Chicago Tourism Industry Improvements at O’Hare

At the Choose Chicago Annual Meeting in April, Chairman of the Board Bruce Rauner encouraged feedback on our ideas for promoting Chicago tourism. We all want the city to be a top destination for business and leisure travelers. Here is one person’s two cents on how to make it happen.

Two Cents Ideas on Chicago Tourism

Promote Chicago Tourism Through Marketing

We need to better communicate the amazingness of Chicago to potential visitors (do you like my fancy marketing language?). The strategies I would like to share have been swimming around in my head for some time. I’ve wondered why people who visit Chicago always love it, while those who haven’t assume it to be unspectacular.

Surely I’m not the first to come up with the ideas I’d like to outline. Or maybe some aspects of them are new? Either way I’m pretty sure they are important and hope this may fuel some discussion.

The two primaries marketing ideas I have are so dense that I’ll divide them into two posts. My perspectives on promoting Chicago tourism come from lots of face-to-face contact with tourists. As a tour guide (and Executive Director) of Chicago Detours, I interact with a variety of guests in our fine city: from suburban students on field trips, to law firms here for conferences, to Midwestern families on vacation.

I keep a sort of mental catalog of the positive and negative impressions of Chicago that guests communicate to me. I’ve also worked for 9 years as a tour guide with Rick Steves for groups of Americans traveling around Italy. That work has given me great insights into the kinds of experiences that guarantee a good time and create vivid memories, and ultimately resonate positive feelings that catalyze the big, numero uno marketing term of “word of mouth.”Chicago Tour Detours

Improving O’Hare to Boost Chicago Tourism

Enough background and build-up, right? I’ll get to the point. The O’Hare Airport is the biggest missed opportunity for promoting Chicago as a destination. Last year 67 million people moved through this airport. This would be enough people to populate about 25 clones of the city of Chicago (with a current population of 2.6 million). This is huge! Many of these people do not go into the city – they are just on a layover for a few hours. And though they won’t actually see anything of Chicago, they do leave with impressions.

And with the current O’Hare, they really, really do not see anything. It’s a very boring airport, and with its delays, sub-par concessions, and blah design, people come through there and take home negative or lackluster feelings about the city of Chicago. As a primary point of contact for so many visitors, the O’Hare airport could leave a positive impression on people, one that would fire up word of mouth and intrigue that could spark people to actually visit the city.

Chicago Visit Airport

Two Big Projects

I see two primary projects at the airport that would help generate positive impressions, create intrigue to visit the city, and spread word of mouth about how incredible Chicago is:

1. Make a visitor’s time at the airport into a surprisingly awesome experience unlike any other airport in the world.

So how does one make one of the worst-rated airports into an “awesome experience”? You won’t be able to prevent weather delays, and infrastructure is a whole other thing, but how does one make the airport cool? Help people work or help them have fun – whichever they are hoping to do.

Design areas with work stations with outlets. Offer free wi-fi. Have gaming centers, perhaps where you even play a game against a stranger standing next to you. Get people to interact with each other. Project video on a giant wall. Have entire exhibits (hopefully with interactive elements) set up by Chicago museums – not the arbitrary boxes with artifacts displayed that are currently around (and boring). Install more architectural art installations like Michael Hayden’s neon walkway. Set-up stands that sell Chicago-centric and Chicago-made products – not the same junk at any other airport. Diversify the food offerings so that we can show off how much of Chicago food goes beyond deep-dish pizza and hotdogs (look a little at Midway for this one). Make an O’Hare app that enhances their experience and ability to find what they need.

Have jazz or blues musicians playing live at every terminal, travel frustration chicago11am-11pm!

2. Market the hell out of Chicago as a destination to these people.

Make the O’Hare airport into a model airport for the rest of the world, and see how that word of mouth would spread. Instead of “I had a layover in Chicago and all I could find to eat was a $8 pizza that tasted like cardboard, and then my flight was delayed for 2 hours” would become “I had a layover in Chicago Traveler HappyChicago, found an incredible Indian restaurant, used the free wi-fi and got some work done, and when I heard the flight was delayed I went to go watch a live blues musician perform at a lounge.” We need to make travelers love the airport so much that they do jazz hands (just kidding).

