Events like NATO bring people. Do they also bring dollars?

May 16, 2012

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The Chicago NATO Host Committee expects nearly 10,000 visitors to descend on Chicago this weekend for the NATO summit. That’s a mix of dignitaries, their staff and, of course, journalists covering the action.

That doesn't account for the scores of protesters who may take to the streets to demonstrate their opposition to the official meetings. This group isn't your typical roster of summer tourists who come to experience the lakefront or ride the Ferris Wheel at Navy Pier. The city hopes this will be a chance for new and returning visitors to conjure positive images of what the city can offer, because more visitors mean more dollars.

But do mega-events like NATO, the Olympics or political conventions always result a net gain for the city? Victor Matheson says it's more than just a question of who's coming into the city; it's also about who's not. Matheson is an associate professor of economics at the College of the Holy Cross. While he says that events can bring a boon of new tourists eager to experience the city and spend money, it also displaces residents and tourists who would usually come. Workers could opt to work from home – which means eat lunch at home, make coffee at home – and regular tourists might be deterred by the potential travel headaches and security concerns. Instead of choosing Chicago for a weekend gateaway, these factors may force them to travel to another city.

Matheson points to two key factors in capitalizing on mega-events: A city needs to be a little off the radar for new travellers, but also have a lot to offer potential visitors. Chicago, Matheson says, possesses both. Matheson defines this as the "hidden gem" factor. As Chicago Tourism Bureau President and CEO Don Welsh told Afternoon Shift's Steve Edwards after a visit to Brussels, the qualities that make the city great are still hidden from overseas tourists. He says they still associate the Windy City with Michael Jordan and Al Capone. Media tycoon Oprah served as a touchstone for some people but more awareness was still needed. Will NATO give Chicago this needed boost on the international travel scene?

Victor Matheson joins Jerome McDonnell help answer this question, and to break down some of the factors that contribute to economic success and failure for mega-events.