Sports, shoppers, adventurers drive suburban tourism growth
Rosemont is playing host to 11 new conventions this year, and sales tax revenues are up almost 10 percent over last year. Aurora now attracts national youth tournaments to its ball fields and indoor volleyball courts. Four new hotels opened in the Schaumburg area this past year.
It's all part of the robust growth in the tourism industry in the suburbs, mirroring a trend in Chicago and across Illinois.
In 2016, domestic and international travelers pumped $37.9 billion into the state's economy, a $571 million increase over 2015, the Illinois Office of Tourism reported. Local tourism revenues increased in every Chicago area county, with McHenry County leading the area with an 8.9 percent jump over the previous year.
Additionally, 20,000 tourism-related jobs were created in Illinois between 2015 and 2016, the tourism office reported.
"Tourism is a very bright spot when you talk about all of the other things going on in Illinois," said Beth Marchetti, executive director of the DuPage County Convention & Visitors Bureau.
It helps that every suburban region has carved out its own niche, focusing on different travelers. While they all woo convention and business travelers, Rosemont targets the international travelers who come through O'Hare International Airport; DuPage County emphasizes its forest preserves and natural spaces; Aurora focuses on attracting national youth sports tournaments; and Schaumburg eyes business travelers and mall-loving shoppers.
McHenry's tourism -- which saw the biggest gains in the latest reports -- developed a niche with agritourism and fall festivities. Things like Richardson Adventure Farm's world's largest corn maze; giant fall festivals at local farms; and Quarry Cable Park, the newly renovated wakeboard park in Crystal Lake; are attracting more visitors to the area.
Visit McHenry County, a two-person operation, has successfully promoted the area by using social media and video more effectively, said Executive Director Jacki Berggren.
The niches help keep suburban tourism bureaus from competing against each other, although there is some of that.
"There is enough activity for everybody who does it well," Rosemont Mayor Brad Stephens said.
Rosemont has many booming tourism spots, but perhaps the most notable is the upscale designer outlet mall, Fashion Outlets of Chicago. Business is up 30 percent over last year, Stephens said, and expansions are being planned. Organized groups of tourists regularly visit, including tours from China that Stephens said spend an average $2,200 per person on shopping.
Rosemont has landed a minor league baseball team, which will appeal to both international tourists and locals.
And there are several new developments in the works, including a large DHL innovation center filled with interactive exhibits on green initiatives and a new Harley-Davidson dealership with a German-based tour operator that rents motorcycles to international tourists wanting to ride Route 66 to California.
While DuPage County has a little bit of everything -- from Naperville's Riverwalk to Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont to charming downtowns -- it partnered with the DuPage County Forest Preserve District to promote its outdoor destinations, including 60 forest preserves and 145 miles of trails.
A new marketing strategy de-emphasizes the county's proximity to Chicago and instead urges "DuMore in DuPage."
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 $9 in economic impact, the Illinois tourism office says. But the state budget crisis delayed payments to local tourism bureaus for the past two years. There's hope the new state budget might amend that, but suburban tourism officials are still worried about having enough money for advertising, grants and bid fees needed to bring in conventions.
Marchetti mentioned a large bowling tournament that was here in 2015 and wanted to return, but ended up going to Indianapolis -- a $20 million revenue loss for the area -- because the DuPage County Convention & Visitors Bureau wasn't certain it would be able to pay for the tournament's bid fees.
Dave Parulo, president of Meet Chicago Northwest, likened the situation to driving a truck with a bad clutch.
"Is it going to go? Is it not going to go? Are we going to have the money? Are we not going to have the money?" he said. "You need to have continual messaging to the buyer. Otherwise you start having gaps in awareness. Once you start losing awareness, your competitor sweeps in."
And the competition is fierce. Aggressive campaigns by neighboring states threaten to cut into the suburban tourism business.
There are tourism billboards from as far away as Wyoming on suburban tollways this summer.
"We have to compete with the 'Pure Michigans' and other cities and states when there's uncertainty in Illinois," Marchetti said. "Illinois has to be top-of-mind, and the only way you can do that is to advertise."
Despite these challenges, tourism here has still managed to thrive.
Summer is already looking strong for suburban tourism, visitors bureaus say, and the upswing is encouraging investors to put money into local projects. Woodfield Mall and Gurnee Mills, for example, are both making millions of dollars worth of upgrades.
"There are people that are doing things, and investing money, and making things happen," Marchetti said.
Local tourism growsGrowth in tax revenue attributed to tourism from 2015 to 2016.
State receipts Local tax receipts
Cook County +4.5% +6.8%
DuPage County +3.7% +6.1%
Kane County +1.9% +4.2%
Lake County +3.3% +5.6%
McHenry County +6.5% +8.9%
Will County +29.6% +16.1%
Sources: Illinois Office of Tourism, The Economic Impact of Travel on Illinois Counties 2014, a report prepared by the Research Department of the U.S. Travel Association.