Meetings in the Post-Pandemic Era
Experience Builders

A Key Part of the Destination Meetings Experience That You Probably Forgot About

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Association meeting planners looking for the right host city shouldn’t discount the importance of the airport in making that event worthwhile. Consider Chicago’s airborne investments a case study.

It’s the first thing most attendees will see when they get to town for your meeting and the last thing they’ll experience when they leave.

It’s the airport—and it needs to be taken seriously as a part of the site selection process.

Chicagoans know this discussion well, thanks to operating two of the most prominent airports in the country, O’Hare International Airport (the fourth-busiest in the world last year, based on passenger count) and Midway International Airport (which celebrates its 95th anniversary this year). Chicago’s airports welcomed nearly 70 million passengers last year—and in 2019, before the pandemic, it brought in more than 100 million.

Those millions of people deserve more than just a shuttle from point A to point B. Having a good experience is key.

“We believe that hospitality begins and ends at the airport,” said Robert Hoxie, chief development officer for the Chicago Department of Aviation, which manages both airports.

With the traveler’s experience in mind, here are a few aviation considerations for determining a host city.

Look for Frequently Updated, Modern Facilities

Ensuring an airport keeps up with the times isn’t as easy as a paint job. It requires lots of investment to meet the needs and expectations of modern travelers. A report from the American Society of Civil Engineers [PDF] states that investing in facilities can be a major factor in flights taking off on time. For large airports such as O’Hare and Midway, the biggest investment needs are in the terminal buildings (46 percent) and terminal access (21 percent).

In Chicago, this is an area where the local, state, and federal governments have invested heavily. At O’Hare, a long-running expansion project that included new runways and air traffic control towers was completed last year, and the next expansion—terminal improvements called O’Hare 21—is already underway.

“We’re really focused on upgrading services and amenities,” Hoxie said. “We’ll be tripling the amount of food, beverage, and retail space in each terminal facility relative to the ones they replace.”

“We believe that hospitality begins and ends at the airport.”
— Robert Hoxie, Chicago Department of Aviation

And at Midway, terminal modernization investments are ongoing, including a $400 million upgrade.

“Despite having largely older terminal facilities, we have made substantial investments to add amenities to those buildings,” Hoxie said of the terminals at both airports.

These investments include the practical (an 1,800-square-foot family lounge at O’Hare) and the hospitable (a yoga room at Midway). But the goal of any upgrade, no matter where your attendees are traveling from, is to foster a positive experience. For event planners, finding a city that prioritizes quality of life matters.

Minimize the Post-Landing Complexities

Ever felt lost upon landing? Navigating a new city is challenging, and when the challenges begin at the airport, it can set your travels off on the wrong foot—especially when everyone around you is suffering from poor wayfinding too.

The solution: an easy trip out of the airport and streamlined access to ground transportation. A mixture of improved transportation and strong signage helps, as evidenced by investments at both Chicago airports.

O’Hare has focused on improving its people-mover system, the Airport Transit System, which reopened last fall and travels between most terminals 24/7.

“People like trains because they’re straightforward to use, they have certainty of where the doors will and will not open, and the journey time is pretty reliable,” Hoxie said.

Speaking of trains, the Chicago Transit Authority system makes it possible to quickly access the city from both Midway and O’Hare, offering an efficient option to get downtown and to convention hubs such as McCormick Place.

Focus on Security and Safety

Security and safety are necessary elements of any airport visit—but making them less stressful greatly improves the travel experience.

From a safety standpoint, it’s important that the facility be kept clean, especially at a time when COVID-19 and other diseases are risks. Hoxie said that Midway and O’Hare have long focused on cleanliness and air quality, but the pandemic made the issue all the more important.

As for security, there’s a lot that the airport can do to improve screenings. At Midway, a key goal of the terminal reorganization has been to improve how the Transportation Security Administration lines work. Both airports use automated bin return lines, which speed up the process of scanning personal items when going through security checkpoints. Between the security programs, infrastructure changes, and other strategies, wait times have been cut significantly, Hoxie said.

“Oftentimes that keeps your wait time and your process time to under 10 minutes,” he said. “When you consider the experience nationwide and worldwide, we feel really good about that.”

Takeoffs and landings aren’t the only factors in determining a destination, of course. But just as an opening speaker and a closing ceremony can tie the ribbon on an event, the beginning and end of your attendees’ experience matters. Whatever you decide about your next destination, you should feel good about where you land.

With its two international airports, expansive private-sector workforce, and the largest, most flexible convention center in the United States, Chicago is the leading meeting and convention destination in the country. We work tirelessly to make Chicago the premier city to host everything from small meetings to international conventions with thousands of guests. Learn more.

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