DOWNTOWN — With temperatures rising, the number of people on Michigan Avenue vying for pedestrians' attention is at an all-time high.
But there's no need to avert your eyes or hurry past the folks in blue shirts with white "i"s. They just want to help you find a good spot to grab lunch.
The city's new tourism agency, created by Mayor Rahm Emanuel last year, dispatched a fleet of "Chicago information guides" for the second year late last month.
"For the most part, they're recent college grads who are really ambassadors for our city," said Meghan Risch, a spokeswoman for Choose Chicago. "It's for visitors who are seeking information maybe on public transportation, or where they should eat, or they got turned around. But there's some incredible numbers in terms of how many people they've assisted already this year."
Risch said the program was dreamed up by CEO Don Welsh, who thought stationing groups of young, friendly experts around Downtown "ties into the Midwestern hospitality, the friendliness of Chicagoans that sets our city apart."
"All of us have stopped to help someone on the street turning around a map and looking lost," she said. "This is taking that mentality to a higher level, putting that assistance on the street."
In addition to providing directions and handing out free guides and maps, the so-called CIGs are also encouraged to make recommendations — though they're trained to work off the Choose Chicago app on their issued iPads, which only lists businesses that are part of the member-based tourism organization.
Membership to Choose Chicago starts at $99 annually, with packages that include additional promotional services priced up to $699 a year.
Choose Chicago said that premium membership has a $2,000 value in strategic marketing services.
Earlier this week, Emanuel credited Choose Chicago for increasing tourism by more than 6 percent in 2012, bringing in 46.2 million visitors — close to the record-setting 46.3 million reported in 2007.
"Choose Chicago is well on its way to meeting and exceeding my goal of 50 million annual visitors by 2020," he said. "These results clearly show that a strategic approach to marketing our great city can and will produce significant economic benefits, including new jobs and tax revenues. I welcome all visitors to Chicago and look forward to more and more people enjoying our wonderful city."
But the CIGs say their hands aren't forced when a tourist — or a local — asks them for a recommendation.
"Working out here, I fell in love with L'Appetito. It's like an Italian sandwich cafe, I like it. It's cheap, you get there, take your stuff, and go," said guide Kimberly Davis, a Roosevelt University senior who lives in the South Loop. "So I'll recommend that to people if it sounds like the kind of thing they're looking for."
Risch said the guides don't approach people, which they hope will cut back on confusion that they might be trying to sell something.
"They're not in any way pushing information on people who just happen to be walking down the street: They're there as a real-life, real-time resource," she said.
And while they say they get a handful of chatty locals or shoppers seeking the nearest public restroom, guide Joe Frost, 18, said they feel like they're "really helping people enjoy their time in the city," sometimes by clearing up some big-time misconceptions.
"At Navy Pier, they've gotten two questions. One: Where is the Statue of Liberty?" he said. "Also, they look at Lake Michigan and they say, 'What ocean is this?'
"They're tourists, they don't know any better. It's flattering that they think that Lake Michigan is such a big body of water it's an ocean, but you've gotta kind of talk to them gently and say, 'Well, it's actually a lake.'"