Choose Chicago, city’s tourism promoter, gets a new leader

Lynn Osmond, who over 25 years increased the visibility and funding of the Chicago Architecture Center, will become the next president and CEO of the city’s tourism agency, officials said Wednesday.

Osmond was given a four-year contract to lead Choose Chicago, an organization battered by revenue losses and staff cuts during the pandemic. With business and leisure travel exhibiting pent-up demand, Osmond said she looks forward to marketing Chicago for its special assets from its lakefront and cultural institutions to its neighborhood restaurants and music clubs.

“This job is a natural segue for me because I’ve been selling Chicago throughout the world,” Osmond said. Her appointment starts May 9. “We really can brand Chicago as a very unique opportunity,” she said.

She will be the first female to lead Choose Chicago. The agency dates from former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 2012 consolidation of the city’s convention bureau, which mostly promoted McCormick Place, with city government’s tourism programs.

Osmond said she looks forward to developing campaigns influenced by what Chicagoans say they love the most about the city. She said she favors “authentic tourism and exploration” that gets people to learn more about the city, citing as an example the architecture center’s Open House Chicago, a free festival that gets visitors inside notable buildings citywide.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced the appointment. The selection, however, was made by a search committee of Choose Chicago’s board. Appointees of the mayor and governor serve on the search committee and full board, as well as representatives of tourism-dependent industries.

In a prepared statement, Lightfoot said Osmond’s “intimate knowledge of this city will ensure that we will continue to safely encourage and delight those who come to Chicago for work and play.” Gov. J.B Pritzker praised the appointment, saying “there’s no one better than Lynn to take the Windy City’s global reputation to new heights.”

Glenn Eden, the chair of Choose Chicago’s board, said Osmond’s background and deep industry connections will allow her to hit the ground running with “strong ninjas” on staff. Pre-pandemic, about 80 people worked for the organization. Eden said that number has declined to 32 but that it should reach 50.

The state Legislature has guaranteed Choose Chicago $16 million for each of the next two years to make up for shortfalls in the hotel tax, agency leaders said. With money from airport taxes and other sources, it has set an annual budget of $26 million for the next two years, still down about 20% from pre-pandemic levels.

Eden said precarious funding complicated the hiring of a CEO when the agency started its search last year. He said the search was extended and Osmond rose to the top of applicants as the board focused on candidates who “really, really know Chicago” and have connections with tourism leaders.

Her salary was not disclosed but will be competitive for the field, the agency said. Osmond succeeds David Whitaker, whose last reported salary was $519,510, according to tax records. He resigned last year and runs the tourism agency for Miami.

At the Chicago Architecture Center since 1996, Osmond oversaw a nearly fivefold increase in its annual patrons. The center opened riverfront exhibition space at 111 E. Wacker Drive with a scale model of downtown Chicago and programs that have made it a popular tourist attraction.

The architecture group said it will begin a national search for Osmond’s replacement. In the meantime, COO Juanna Blackwell will be the interim leader, it said.

Choose Chicago is closely aligned with another public-private organization, World Business Chicago, whose focus is company relocations. But World Business Chicago also sells the city’s image and has started a campaign about how Chicago’s influence turns up elsewhere, such as New York and London. The “Chicago Not in Chicago” pitch has been scorned on social media by people who don’t get how talking about other locations is a good approach. Lightfoot has praised the campaign.

Eden, a public relations executive, and Osmond sidestepped a question about whether they like the campaign, developed without Choose Chicago’s input. “We support the message of Chicago as a world business innovator,” Eden said.

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