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A request to fund a group that markets Evanston as a destination site moved forward June 23, though some members of the City’s Economic Development Committee said they would want more metrics if they are to support such moves in the future.
Members of the Economic Development Committee voted unanimously to recommend the City Council approve funding to Chicago’s North Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau in the amount of $41,805 to run from July 1, 2021, through June 30, 2022.
The action comes in the wake of a difficult year for Evanston’s economy and officials refiguring a strategy to revitalize the area post-COVID.
Evanston was one of the founding members of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, whose other member communities are Glenview, Winnetka, Wheeling, Prospect Heights, Northbrook, Skokie, Glencoe, and Northfield.
More than 60% of the Convention and Visitors Bureau’s funding comes from the State, Executive Director Gina Speckman told the committee.
Backed by the funds, Ms. Speckman said the bureau’s staff of six aggressively markets Evanston and the North Shore, to fill hotels, restaurants, attractions, and retail businesses.
Before COVID, Ms. Speckman said, the bureau’s sales staff traveled to more than 30 trade shows a year, recruiting clients to visit Evanston and consider the City as a place for a meeting or an event.
The pandemic changed that, she said. “So what we did was turn our resources into making sure that our hotels, restaurants, attractions, and retailers survived to be here for the recovery.”
The Convention and Visitors Bureau offered several different programs, such as providing small business support, highlighting virtual programs of local museums, and spotlighting “all the great things that the community did to help the frontline workers,” she said in her report.
The bureau also put together a video of each of the hotels, providing visitors with a 360-degree view “to feel like they were walking through the property and look at every room, and be able to get an idea of how they could plan a meeting or event there” after the pandemic.
Ms. Speckman estimated that meetings, events, and group business would be back 70% by the end of 2021.
During committee discussion, Council Member Devon Reid, 8th Ward, pressed for more hard figures on the return Evanston would receive on the funding being requested.
He noted that hotels that stand to be the beneficiaries from greater business “tend to be very large corporations and seem to have quite a bit of money on their own.”
He asked Ms. Speckman to provide a rough estimate of the group’s annual spending on advertising.
Ms. Speckman said advertising such as the Convention and Visitors Bureau does at trade shows, for instance, runs around $300,000.
Mr. Reid said he realized that the bureau’s request of $42,000 from the City is smaller than the $100,000 in funding the bureau asks from the City in non-COVID times. Still, he said, “I would love to see those metrics to show that the nearly $100,000 that we’re spending every year is actually generating a benefit.”
The City has obvious pluses of its own, apart from the Convention and Visitors Bureau’s efforts, he noted. “[We’re] a short ride from downtown Chicago; we’re already a very desirable place.”
Speaking in support of the Bureau, Daniel Kelch, owner of Lulu’s and Taco Diablo restaurants in Evanston, and also a member of the Convention and Visitors Bureau’s board, spoke enthusiastically of the group’s work.
He said the $42,000 in funding the group is requesting is particularly low, comparing it to the $12,000 he pays monthly in liquor taxes to the City.
In his own case, he said, he is hosting more large events since the rebuild of his restaurants. People have come from as far away as Singapore, “and the only reason they come to us was [due] to the outreach of groups like CVB.”
With others making investments in businesses elsewhere, “it’s very essential that they have this kind of exposure,” he said.
Council Member Bobby Burns, 5th Ward, like Mr. Reid also recently elected to his first term, joined Mr. Reid in seeking more metrics, suggesting that information could inform the City in important ways.
“We’re using public money to do everything to run the City right, and it also informs us to know whether or not we should double down on something,” he pointed out.
For instance, he observed, the City’s funding right now runs around $100,000 in a normal year.
“If we had good data we might be able to say, ‘You know what? Let’s put $200,000; let’s put $250,000,’ because not only do we have a general sense that there’s a return, but we know exactly what we can attribute to that growth,” he said.