Spotlight on DEIB: Chicago's Neighborhood Investment Strategy and Its Impact on Event Planning - An Interview with Rob Fojtik and Roz Stuttley
Can you tell us more about Choose Chicago's Neighborhood and DEIB Strategies, and how it came to be? What inspired the organization to focus on promoting Chicago's diverse neighborhoods?
Rob: “For the last several years, there has been a spotlight on the inequity in our world and, in our city in particular. To address this issue, Choose Chicago created additional roles, responsibilities and goals to tackle diversity, equity and inclusion in our city.
My program which focuses on neighborhood strategy came out of the City of Chicago’s Covid-19 Recovery Taskforce and Roz’s position was created by Choose Chicago. The desire is for us to have the first workforce, as well as the first partnership base, that represents our city. Together, we work to make tourism benefit more Chicagoans who have historically not had a seat at the tourism and hospitality table.
Roz: “It’s an organizational and leadership driven agenda. We are being intentional with who we build relationships with and how we represent our communities including the diverse and under-represented communities.”
How can event professionals incorporate Choose Chicago's strategies into their own events, and what kind of benefits can they expect to see from doing so?
Roz: “No two clients are the same and neither are two neighborhoods the same. There are so many rich stories and vibrant entrepreneurs and opportunities to engage attendees, whether that is bringing the neighborhood to an event or bringing an individual to the neighborhood. Everything can be inclusive – creating access for businesses and thought leaders, transportation companies, services and products. There really are so many different opportunities and as a destination, we work to curate these opportunities in a way that benefits our partners and the communities across Chicago.”
“We are engaging local diverse owned businesses and community leaders and bringing them into our organization to help foster relationships for planners when they’re coming to Chicago, so that is an opportunity for engagement and can add to an event’s legacy while strengthening the local community.”
Rob: “Everything we do on the neighborhood side is community-led. We work very closely with our great community partners to ensure we have an authentic representation of the neighborhood, so, it’s not just us coming in and choosing what we think is ‘cool’.”
“I would encourage our meeting planners in Chicago to reach out to us and we will connect you with those partners. They can help you identify local businesses you can work with that align with your own DEIB goals. Whether it’s in finding locally-made gifts or restaurants and venues that can host dinners or other corporate events.
What kind of support or resources does Choose Chicago offer to event professionals who are interested in promoting Chicago's diverse neighborhoods as part of their events?
Rob: “We have a phenomenal website which has lots of great information about neighborhoods along with brochures and other marketing materials. On our website, choosechicago.com/neighborhoods, you will find pages on many of our neighborhoods including history, things to see and do, including restaurants, museums, and parks. With the summer season almost upon us, we have hundreds of great street festivals, and that’s the time when our neighborhoods really come alive.”
“We have also worked with communities to create helpful neighborhood travel guides, and these are available at points of interest all over the city. They include maps, business directories, and insider tips, as well as a short overview of the history and culture for each neighborhood. We designed these collaboratively with the community so all the information is what the local chamber of commerce and residents have told us is important to share!”
How can event professionals work with local community organizations and businesses to create authentic and engaging experiences that showcase the unique character of different Chicago neighborhoods and its citizens?
Roz: “When our clients are marketing the destination of Chicago we want them to be broader with their marketing. Currently, a lot of the efforts are focused mostly on the downtown Chicago area, but we want efforts to be in and around the neighborhoods too. To be transparent, we have some great communities that are within 10 minutes of the Convention Center. We took some of our employees on a lunch and learn outing to the Pullman Community, during Women’s History Month and invited some guest speakers from the area. The stories and the experience of that local community was incredible and it was a very special experience.”
“A lot of the time, when delegates are in Chicago they are at the Convention Center or hotels all day long, so to give them something very unique to Chicago is incredibly memorable and can enhance their event and destination experience.”
Rob: “Our partnership team’s efforts on recruiting and managing diverse vendors is super important. In Chicago, tourism, hospitality and conventions make up one of our largest industries. It’s incumbent on all of us to make sure that we’re equitably spending these public dollars, so we have goals and requirements in terms of how much we are going to be spending on minority vendors and that’s something that meeting planners can take on when working with their clients and setting their own goals.”
“In terms of geographic diversity and community alignment, we know that destinations that are closely aligned with their community and residents are the most successful ones, so when meeting planners are thinking about how they want to experience a destination and Chicago as a city, we would encourage them to think beyond the Convention Center and the Loop.”
In terms of DEIB, why is Chicago such a good city to hold events in?
Roz: “In Chicago, we take pride in our two international airports, Chicago O’Hare and Midway Airports, and the ease of access to Chicago and other cities domestic and international. Did you know Chicago O’Hare is the world’s most connected airport with flights to every inhabited continent, making it a destination that is easy to get to, which is a huge selling point for us.”
“As a city, in the Midwest, Chicago has so much to offer everyone including architecture, diversity, culture, gifted entrepreneurs a sense of discovery and exploration. You may scratch the surface on one visit but want to keep coming back because you underestimated how much there is to see and do here! We have communities that are so diverse and here’s a fun fact - Chicago’s Chinatown is the only Chinatown in the U.S. that is growing, which really surprises visitors.”
Rob: “A lot of folks have experienced The Loop which is beautiful and museums and artwork but when you return, come and check out the communities, the city is big! We have 77 community areas and it can be exciting to see those different neighborhoods! There is always so much to do and new things to experience. We are nice and friendly in Chicago, I mean we are from the Midwest after all! But we are a big city, and we are sophisticated.”
“One in five people in Chicago is an immigrant, so there is a plethora of different foods and cultures to experience. Our diversity means we are a leader on rights for all communities. In Chicago, we don’t burn books or ban drag shows. If events are looking for an inclusive and welcoming US destination, Chicago would be glad to have you.”
Roz: “We are in the process of doing a strategic plan and so much has come up about international interest in Chicago and it’s an opportunity for us to look at the narrative. I am a native and I am still learning and still discovering new and interesting communities and excitement in these communities.”
What exciting projects are on the horizon for Chicago in the near future?
Rob: “We have some incredibly exciting programs currently underway. Many restaurants already invest in big-named influencers but some local restaurants can’t afford to do this so we support and help them for free by engaging local residents as content creators to go to their restaurants, businesses, museums and events and reinvest in these local communities.”
“We were awarded a $5.5 million grant from the city, to continue and grow the work we do and are now taking on projects that are not traditionally in the DMO world, for example, a street cleaning program. This program came from a number of listening sessions which highlighted how the lack of cleanliness can be a deterrent for attracting visitors. We are also going to install neighborhood-level wayfaring signage so that visitors know where to explore.”
“We will also train residents in certain neighborhoods to be tour operators in their own communities. For example, when the Obama Presidential Centre opens in 2025, we anticipate approximately 850,000 annual visitors and we want to make sure those visitors explore the South and West sides of our city, so that it benefits the residents in those areas. It is a different realm in terms of what DMO’s usually do, but it is important that we have diverse assets to market and that the tourism economy is accessible to everyone.”
To learn more about Choose Chicago, go to choosechicago.com