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When It’s Bad to Be a Transit Hub

Chicago’s central location is the reason it became a great city. But with travel at a standstill, we’re uniquely vulnerable to COVID’s economic fallout.

Photo: Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune

Chicago, I think we can all agree, is the center of the universe.

Ever since Stephen A. Douglas brought the Illinois Central and transcontinental railroads here in the mid–19th Century, Chicago has been the nation’s transportation hub — the Roundhouse of America.

The fact that you can get here from anywhere is the reason Chicago has hosted more political conventions than any other city. During the golden age of rail travel, there was a corner booth at the Pump Room reserved for celebrities traveling between New York and Los Angeles who wanted to entertain themselves during the 10-hour layover at Union Station. Frank Sinatra and Elizabeth Taylor ate there.

Once air travel became the fastest way to cross the continent, O’Hare Airport became, in one of Mayor Richard J. Daley’s greatest purported malapropisms, “the crosswords of America.” Tom Wolfe called “Mother O’Hare” “the intellectual capital of America,” because so many writers and scholars changed planes there on their way to speaking engagements.

Unlike the rest of the Midwest, Chicago isn’t flyover country. It’s fly-through country. Being in the middle of it all is the reason Chicago became a great city, and it continues to drive our economy today. But will the city’s central location make it more vulnerable to the economic fallout of COVID-19, which has brought travel to a standstill in this country?

O’Hare is the nation’s busiest airport, with 903,747 flights in 2018. But that’s not such a significant distinction right now, with air travel down 96 percent since the beginning of the pandemic.

Chicago is suffering as a result. United Airlines, O’Hare’s flagship carrier and the city’s third-largest private employer, plans to lay off 30 percent of its management and administrative employees. Boeing, the second-largest publicly traded company in Chicago, had customers cancel orders for 108 737 Max jets last month, as a result of the drop in air travel. The company has also cut back production of its wide bodied Dreamliner 787, and is offering buyouts to employees. CEO Dave Calhoun thinks it could be two or three years before air travel returns to pre-COVID levels.

Chicago is also the nation’s second-busiest convention city, after Las Vegas. Last year, we hosted the International Home & Housewares Show, the National Confectioner’s Association’s Sweets & Snacks Expo, and the National Restaurant Association’s Hotel-Motel Show.

Conventioneers don’t come here for the weather. They come here because Chicago is a convenient gathering place. But this year, the Sweets & Snacks Expo won’t be held here. Neither will the National School Boards Association convention, or any other convention. Gov. J.B. Pritzker has declared that conventions can’t be held in Illinois until scientists develop more effective treatments for coronavirus — and maybe not until there’s a vaccine.

In the second half of this year, McCormick Place was scheduled to hold 67 events attended by 781,168 people. The fact that none of those people will be coming to Chicago means a loss of $922.7 million to the city, according to the Chicago Tribune. Those people who won’t be coming here won’t be eating in our restaurants or sleeping in our hotels. As those dominoes fall, the Hyatt hotel chain — the source of the Pritzker family’s fortune — is laying off 350 employees in Chicago.

Lollapalooza, which made Chicago its permanent home in 2005, hasn’t officially cancelled this year’s event, which is scheduled for July 30 to August 2. But there’s no way 100,000 people a day can crowd into Grant Park under Pritzker’s restrictions. The same goes for Pitchfork (cancelled) and Riot Fest (TBD), two smaller music festivals that attract national acts and audiences.

Some of these events may be lost forever to states that are reopening faster than Illinois, Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association CEO Michael Jacobson told the Tribune.

“Our biggest fear is that if we lose some of these conventions, we lose them for good,” Jacobson said. “Once a show leaves, it’s hard to convince them to come back to a host city.”

Technology may also cost us some business. Because it’s easy to reach by airplane, Chicago is a popular destination for corporate meetings. According to the meeting planning website Cvent, “more people travel to Chicago for overnight business than any other U.S. destination.” 

But during the COVID-19 crisis, companies have replaced fly-in meetings with Zoom meetings. Given how much less expensive and how much more convenient that is, don’t be surprised if video meetings permanently replace some in-person gatherings.

If more consultants start working over Zoom, that could also hurt Chicago. The consulting business thrives here because it’s easy to dispatch employees all over the country from O’Hare and Midway.

For a century-and-a-half, Chicago has made its bones by being the place where Americans can gather. Now that they’ve stopped gathering — and may not start again for a long time — will our city be as important?

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