NATO Summit: Mixed Reactions from Local Business

NATO LogoBy Laura Fitzgerald and Cheryl Waity
The Red Line Project

Posted: Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Whether they’re closing shop because of congestion or staying open to welcome the crowds, Chicago’s local businesses have mixed reviews about the upcoming NATO summit.

According to the NATO summit website, the summit is expected to bring an estimated 10,000 people to Chicago, including more than 7,000 delegates and staff and about 2,000 international journalists. While the summit welcomes international press to Chicago, local businesses may or may not be taking a hit for the exposure.

City Hall released a report by Deloitte on Monday that says the NATO summit means an additional $128-million-plus in extra spending for Chicago's economy, mostly with hotels and food-service providers. Hotel rooms alone will provide nearly $3 million in tax revenues.

 But some local businesses aren't so fortunate. Ken Melvoin-Berg of Weird Chicago Tours decided to close the doors to his tour bus business from May 20-21 out of respect for his clients.

 “When we are doing a tour normally and President Obama flies in and his motorcade comes across the front of the area where our tour is happening, that’s usually a 30-45 minute delay of us being stuck in traffic because the Secret Service will come out and they’ll block the intersection and our tour is a driving tour,” he said. “If you have 50 Obamas coming in all at once [for the summit], you can’t imagine the sort of chaos that it’s going to cause downtown.” 

Security officials estimate anywhere from 140 to 170 motorcades will be in Chicago the weekend of the summit, which will be held at McCormick Place. Several of the dignitaries and NATO ministers will be staying in downtown hotels, and the Illinois National Guard is expected to provide transportation support for the motorcades.

Melvoin-Berg, who does a variety of bus tours ranging from Ghost Tours to Serial Killer Tours to Sex Tours, said that it would be “unethical” to subject his clients to traffic delays and “take their money.”

He said he later found out that “every charter company in Chicago was completely booked up with limos or charter buses so at this point [the company] couldn’t do tours even if [they] wanted to.” He said that this event is going to be a major loss for his business.

Ken Melvoin-Berg Photo by Cheryl Waity

Ken Melvoin-Berg, owner of Weird Chicago Tours, is shutting down his business
during the NATO Summit for reasons of logistic concerns not politics. (Photo by Cheryl Waity)

While Melvoin-Berg expects to lose money in the two days he is closing his tours, others see great opportunities with the arrival of international tourists. Chris Johnson, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce manager of government relations, said that the NATO summit is going to be an opportunity to bring international exposure to the city and boost business dollars.

“We’re looking for the promotion of Chicago throughout the world to attract more tourism, to attract additional business dollars and to showcase Chicago as a world class city,” he said. “We think there’s a lot of opportunity with regards to the NATO summit here.”

Some businesses, like Harry Caray’s, chose to take an influx of customers in stride and translate their menu to welcome international tourists and dignitaries. The city and the Illinois Restaurant Association have set up a culinary crossroads program that brings international cuisines to local restaurants. Restaurants such as The Walnut Room, Potbelly’s and Magnolia Bakery are participating.  

But other businesses, like Melvoin-Berg’s, have to deal with the loss of customers because of traffic congestion.

“It’s going to be closer to 7,000 [dollars] is what we’ll end up losing because we have to shut down all of our tours,” he said. “We don’t have to pay our employees but we want to pay our employees. Is it good we don’t’ have any overhead? I guess but we’re not making any money at the same time.  So it’s not helping us.”

Monetary gains or losses are important to business owners, but safety and security is another main issue for businesses close to McCormick Place. Johnson said that media reports citing potential for violent protests and businesses closing because of these security fears has been “a major exaggeration,” and that the actual disruption to the business community will be small.

“I don’t foresee anything major happening,” he said. “The call of businesses closing, and boarding up shops has been a major exaggeration by a lot of reports in the media thus far. The actual disruption to the business community will be relatively minor. Hopefully we will see an uptake in tourism that precedes the actual conference.”

Johnson also said that comparison’s being drawn to the Seattle World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference in 1999 are unwarranted.

“I think some of the reports in the media were kind of overblown trying to compare it to what happened in Seattle [with the World Trade Organization protests] over 10 or 15 years ago,” he said. “That’s not going to be the case. That was a completely different type of environment back then and that was a completely different organization that was coming. The World Trade Organization, there was a lot of different political underpinnings that created that situation. I don’t see that happening in Chicago.”

Lou Malnati's Photo by Laura FitzgeraldDespite the circulating fears of political unrest amongst protesters, restaurants like Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria (right, photo by Laura Fitzgerald) haven’t heard any rumors of violence or crazy crowds. Meggie Eck, Lou Malnati’s marketing manager, said that they plan to implement their normal precautions in case of an emergency.

“We don’t plan to do any sort of additional security. If someone were to contact us and want to come in that was a dignitary we would work with their security team to provide ample support,” she said. “But for the most part we understand there will be protests in the city and most of them won’t cause too much of a ruckus other than uprooting traffic and things.”

As for crowd control and city traffic, Eck said that it’s nothing Chicago hasn’t dealt with before. She said although some parts of the city are going to be hard to maneuver during the summit, crowds and an influx of business at Lou Malnati’s are expected at this time of year anyway.

“The NATO summit is occurring right at a time where we generally start to see a big uplift in business at our downtown locations particularly,” she said. “Tourism season really starts to kick in May. With the NATO summit coming we do expect a little bit of an increase. I know the city is going to be crowded and a lot of people are coming in so we do expect to see a little bit of a life, but again it is coinciding with when we do start to see it pick up any way.”

Johnson said that the biggest gain to come from the summit is an international presence for Chicago and the prospect of new tourists.

“The biggest gain is going to be the international press that the city will get,” he said. “Some people that may never have thought of Chicago as a place to go to in the U.S. -- they may think of going to New York or Los Angeles or Miami may actually now think about coming to Chicago. The real economic gain will be in how well we are able to attract new tourists to Chicago.”

Melvoin-Berg said that he has less positive hopes for the economic and social gains for the city’s businesses.

 “As far as NATO bringing money to the city I don’t think it’s going to do anything,“ he said. “Are they going to accomplish anything? Probably not. I kind of look at it like a conference. Sort of like how someone in medical sales might go to Las Vegas for a convention [dignitaries] are coming to Chicago for the World Leaders Convention. Are they going to really accomplish anything? No. I think they’re going to come here, they’re going to get some hookers, they’re going to have some food and then they’re going to go back to whatever countries they’re from. That’s what I think is going to happen.”

Others see the NATO summit as part of a larger city goal for Chicago’s tourism business.

Said Lou Malnati’s Eck: “I know that Mayor Emanuel has put a lot of pressure on to his bureau of tourism and convention and they have been challenged over the next five years to really increase our tourism in the city and we work very closely with that bureau and they are definitely doing all they can to try to promote Chicago and reach his goal that they set for him. So I definitely think an event like this is good for Chicago.”

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