A luxury hotel might seem like a bad business to be running during an economic downturn, but Patrick Hatton, general manager of The James in downtown Chicago, is feeling bullish.
Mr Hatton believes he has hit upon a promotion that perfectly suits the zeitgeist. From Monday, for $219, (€170, £142) guests at his hotel can purchase a “City
of Hope” package that includes a private tour of Barack Obama’s southside neighbourhood, reservations at one of the president-elect’s favourite Chicago restaurants and a copy of The Audacity of Hope, his book.
In the weeks since Mr Obama’s election, Chicago – a city used to proclaiming its global status while often measuring up short next to New York and Los Angeles – has been basking in the international spotlight. The president-elect’s victory celebration in Grant Park showcased its handsome skyline, parkland and lakefront to millions all round the world. His transition team is based in the city, attracting a global media circus. Many of his appointments have come from Chicago’s political elite.
The media’s need to feed the hunger for news about Mr Obama has made mini-
celebrities of scores of Chicagoans with any kind of connection to the next president, from his barber to the chefs at his favourite pizza joint and the woman who drives a Dodge Neon he once owned.
If Chicago has a spring in its step, it may be because for the first time many residents feel it is getting the recognition it deserves. “The election has made people think about the city as more progressive, more youthful, more dynamic than they had thought,” says Bobby Calder, a marketing expert at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.
Chicago has not lacked promoters. Since he was elected 20 years ago, Mayor Richard Daley has been an energetic salesman for the city and there are several organisations dedicated to raising Chicago’s profile internationally. In the past, that has often involved
dispelling its reputation as a gritty, industrial, crime-ridden urban sprawl. Mr Obama’s worldwide popularity has given the publicists a new song to sing.
While many Chicagoans have a renewed sense of civic pride, the promotion at The James underlines how many of the city’s businesses are looking to cash in on the huge interest created by Mr Obama’s election victory. They range from the small – such as the dozens of restaurants around Chicago that now sport signs claiming “Barack Obama ate here” – to multinational corporations.
The most obvious short-term impact is on tourism. Both the city and the state of Illinois have increased Obama-related tourist activities. The city has doubled its number of “greeters” to lead tours of the president-elect’s Hyde Park neighbourhood while Mayor Daley – displaced as the most famous politician from Chicago – invites tourists to “explore the city the Obamas love and call home”.
Big businesses based in the city hope they will be able to use their Chicago ties to shape policy. Boeing, the aircraftmaker, and the CME Group, the world’s largest futures exchange, are already big-spending lobbyists in Washington. But now the former may have greater reach through its influence with William Daley, a member of Mr Obama’s transition team who also sits on its board, while Rahm Emanuel, the president-elect’s chief of staff, is a former board member of the latter.
It remains to be seen how real and long-lasting the “Obama effect” proves. Economically, Chicago is suffering along with the rest of the US. Unemployment in the city is at 6.9 per cent – above the national average – while home sales fell by more than 21 per cent last month compared with October 2007. The cash-strapped city government is poised to cut jobs and raise taxes. The transport system is dilapidated.
The true measure of the “Obama effect” will come next year, when Chicago will find out whether it has won its bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympics. The president-elect has been involved in the campaign since its inception, recording a videotaped message shown last week as the Chicago team made its bid to the European Olympic Committees in Istanbul. If he can help secure the Olympics, it will be a clear demonstration of how his international stature can help his adopted home town.
Rita Athas, head of World Business Chicago, which tries to lure international companies to the city, notes AT Kearney, management consultants, released a ranking this month of the top global cities in which Chicago was placed eighth. (AT Kearney is based in the city and undertook the study with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a local think-tank). “The one thing we were marked down on was lack of political clout,” she says, before letting out an ironic chortle. “I think we’ve addressed that.”
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