Look to the Old World

Follow the great Mayor R.J. Daley and his Chicago predecessors on this one: study what they’re doing in Europe. I got off a plane at 11:45am on a Tuesday in Zurich and a flamenco jazz guitarist was playing live right as I stepped out of the gate. On the ride on the airport tram I was welcomed by the audio of cows mooing, cow bells, and yodelers – the sounds of Switzerland. It was kind of funny, and really memorable.

In order to “market the hell out of Chicago,” visitors at O’Hare need to be bombarded by the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of Chicago. The easiest of these would be images of the city, first and foremost. I recently arrived at O’Hare internationally, and made a point of observing on my route from the plane, through customs, and to the CTA station if there was anything that caught my attention or showed me what Chicago is about.

This is what I found: Just beyond the gate, on the way to customs, some exhibits of stained glass in boxes were set up. I had no idea what stained glass windows had to do with giving a first impression of Chicago. Since the display was in a space where no one would ever linger, I naturally did not stop to read the tiny placards, and I highly doubt anyone ever does.

Promote Chicago as an American Icon

The line for passport control took about 30-40 minutes, or at least it seemed like it. In this time, imagine all the impressions (I mean this in both the standard and marketing sense of the word) that could be made upon new arrivals. Instead, a small television screen shows images of America, most recognizably the Statue of Liberty. Yes, we arrived in Chicago and we are being shown the Statue of Liberty. This beyond boring video serves to show text with indications of how to expedite passport control. Imagery could at least be local – AND BIGGER. Make an amazing video and present it on a large screen. Why not engage and entertain people why they wait (ever gone through security in Vegas?)Chicago Skyscrapers

From passport control and into baggage claim pretty much nothing communicated anything about Chicago – no pictures, exhibits, flags, signs, or sounds. Then just as I was exiting customs, I saw two color photos of the Chicago skyline on a side wall. If it weren’t for the fact I was actively paying attention to these things, I would have not taken any notice.

Also images of skylines are so overused in business marketing, whenever I see a skyline picture my eyes just keep on moving. I’ll get more into this in the next post, which will focus more on what people, places, things of Chicago make it into marketing materials. Which images grabs you more – this photo by music journalist Marc Pokempner, or another skyline? (p.s. 6 seats left for Sat, June 9th Blues Tour).

Chicago blues

What Makes Chicago Tourism Unique?

So how do you market Chicago in the airport? Well that’s a full-time job for someone, but just for the sake of brainstorming…giant photographs of the city – beyond the skyline, show architectural details, people’s faces – famous and everyday Chicagoans, festivals, museums, class rooms, food, parks, neighborhoods, people going places, doing things, people, people, people. Massive video projections of everything above. Create the local sounds of Chicago for the tram, as previously mentioned with Switzerland.

And how about utilizing the Choose Chicago marketing partners? I know there’s all kinds of minutia and contracts, etc, etc, that might get in the way, but for brainstorming sake…American Airlines could have the pilots say a sentence or two upon take-off about Chicago. Play a two-minute video about the city. Partner with hotels to offer a special promotion for a one- or two-night layover in Chicago – marketed to travelers who would have normally just passed right through the city. Make that Chicago layover an option – with no extra charge.

Moments of flux create a particular openness among the “higher ups” to out-of-the-box ideas, and I’m excited to share a few during this time of transition with our new mayoral administration and all the changes with Choose Chicago.

-Amanda Scotese, Executive Director and Founder


Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on linkedin

be a



Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

“Our guide Ellen was exceptional and gifted with a great personal touch.”


Tour Guide

Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

“Jen was a perfect storyteller and kept us spellbound for hours.”


Tour Guide

With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.


Tour Guide

Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

“Marie was a bubbling fountain of information and contagious enthusiasm.”


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
“Sonny was extremely knowledgeable about all things Chi-town.”
Wade K


Content Manager and Tour Guide

Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

“Alex was fascinating to listen to. He clearly knows his history and it shows.”
Katie K

Amanda Scotese

Executive Director and Tour Guide

I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
“You can TELL Amanda is hyper-passionate about doing the research and getting the story that nobody’s heard before.”
Shelby F

Book a chicago event

Let’s Connect!