The Shannon Rovers played the bagpipes, green-jacketed volunteers and labor reps cheered wildly and the Chicago Bucket Boys street performers tapped out frenetic rhythms as international travel buyers and journalists wound their way into McCormick Place on Monday morning.
The reception for delegates to the IPW trade show was astonishing — a first of its kind at the convention center and a signal of just how badly Chicago wants to woo more international tourists, business travelers and conventions to the city.
The morning event was one element of a five-day whirlwind courtship featuring Champagne brunch atop the John Hancock Center and tours of some of the city's finest restaurants, theaters and sports venues. Mayor Rahm Emanuel made two separate appearances to welcome the influential crowd, and Jennifer Hudson, the singer and actress, will highlight a closing gala Wednesday.
Corporate travel planner Yuan Yang, of Shanghai, said he has never experienced a welcome like the one at McCormick Place: "It was very exciting ... the convention officers who gave us the hands-up, and also the music."
By Monday, the third day of the show, it was clear Chicago was hitting many of the right notes with this well-traveled, sophisticated audience as the city tried to plant seeds for future international tourism. The kudos seemed to outweigh some minor gripes.
But it also was apparent much spadework remains to be done after folks go home. A number of travel buyers said their clients have entrenched preferences for coastal hot spots, from New York and Florida in the east to California in the west. Las Vegas is a huge draw as well.
Israeli travel wholesaler Nathan Brudnik was among those buyers: "Chicago is a great city — I think it's a bit underrated internationally regarding the tourism options."
London travel journalist Mary Moore Mason was surprised by the extent of the city's theater offerings, which she discovered on a weekend tour.
"My impression in the past was that everything that came here was a touring show," she said.
The city set a record with nearly 1.4 million international visitors last year, but that's only about 3 percent of its 46.4 million visitors. International visitors tend to spend $4,000 to $6,000 per stay, compared with $1,000 to $1,500 by domestic tourists.
Emanuel, who is aiming to boost Chicago to No. 5 in international visitors from its No. 9 spot among U.S. cities, made appeals at a tastings brunch for visiting media Sunday and at a luncheon for the whole event Monday.
"There is not a language spoken in this room that is not spoken in a neighborhood in the city of Chicago," Emanuel said at the Sunday brunch. "We have the hotels, the cultural scene, the neighborhoods, the waterfront, the biking, the running that you will see in a major international city and a world-class city."
The presence of Arab-American communities was viewed as a plus by Khaled Hijjawi, office manager of Team Tours in Amman, Jordan: "A lot of Jordanians who come to the States plan to visit relatives."
The U.S. Travel Association's IPW trade show is a small affair by Chicago convention standards, drawing an expected 6,200 delegates from more than 70 countries, including 1,400 travel buyers, 500 travel writers and 4,300 travel suppliers. But the show, which hasn't been here in 16 years, attracts individuals who can influence travel decisions worldwide.
On Sunday, travel writers visited the Hancock Observatory, now called 360 Chicago, where they got a sneak peek at Tilt, a new angled viewing attraction, and sampled chef tastings.
As hundreds of them waited in line at 10 a.m. to squish into an elevator up to the 94th floor, they sipped on Champagne.
"It's not early in Denmark," one woman joked.
On the observatory deck, many whipped out their smartphones to take pictures of the "Welcome to Chicago" sign created in the sand at Oak Street Beach by The Sand Sculpture Co. They snacked on ham croissant sandwiches, barbecued boar, fruits and cheeses.
"As a European, you tend to have a not-so-nice idea of the food in America. You expect prepackaged or processed foods," said Sinziana Constantinescu, a journalist for Traveller Magazin of Romania. "Tastings here have been amazing."
After the brunch, the journalists were whisked around the city on specialized tours.
At restaurants on Randolph and Fulton streets, among them Grace, Moto, the Publican and Publican Quality Meats, more Champagne was flowing, as were unusual edibles, including dates encrusted in black lime sugar at Grace and "miracle" berry tablets at Moto. The tablets make sour or bitter flavors taste sweet.
Some in the party were disappointed more food wasn't available until the third stop, The Publican.
"I feel like we've just been drinking," said Brazilian journalist Rogerio Almeida, of Facil magazine.
Once at The Publican, they dug into pork rinds, sausage, mussels and french fries.
A group of 45 writers opted for a sports arena outing, which included a rarely given tour of Soldier Field, with the Bears' star kicker Robbie Gould as celebrity guide, and an afternoon Cubs game.
Colombian writer Wilmer Gongora Garzon, who writes for Copa Airlines' Panorama In Flight Magazine, said he was impressed with Wrigley Field.
"It's quite cozy," said Gongora Garzon, adding that he likes that it's in a neighborhood.
Since his first visit in 1983, he said Chicago has changed.
"For me, Chicago is like a cultural city," Gongora Garzon said. "Every time I've come, I've found new, better things. … I think it's a very beautiful city with the architecture."
For another visitor, the architecture was almost overwhelmingly impressive. "It's a little bit dangerous to walk around this city," said Brazilian tour director Tiago Barbosa. "I keep looking up at the buildings, and I'm afraid I'm not paying attention and am going to be hit by a car."
He books some travel to Chicago, but said Brazilians are more likely to opt for Miami, New York and Las Vegas. "But they want something new," he said.
Chicago tourism officials hope the travel firms and journalists who attend IPW will spread the word back home, something that Las Vegas said happened after it hosted the show last year.
Though overall tourism to Vegas slipped slightly in 2013, the international component grew by 3 percentage points, to 7.9 million foreign visitors, or about 20 percent of the total.
"We believed IPW played a role," said Jesse Davis, a spokesman for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.