Choose Chicago, the city’s tourism promoter, has a new leader

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

Osmond landed a four-year contract to run Choose Chicago, an organization battered by revenue losses and staff cuts during the pandemic. With business and leisure travel showing pent-up demand, Osmond said she’s eager to market Chicago for its special assets, from its lakefront and cultural institutions to its neighborhood restaurants and music clubs.

“This job is a natural transition for me because I’ve sold Chicago around the world,” Osmond said. His appointment begins on May 9. “We can really make Chicago a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said.

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

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

Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced the nomination. The selection, however, was made by a search committee of the Choose Chicago Board of Directors. Mayor and governor appointees sit on the search committee and the board of directors, along with representatives from tourism-dependent industries.

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

Glenn Eden, chair of Choose Chicago’s board of directors, said Osmond’s track record and deep industry connections will allow her to start with “strong ninjas” on staff. Before the pandemic, about 80 people worked for the organization. Eden said that number has dropped to 32 but is expected to reach 50.

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

Eden said shaky funding made it difficult to hire a CEO when the agency began its search last year. He said the search was extensive and Osmond rose to the top of the nominees as the judging panel focused on applicants who “really, really know Chicago” and have ties to tourism leaders.

His 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 heads the Miami tourism agency.

At the Chicago Architecture Center since 1996, Osmond has overseen a nearly five-fold increase in his annual clients. The center opened a riverfront exhibit space at 111 E. Wacker Drive featuring a model of downtown Chicago and programs that have made it a popular tourist attraction.

The architecture group said it would begin a nationwide search for Osmond’s replacement. In the meantime, chief operating officer Juanna Blackwell will be the interim leader, he said.

Choose Chicago is closely tied to another public-private organization, World Business Chicago, which focuses on corporate relocations. But World Business Chicago is also selling the city’s image and has launched a campaign about how Chicago’s influence is manifesting elsewhere, such as New York and London. The “Chicago Not in Chicago” pitch has been scorned on social media by people who don’t understand how talking about other places is a good approach. Lightfoot praised the campaign.

Eden, a public relations executive, and Osmond dodged the question of whether they liked the campaign, which was developed without input from Choose Chicago. “We support Chicago’s message as a global business innovator,” Eden said.

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