and year of construction transformed KeyLime Cove Resort into a family destination with an expanded indoor water park, entertainment options and 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 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 experts worry about challenges posed by Illinois' dismal finances, increased competition from surrounding states and difficulties attracting workers to the hospitality sector.
"While tourism in DuPage is growing, so too is the competition," said Beth Marchetti, executive director of the DuPage Convention & Visitors Bureau.
In DuPage County, tourism accounts for more than 23,000 employees and produces more than $2.6 billion in visitor expenditures, including $46 million in local taxes for communities and the county, she said.
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 after a 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 season, Marchetti said.
Community development helps foster the hospitality industry, Parulo said, with projects like converting the Motorola campus to a mixed use development in Schaumburg, developing an industrial and tech park in Elk Grove Village and improving the Arlington Heights Road corridor in Arlington Heights.
Among new hotels are a new My Place Hotel in North Aurora, a new Holiday Inn Express set open in Yorkville and a new Best Western Premier that's expected to break ground in Aurora later this year.
Other tourist draws are food truck festivals like the one at Arlington Park, a Lake County Libation Trail highlighting craft breweries, wineries and distilleries, and new restaurants like Elgin's Gifford's Kitchen and Old Republic, as well as Bricks Firewood Pizzas and Kubo Sushi in the downtown area, said Krisilee Murphy, executive director of the Elgin Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Events contribute to the mix. The Aurora area has hosted four major Ultimate disk tournaments, including the USA Ultimate Masters Championships in July, and was recently selected by readers of Sports Destination Management as a "Favorite Small Market Destination" for its collection of athletic venues for professional, amateur and youth sports.
"Being recognized on a national level for our sports destination was a definite highlight this year," Carlson said.
Meanwhile, the suburbs are feeling a problem common to the hospitality industry -- attracting employees.
"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.