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Chicago Tourism Agency Gets $27.6 Million, Aims for 50 Million Visitors

 Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Choose Chicago's President and CEO Don Welsh present the 2013 Tourism Ambassador Award to Holly Agra, president of Chicago's First Lady Cruises.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Choose Chicago's President and CEO Don Welsh present the 2013 Tourism Ambassador Award to Holly Agra, president of Chicago's First Lady Cruises.
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DNAinfo/Lizzie Schiffman

DOWNTOWN — Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants Chicago's 2013 tourism plan to function a lot like the guest bedroom in his home.

Choose Chicago's goals this year will focus on "making sure the city of Chicago is starting to bring in the international tourists who come here. As I like to joke, it's like family members. They stay for the weekend and leave. Exactly like we want," Emanuel said.

The 2013 plan aims to increase the volume of "guests" in the city to more than 50 million, Emanuel said Thursday at the Cadillac Palace Theater, where the tourism bureau was presenting its 2012 annual report.

Choose Chicago's President and CEO Don Welsh said the city will likely exceed that goal this year, although the current average is 43.6 million visitors annually. Choose Chicago is a private, nonprofit organization contracted by the city to promote tourism. It serves as the city's official tourism agency.

The mayor also announced a $27.6 million budget for 2013 efforts to expand tourism and travel business, a plumper version of the $24.4 million allocation made when the fiscal year began in July. That's also nearly double the 2010 budget of $13.2 million.

"We can't wait to get started," said Holly Agra, president of Chicago's First Lady Cruises, who was honored with the 2013 Tourism Ambassador Award Thursday morning. "Our season opens in April and we can't wait to welcome the world."

To achieve that 50 million-visitor goal, the city will solicit more international and event-driven travel through tourism outreach, improvements to Chicago's riverwalk modeled after other "water-focused cities," and by hosting more big-ticket events at McCormick Place and elsewhere downtown, Choose Chicago Chairman Bruce Rauner said.

Already on the lineup is the Big 10 Men's Basketball Tournament coming the second week in March, the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association expo scheduled to hit Chicago in May, and the U.S. Travel Association's International Pow Wow, which has a dual benefit of bringing in thousands of visitors and giving Chicago a leg up on tourism-boosting business as the host city, Welsh said Thursday.

The city will also soon launch a short video series co-produced by Second City called "Beyond The Loop," highlighting 12 of the city's most vibrant neighborhoods with restaurant, venue and commercial spotlights.

On top of that, Emanuel announced an additional $5 million investment in marketing and advertising the city internationally "to make sure that more and more people city see our city around the world, and come here," he said.

"We sell the greatest city in the world ... our two biggest competitors are a swamp and a desert," joked Brad Kent, senior vice president of sales and services for Choose Chicago, whose office will handle a significant share of that $5 million. "How many people have been to the Art Institute of Orlando? Anybody? The Natural History Museum of Las Vegas?"

As a recent example of the city's commitment to tourism growth, Emanuel praised the plan his office announced with fanfare Tuesday to construct a 1,200-room hotel adjacent to McCormick Place.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported later that day that the property owner, an affiliate of James McHugh Construction Co., said nothing had been finalized.

James McHugh, chairman of the construction firm, issued a statement calling conversations with the city "very preliminary" and said "no agreement has been reached." The company had been working to develop a six-story, 51,200-square-foot data center at Michigan Avenue and Cermak Road.

But Jim Reilly, CEO of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority that runs McCormick Place, told DNAinfo.com Chicago Thursday that he thinks the conflict has been all but sorted out.

"We should have some more news soon, but I think that was overdone," Reilly said.