If you’ve always written off Chicago’s suburbs as bedroom communities, you might want to take another look.
Chicago’s next-door neighbors have been upping their game in recent years, adding venues, dining and attractions to help make them competitive destinations for meetings and conferences.
These new offerings have caught the attention of planners that often weigh the pros and cons of holding events in Chicago versus its periphery communities. Beth Rice, who frequently plans regional and national trainings in the Chicago area for anywhere from 30-200 people, says she is just as likely to hold an event in the suburbs as she is to hold one downtown. Rice looks for properties that are walkable to restaurants and/or accessible by shuttle and instructs attendees not to rent a car to keep costs down.
However, she says finding affordable options downtown is becoming more of a challenge.
“Many downtown locations have so many taxes and other high costs involved that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to plan in a downtown location and work within a reasonable budget,” Rice says. “I also think that many areas in the suburbs have become more desirable with great after-hour options and entertainment districts.”
To her point, more than ever before, the suburbs are starting to offer city-inspired amenities outside the city limits.
Without some of the city’s hassles, like traffic, expensive parking and higher costs overall, Chicago’s suburbs are offering more of what planners are looking for, says Dave Parulo, president of Meet Chicago Northwest, which services Arlington Heights, Elk Grove Village, Itasca, Rolling Meadows, Roselle, Schaumburg, Streamwood and Wood Dale.
“By and large folks are looking for the appeal of being close to the city without going into the city,” Parulo says.
THE SUBURBAN ADVANTAGE
Affordability is one of the key advantages of planning an event outside downtown Chicago. Things like taxes, parking and other ancillary fees can really start to add up.
Chicago’s combined hotel tax rate hit 17.4 percent in 2016, and the city’s combined sales tax is still one of the nation’s highest at 10.25 percent. Those dining in a certain segment of Chicago are also taxed an additional 1 percent, for a total of 11.25 percent. The additional 1 percent goes to the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority that owns and manages Navy Pier and McCormick Place.
Getting out of the city can help planners (and their guests) avoid Chicago-specific taxes and also saves guests on parking since suburban venues often have free and plentiful parking lots and, many times, free shuttles to help visitors get from their venue to other meeting destinations.
The appeal of the suburbs has led multiple Chicago-based venues to expand with suburban locations. In one example, the duo behind Venue One Chicago, Sean Cannon and Lional Rivero, opened Venue One North Shore last year in north suburban Deerfield. Venue One North Shore offers 85,000 square feet of event space, including a 7,000-squarefoot outdoor garden, in what used to be the Chicago Bulls training facility.
Cornerstone Restaurant Group also opened Michael Jordan’s Restaurant location in Oak Brook this past July after several years of success with the flagship location on Michigan Avenue. The Oak Brook venue can accommodate meetings of 10-250 people and features two full bars, two patios and complete A/V capabilities.
Joshua Zadikoff, brand operations manager for Cornerstone Restaurant Group, says Oak Brook was selected because the convenience and quality of its amenities are “unparalleled.”
He further explains, “[Oak Brook] is a like a one-stopshop for meetings, events and entertainment with the benefit of being more affordable and easier to access than most metropolitan areas. The town offers a rare combination of world-class corporate businesses, premier shopping destinations, a lively hotel and restaurant scene and is surrounded by vibrant communities whose residents seek exceptional dining experiences.”
Suburban business is also “booming” for Windy City Limousine & Bus, according to Jerold Bean, vice president of sales and marketing. Rosemont, Schaumburg and Oakbrook are the most popular suburban destinations, Bean says, perhaps because transportation to these locations from O’Hare International Airport is less expensive than the same trip from the airport to the city while bus parking and vehicle staging are also less of an issue.
In many cases, heading to the suburbs instead of the city is faster, too, especially when considering clogged urban traffic and recent improvements to Illinois’ highway system. Suburbs that are near major highways also make them easier to access for regional visitors.
For instance, a new exit off Interstate 90, which opened in 2017, provides direct access to the Renaissance Schaumburg Convention Center Hotel on Meacham Road, according to Parulo.
