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Can You Handle a Cold Weather Tour of Chicago? Most Tourists Opt Out

By David Matthews | January 26, 2015 6:02am
 Local tour guide Margaret Hicks is offering an outdoor winter tour of the Loop, but not many Chicagoans are biting. 
Heavy Duty Winter Tour
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LOOP — Margaret Hicks runs a heavy-duty tour of Chicago in the winter — complete with heated coats. 

But the coats are hotter than the tour at this point.

Despite the allure of warm gear from Milwaukee Tool Company, Hicks' "Heavy Duty Winter Tour" of Millennium Park and other Loop hot spots has only drawn about 10 tourists since its December launch, she said. Earlier this month, she ran a tour with just one guest, a 30-something Colorado native who was "seriously looking for outdoor winter activities."

"I want it to happen," Hicks said of the tour. "If you love this city, you have to learn to love all of it."

A prolific tour guide who has taken people to see the tunnels of the Pedway and gargoyles on Downtown office towers, Hicks hatched her latest concept during last winter's brutal polar vortex

"I noticed how beautiful Millennium Park is during winter," she said. "In the summer it's sort of this precious sparking jewel. In the winter it's a celebration of steel with the beams and gray of the sky."

She hooked up with Milwaukee Tool, which liked her outdoor tour and supplied her with 15 coats with custom heat settings and hand-warmers. The Fairmont Chicago hotel provided a home base for the tour's beginning and end.

The tour proceeds from the hotel to the Aon Center and its "Untitled Sounding Sculpture," or collection of metal rods that chimes when it sways in the wind. Hicks said unlike her other tours, stops on this one are kept short to compensate for the cold. 

"There's not a lot of standing around," she said.

The tour also includes "warm-up spots" on especially bitter days, including Blue Cross Blue Shield Tower and the stretch of Pedway beneath it. From there, the tour heads to Maggie Daley and Millennium parks, as well as the Art Institute of Chicago, where she tells the story of Richard Nickel, an architectural preservationist who died when a Louis Sullivan-designed building collapsed on him in 1972. 

When asked if she's disappointed about the tour's reception, Hicks said she was, only because she loves its premise. Yet she also acknowledges "it's niche."

Another prominent local tour group, the Chicago Architecture Foundation, is best known for its summertime riverboat cruises. Yet like Hicks, it operates year-round, and adjusts its schedule to meet demand. Janine Marino, the foundations's director of tour and retail operations, said it operates in the winter by offering trolley tours and Pedway tours in lieu of outdoor expeditions. 

The Heavy Duty Winter Tour will run through the end of February, with tours at 3 p.m. Fridays, 1 p.m. Saturdays, and 8 a.m. Sundays. The tour lasts about two hours and costs $35 per person, including the heated coat and a warm beverage from the Fairmont at the tour's conclusion.

Hicks said she won't cancel the tour due to low turnout, but might reduce the number of outdoor winter tours next year. She still does three Pedway tours a week during the winter.

"My love for Chicago is boundless, and my ideas pretty much come from what’s tickling me at the moment," she said. "We’re definitely learning stuff, but so much of it is keeping them laughing and entertained at the same time."

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