CMO of Brand USA takes the lead at Choose Chicago
Steve’s breakdown: We love it when CMOs become CEOs and this one has his work cut out for him. Give’m a ring at 312-567-8500.
CHICAGO, IL: Choose Chicago has chosen a new leader to promote the city as a tourism destination.
David Whitaker, chief marketing officer of Brand USA and the former tourism chief for Toronto, will take the reins as CEO of Choose Chicago next month. He fills the void left by the departure of Don Welsh, who announced he was stepping down in January.
He will have his work cut out for him, joining the city’s official tourism arm on the heels of a soft first quarter, and facing another potential funding shortfall in the state’s ongoing budget impasse.
Add in rising gun violence that continues to promote a less-than-inviting image of Chicago, and Whitaker understands the urgency of the job at hand.
“Sometimes it’s an uphill battle, but you have to stay focused, and I’m absolutely committed to make sure we do all we can to help fuel a thriving tourism economy for the city,” said Whitaker, 57.
Whitaker has agreed to a five-year contract with Choose Chicago at $380,000 per year, officials confirmed Monday.
Choose Chicago conducted a national search to replace Welsh, who left in March to run Destination Marketing Association International, a Washington, D.C.-based trade organization. Marc Anderson has been serving as interim CEO.
“David Whitaker is a tourism champion with the vision and leadership required to steer Chicago’s visitor industry to new heights,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement Monday.
“You can’t help but pay attention when Chicago comes calling,” Whitaker said. “It’s one of the top cities in the country, it’s one of the top cities in our convention world.”
A graduate of the University of South Florida, Whitaker spent 17 years with the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, advancing to the role of chief marketing officer. More recently, he was CEO of Toronto Tourism for eight years.
Whitaker became chief marketing officer for Brand USA in March 2015, the destination marketing organization for the U.S.
Chicago is coming off a record year for tourism, with more than 52 million visitors in 2015, the city said. Topping that this year may be difficult.
Overall, hotel demand dropped 1.3 percent during the first quarter, to 1.99 million room nights, according to Choose Chicago. Group business — conventions and large meetings — fell 18.6 percent compared with the same quarter last year. That is only the second quarterly decline since the inception of Choose Chicago in 2011, officials said.
“It’s hard to judge performance just base on judging a quarter to a quarter,” Whitaker said. “In Toronto, for example, we hosted the NBA all star game in the first quarter. That was a huge boon for the community. It wasn’t there last year, and it won’t be there next year.”
Choose Chicago is still reeling from the state’s ongoing budget impasse, which froze $7 million in funding last year, forcing the agency to lay off one-fourth of its staff, close international offices in Canada and Mexico and curtail advertising.
The state provides 40 percent of Choose Chicago’s funding.
Whitaker said he comes into the position with his “eyes wide open” but believes it is his job to convince the state to keep funding Choose Chicago — with or without a budget.
“The state’s got a lot of important decisions to make, and tourism can be one of those central rallying opportunities,” Whitaker said. “Regardless about what’s going on in the debate about resources, this is a debate about promoting one of the most exciting cities in North America. It will be a healthy debate.”
Chicago added more than 2,000 hotel rooms last year, a 6 percent gain that increased the supply to more than 39,000 rooms, according to a report by Choose Chicago.
Ted Mandigo, a Chicago-based hotel analyst, said the hotel supply will near 50,000 rooms by the end of 2017, causing occupancy to fall below 70 percent, and into the danger zone for some operators.
Whitaker said the hotel development is both a good sign, and a challenge to boost tourism.
“Hotel developers and investors don’t invest in cities that they don’t have a lot of confidence in,” he said. “There’s a reason there’s such a building boom and a growth spurt.”
Emanuel set a goal of reaching 55 million visitors by 2020.
Job one for Whitaker, who starts July 6, is to navigate the turbulent waters the city faces in 2016. His long-term goal may be even more ambitious than Emanuel’s.
“Chicago is on the cusp of being able to realize its full potential,” Whitaker said. “I very much want to see us all-in to make Chicago one of the top, if not the top, tourism destinations in the United States.”
News of Whitaker’s appointment was first reported by Crain’s Chicago Business.