Rosemont’s location near O’Hare International Restaurant, as well as proximity to the CTA Blue Line, Metra trains, Pace buses and the Interstate 294 tollway is also key to its success, says Rosemont Mayor Bradley Stephens. The village has also taken steps recently to make its attractions more accessible via Illinois’ highway system.
“We’ve been really proactive in making sure that where there’s the ability to add off ramps to the highway system, that we’ve been able to do that and get things built to help spur that development,” Stephens says.
The construction and completion of two major highway projects in particular directly benefit visitors to Chicago’s suburbs, Parulo notes. That includes the completion of the Interstate 90 SmartRoad between Barrington Road and the Kennedy Expressway, and the opening of Illinois Route 390, formerly known as the Elgin-O’Hare Expressway, which will ease travel in 2018 from Chicago’s southern suburbs to the northwest region, according to Parulo.
Traffic is the “No. 1 concern” when planning trips from Chicago to the suburbs, says Bean. “Most customers are shocked when they learn it could take 90 minutes to go 20 miles,” he says. “Even within the city this can be an issue. A group staying at a downtown hotel will need to factor 45 minutes to get out to the Museum of Science and Industry.”
Higher travel times within the city or from the city to the suburbs makes running continuous shuttles difficult, since an event can be over by the time a bus makes it back for a second run, Bean says.
However, in the suburbs, travel times are less and getting clients from their suburban hotels to suburban convention centers and venues is relatively easy. “We have several groups each year that stay at a suburban property in order to be closer to their corporate headquarters,” Bean says. “When this is the case, we can run shuttles between the locations more efficiently and at a lower cost.”
Rice frequently uses Delta Hotels by Marriott Chicago North Shore Suites when planning events for this reason. The hotel, which opened in Glenview in April, offers complimentary parking and a shuttle that will take guests anywhere within a 5-mile radius of the hotel, which is essential for her attendees.
To get around Schaumburg, guests at the Renaissance Schaumburg Convention Center Hotel can also use the Woodfield Trolley, which transports visitors to Woodfield Mall and the Streets of Woodfield, among other destination stops around town.
INCREASE IN BUSINESS
As suburban entertainment destinations add more offerings and become easier to get to, their draw for both leisure and business travelers has increased as well.
Rosemont, with both MB Financial Park and the Fashion Outlets of Chicago located along Interstate 294, is a prime example.
The massive 200,000-square-foot MB Financial Park is an entertainment campus that was designed to offer options for groups after meetings and conferences at the nearby Donald E. Stephens Convention Center. The Park includes a 30,000-square-foot lawn, a wide variety of restaurants, activities like upscale bowling and indoor skydiving, Joe’s Live music venue and Zanies Comedy Club, as well as seasonal offerings such as summer concerts and fireworks, and winter ice skating. With its year-round programming, the Park has also become a regional entertainment destination.
That success has spurred growth in the village’s gross restaurant revenues: Over the past five years since the Park’s opening, those figures have increased from $180 million to $265 million.
Rosemont’s increased entertainment offerings have also brought in new convention business, Mayor Stephens says. Ten shows came to the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in 2017, including the World Floral Expo, the Food Safety Summit Expo & Conference and the Face & Body Spa Conference. Some of these shows were from event management companies that had come to Rosemont before and, according to Stephens, “craved the entertainment element” Rosemont provides. \
Like Rosemont, several other Chicago suburbs have seen increased business as more venues, restaurants, hotels and other offerings have recently opened.
The Chicago’s North Shore Convention & Visitors Bureau has seen a 5.5 percent increase in corporate and private event business inquiries and bookings from 2015 to 2016, according to Gina Speckman, executive director of the CVB.
At the Renaissance Schaumburg Convention Center Hotel, the percentage of occupancy in the convention center is growing year over year, according to Erik Hallberg, director of convention center sales at the property. In 2015, occupancy was at 59 percent, and grew to 62 percent in 2016 and then 63 percent in 2017.
THE LATEST DEVELOPMENTS
In addition to suburban standards like Woodfield Mall and MB Financial Park, planners can look forward to the opening of more venues, dining and new (or newly renovated) hotels over the next year. Here are some recently opened properties and projects in the works in the suburbs.
