Photo: Bob Stefko
In May, Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed you chairwoman of Choose Chicago, the city’s tourism bureau. Why you?
I don’t know. You’d have to ask him.
What is your mandate?
We want to increase the [annual number of] visitors to Chicago to 50 million by 2020. We’re at a little over 46 million now. We’re also the No. 10 destination for international travelers, and we want to move up to No. 5 by 2020. There’s lots of opportunity to do better than No. 10, given the size city that we are and the assets that we have.
Where will the remaining four million visitors come from?
We know there’s opportunity [among international travelers]. Many times, international travelers are making decisions about where to go in the U.S., and we’re not even being considered.
Why are foreign visitors so important?
Their spending is higher. [In 2012, the average tourist from outside the United States spent $4,000 per person per stay, compared with $1,175 for domestic travelers, according to Choose Chicago.] That’s an opportunity for us to increase the economic impact to the city, which is always important.
How do you make Chicago more appealing to them?
We have not really advertised Chicago internationally. We’ve started that process over the last year and a half, opening 10 tourism bureaus. There are plans to open other locations around the world. The key is to have people on the ground to talk about Chicago [so] that people understand it’s more than just an airport to get through.
Choose Chicago’s first big overseas advertising push was in the London. Why there?
Data showed that we could make an impact there. They spoke the language, so that wasn’t a barrier. [And there are] lots of flights [between London and Chicago].
What are the U.K. ads like?
Tongue in cheek. From “Over the pond, we have a lake” to “You have Big Ben, we have a big Bean” to “Put down your shepherd’s pie,” with an image of a deep-dish pizza. It’s on double-decker buses, taxicabs, even the receipts in the taxis.
What tasks will you focus on first?
My emphasis will be pulling the board together [other members include Cubs owner Tom Ricketts, former Leo Burnett CEO Linda Wolf, and Chicago Federation of Labor president Jorge Ramirez] and working on brand strategy and positioning. What should the brand positioning for Chicago be? I’m not saying it’s a tag line, but how do we want people to be thinking of the city before they get here?
How should people think of the city?
That’s what we have to work on. In April 2014, we’re hosting International Pow Wow [a trade show for the tourism industry worldwide]. By that point, we will have developed a solid brand positioning.
How do you attract visitors to a city that remains in the headlines for its crime rate?
Even though there have been news stories [about high crime in Chicago], the statistics [show crime is] down. [According to the Chicago Police Department, there were 184 homicides citywide in the first half of 2013, which is 29 percent fewer than in the same period of 2012.] And we’re not getting that as a major question. We have more people asking if it’s cold all the time.
So the weather here is a problem?
In London, a lot of the time you don’t see the sun shine. [So weather] seemed to be a thing that was on the top of their list. The first thing that I want to get across is that it’s not always cold. Come in summer; come in fall! It’s not this frozen tundra.
A casino would help draw tourists, right? Do you think Chicago should open one?
I have no comment on that.
You were the White House social secretary for the first year of President Obama’s first term. What skills did you develop there that you can apply to your new role?
Hospitality, just being comfortable and entertaining with all types of people from all over the world.
You’re also CEO of Johnson Publishing, which publishes Ebony and Jet. What are some of the new initiatives launched under your tenure?
We just opened a store-within-a-store in Macy’s for Fashion Fair Cosmetics, our cosmetics line for women of color. We have a collection of videos on iTunes called Ebony Moments. And 2,000 photographs from the Ebony collection are on the site for sale: Muhammad Ali, Michael Jackson, Martin Luther King, on and on.
What’s your favorite Chicago attraction?
If I had to pick my No. 1, it would be [Chicago Architecture Foundation’s] architectural tour. You see the beach, all of the buildings; you get a feel for some of the neighborhoods. Every time I’ve done that tour, I’m excited to jump off the boat and start exploring.
* * *
While Chicago is the third-largest city in the nation, it ranks only tenth for international tourism, with just 1.2 million foreign visitors in 2012. Here’s how the nation’s three biggest cities stack up.