How do you make Chicago a tourism destination at a time of year when Chicagoans would love to get away?
Come for the polar vortex, potholes and salty gray slush. Stay because there's no way your flight is getting out today.
Hotel rates this time of year drop low enough that even the most cost-conscious Illinois official would be hard-pressed to come up with a reason not to spring for a second room when traveling with co-workers on business, and yet Choose Chicago stats over recent years show occupancy tends to be below 50 percent in January and below 60 percent in February.
Our food, museums and theater are all still world-class, all indoors, but their appeal drops with each degree of the wind chill factor. With it goes the potential tourist money.
There have been initiatives to make this city more attractive to leisure tourists — even keeping some local discretionary spending in town — through restaurant and theater promotions. But one suspects there needs to be infrastructure spending to help insulate visitors from the elements, and just plugging up the pockmarked streets this spring is going to test the city's limited finances.
Another tack would be to develop more indoor attractions capable of tapping into a following so passionate that not even a Chicago winter will keep them away. One might look at the Chicago Auto Show, reputedly the nation's largest in exhibition square-footage and attendance, as such a potential draw.
Detroit has its own show ahead of the one here, but the other two big expos are in New York and Los Angeles. That presumably leaves a lot of territory from which to draw car and truck enthusiasts.
But if it were that simple, it would be done by now.
Auto show organizers stopped giving out specific attendance figures years ago. But in 1999, they reported more than 1.2 million visitors over 10 days. Whatever the number is now, the show that ended Monday was said to be down 7 percent at McCormick Place from the year before, a decline largely attributed to the snowstorms that bookended it. Then there was having to compete with Valentine's Day for the affection of would-be attendees on Friday night.
Popular as the auto show typically is, however, it is not a big regional attraction. Only 14 percent of attendees come from outside the northeastern Illinois-northwestern Indiana Chicagoland area. For that matter, Cook County residents account for fully half of all show visitors. Increasing attendance from the collar counties, encouraging them to come into the city for the day, would be a good place to start.
The organizers worked with McCormick Place to get discounted parking after 6 p.m. on show nights, which auto show General Manager Dave Sloan said helped a lot. On the weekends, there were shuttles from Millennium Park lots to supplement parking on-site and at Soldier Field. And by next year, there should be a new $50 million Green Line station bringing visitors to the convention center.
But there's another hurdle to boosting attendance, which is what boosting attendance would entail.
"We're such a big user of the parking, that if we get too much bigger, and it takes people more than 31/2 hours to get through the show, we can't turn the parking (around) fast enough, especially on weekends," Sloan said.
With the George Washington federal holiday in the middle of next year's auto show, the expo won't extend an extra Monday, running nine days instead of 10. Whether that will help or hurt overall attendance, or makes it and the city more attractive to outsiders, is tough to know.
On the plus side, there almost certainly will be plenty of hotel rooms available.
Late-night musings: The late-night talk show format is almost certainly in its twilight. Technology has made the old ritual of tuning in before bed seem unwieldy and unnecessary. Viewers can always watch what they want, and only what they want, when they want. There's little need to watch interviews that may or may not prove interesting or sit through a monologue or comedy bit unvetted by social media.
But this undisputably is a golden age for late-night hosts. Never has there been so much talent across broadcast and cable as David Letterman, Jimmys Kimmel and Fallon, Conan O'Brien, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Chelsea Handler, Seth Meyers, Craig Ferguson, Arsenio Hall and on and on.
Watching Fallon's debut as host of NBC's "Tonight Show" on Monday, it was impossible to not be struck by how gorgeous New York City at dusk looked as U2 played on the roof of 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Then there was the stylized Manhattan skyline cutouts behind Fallon's desk. And former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, one of a string of quick celebrity cameos, could be heard thanking the host for bringing "Tonight" back to New York 40-some years after Johnny Carson pulled up stakes for temperate Burbank, Calif.
New York is giving NBC incentives worth more than $20 million a year for producing "Tonight." The New York Post is among those who note this almost certainly was unnecessary, based on what Fallon and others have said. If tax breaks and other financial help were actually all it took to secure "Tonight," surely other states would have put together offers like it was a Boeing assembly plant. NBC parent Comcast wisely saves its lobbying muscle for bigger fights, and its Time Warner Cable deal ensures a battle royal in the offing.
Given Chicago's role in shaping the sensibility of late-night TV via the number of performers, writers and producers who honed their craft here before heading to one coast or another, and its heritage from the early days of the medium, it is tempting to imagine a wee-hours show making its home here. The Chicago skyline would look great in the background behind U2, provided there's not another blizzard going on, and it might actually make people think twice about avoiding this city in winter.
But until there's a massive relocation of tabloid-friendly bold-faced names like those who dropped in on Fallon — Giuliani, Colbert, Lady Gaga, Mariah Carey, Mike Tyson, Sarah Jessica Parker, Seth Rogen, Lindsay Lohan, Tina Fey, Tracy Morgan, Robert De Niro, Kim Kardashian, Joe Namath and Joan Rivers — you're more likely to get through a winter here without salt-stained boots.