NATO Summit: City's Image Riding Heavily on Summit

NATO LogoBy Brittany Paris and Dana Morones
The Red Line Project

Posted: Friday, May 4, 2012

More than 40 heads of state will be in Chicago May 20-21 for the NATO summit, and with them will come global media attention that could help -- or harm -- the city's image.

Chicago lost the 2016 Olympic bid in 2008, and more recently, the G8 summit. That leaves some experts wondering if Chicago’s appeal for hosting global events has taken a hit, and if the NATO summit can restore some of the luster.

They also wonder what kind of impact the summit will have on Chicago in terms of tourism and the economy.

Frances Burwell, director of Trans-Atlantic relations for the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C., has been to five of the last six NATO summits. Her areas of expertise range from United States and European Relations to transatlantic economic and political issues. 

She said that because of the leaders’ presence and increase in reporters, Chicago will not be an easy place to navigate mainly due to security reasons. But NATO will not hurt Chicago’s tourism, and if anything, will actually help.

“I do not think that there’s any long-term ‘I’m not going to Chicago because it was the site of the NATO summit.’ I don’t see that happening at all,” Burwell said. “If anything, it gives the city a higher profile and many Europeans who don’t think about Chicago might be more interested in coming because they’ll see more about the city.”

Some experts say, though, that NATO will cause tourists to postpone trips that would have been scheduled for that weekend in May. Others, like Burwell, believe that the tourism will be unaffected or even helped.

Nick Thomas, a DePaul University School of Hospitality professor, said he sees both sides of the argument.

“I think it’s a combination of both. One group is saying the presence of NATO is really not going to stop by intentions to go to the Art Museum," he said. "And other people, they say, 'Let’s just wait for the next weekend or the weekend before.' ”

Both Burwell and Thomas have the same positive outlook on NATO’s affect on Chicago’s economy as they had on tourism. NATO is being held at McCormick Place because it is so big. According to McCormick Place’s website, the structure has 2.6 million square feet of space, which can hold thousands of people.

Burwell said NATO is a good thing for the economies of the host cities because so many people attend.

“You have the advance scenes coming in for months beforehand spending money,” Burwell said. “And then you have all the delegates and everyone else coming in spending money.”

She added that even if the economy isn’t necessarily boosted, it definitely won’t be hurt because of NATO.

“I don’t think it’ll hurt it at all. Not at all,” she said. “Because you’ll have more international visitors and people will want to come to Chicago and things like that.”

The increase in tourism does mean increased spending. Chicago is a big city ,and although a major convention is coming to McCormick Place, daily life still goes on. Thomas said that there’s a chance that businesses will close down for the weekend to be safe, but that many will still be in demand.

“I’m still going to want my cup of coffee from Starbucks. I’m still going to walk my dog,” Thomas said. “We can say [businesses] are all going to close down, but the reality of that is they still need to function. There still is a need from the general population for services.”

Thomas said he thinks that the NATO summit will be a positive boost for everyday businesses like Starbuck’s, barbershops and dry cleaners. Burwell said that the areas that will mainly be affected are the ones near McCormick Place and the hotels where the leaders are staying. She said that there’s a chance that some parts of the city won’t even notice a change.

Both Burwell and Thomas agreed that Chicago was chosen to host NATO for specific reasons. And one of the reasons is because of its positive city image. Chicago is a major city with many hotels and large convention centers, which are requirements for hosting an event like NATO.

President Obama offered Chicago as NATO’s host location in September 2010. Burwell said that the fact that Obama is from Chicago did play a role in his decision-making. But Chicago’s benefits speak for themselves.

Thomas thinks the general layout of Chicago is what makes it such an ideal place to be NATO’s host.

“It is a city that has the infrastructure to support something like this. Clearly when you look at a place like the McCormick Place, it clearly has the capacity to hold this [many people],” Thomas said. “The weather is nice. It’s easy to get in and out of the city. So there are a lot of benefits for it.”

Burwell agrees with Thomas’s explanation, and says that Chicago shows a side of the United States that the world may not be familiar with.

“I think that the reality was that when the White House decided to host this, they wanted to pick a place outside of Washington and New York,” Burwell said. “They wanted some place that would showcase to the alliance the diversity of the United States.”

Another important reason the city was chosen is that city authorities want and have the capabilities to cooperate with the security requirements. Thomas says that this is the most important concern. “It is really the protection of the people that are here that is the top priority.”

Burwell and Thomas agree that Chicago has not lost its appeal to host big events. And it is doing quite well in preparing, preventing and promoting for NATO.

 “The city has been, compared to other cities I’ve been in where they have done this, very aggressive, and I mean that in a good way, in promoting itself,” she said.

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