The village of Rosemont will open a new mixeduse complex called “The Pearl District” in 2018, Stephens says. The Pearl District will be located across Interstate 294 from MB Financial Park and the Fashion Outlets of Chicago.
Properties that have been announced to open in the complex include a new 163-room Hilton boutique hotel called “The Rose” and a 40,000-square-foot location of Dave and Buster’s. Truluck’s Seafood Steak & Crab House and Carmine’s, an Italian eatery, have also been announced.
Rosemont will add to its sports offerings next year as well. The village is constructing a 6,300-seat baseball stadium, opening in May, for a new minor league baseball team called the Chicago Dogs. The stadium will have six skyboxes, and its club level will be able to host events for 200 guests. Rosemont also recently assumed ownership of the Chicago Bandits, a fast-pitch women’s softball team. The team plays at The Ballpark at Rosemont.
Two major properties in Schaumburg have recently undergone multimillion-dollar renovations: the Renaissance Schaumburg Convention Center Hotel and the Westin Chicago Northwest in Itasca.
The Renaissance Schaumburg Convention Center Hotel recently completed an almost $8 million renovation of its guest rooms and public spaces. The hotel and convention center has 500 rooms and 150,000 square feet of meeting space. The Westin also recently completed a renovation of its lobby, guest rooms, restaurant and meeting spaces, notes Parulo.
A new property, Home2 Suites by Hilton Chicago/Schaumburg, also opened in June. The hotel features 107 suites and is designed for those that don’t want to break their normal routine, with fully equipped kitchens, communal spaces and a laundry and fitness area.
Schaumburg is also adding more dining options. New restaurants opened this fall in Schaumburg’s Restaurant Row, across the street from Woodfield Mall, including Bar Louie, Chuy’s and PDQ. Plus, Woodfield Mall (which underwent a full remodel in 2015) will add a new dining pavilion in fall 2018, says General Manager Kurt Webb. The 820-seat dining area will include 12 new fast-casual restaurants, with charging stations, soft seating and lots of natural light.
Those looking for a more relaxed, homey space for meetings and retreats will find historic charm at two luxury B&Bs that opened in Evanston last year.
Stone Terrace Bed and Breakfast and Stone Porch by the Lake were both built in the late 1800s and overlook green space and Lake Michigan. The historic nature of each property is a main point of interest for guests. “The uniqueness of the property is that people don’t feel like they’re in a hotel,” says Tom Zipp, co-owner and innkeeper at Stone Terrace Bed and Breakfast. “Guests always ask us to give a tour of the facility. They love looking at all the woodwork. They want to see the complete house and then use it.”
Previously both properties were single family homes, and have since been converted to B&Bs by TAWANI Enterprises, LLC. Each offers five guest rooms and indoor and outdoor spaces for events. Stone Terrace Bed and Breakfast can accommodate up to 125 people for events while Stone Porch by the Lake can accommodate up to 40. Because they are located near each other, guests can use both throughout the day.
Each property has a pair of separate owners and innkeepers, who will work with meetings planners on their events.
Delta Hotels Chicago North Shore Suites opened April 13 in Glenview, offering 255 tworoom suites. The property was previously the all-suite Wyndham Glenview Suites Chicago North, which underwent an $11 million renovation before opening under the Delta brand.
Delta is a hotel and resort brand that was located primarily in Canada before Marriott International purchased it in 2015. Delta Hotels Chicago North Shore Suites was just the fourth Delta hotel to open in the United States, though the brand opened 12 properties in the U.S. by the end of 2017, according to Anne Hagerty, director of sales.
The hotel brand’s mission is “simple made perfect,” Hagerty says, and also focuses on enhancing the needs of business travelers. For Delta Hotels Chicago North Shore Suites, that includes beefed up complimentary Wi-Fi capabilities and an expanded fitness center that offers five treadmills, two elliptical machines, two exercise bikes, weights and universal machines.
Delta Hotels Chicago North Shore Suites has about 14,000 square feet of event space, including the 5,184-square-foot Glen Ballroom that can accommodate up to 450 people. The hotel’s garden atrium includes all natural foliage and has been the site for corporate breakfasts, lunches and cocktail receptions. The hotel’s on-site restaurant, Bourbon Kitchen & Tap, offers food with a Southern flair.