Maybe nice guys finish first after all. Because while “second city” Chicago has often fallen short to New York in everything from skyscrapers to baseball games, the Windy City recently grabbed two high-profile events right out of The Big Apple’s grasp.
The chance to host both the 2015 NFL Draft and the 2015 James Beard Awards within days of one another in May not only came as a shock to many, but also raised Chicago’s visibility as one of the country’s premier cities to host world-class events.
The 2015 NFL Draft
How the NFL Draft came to town is a story in itself, beginning when the league asked for cities to bid on hosting the “Super Bowl of the off-season,” marking the first time in 50 years it would migrate from New York. “I think we were definitely front of mind,” explains Kara Bachman, executive director of the Chicago Sports Commission, who officially received NFL’s decision to hold the event in Chicago in October 2014. “We went through a couple of months of proposing our vision of Chicago to them, and I think what really resonated with the NFL was our focus on our central location, our love and commitment to the sport of football and the fact that we would be able to help them from a fan engagement standpoint.”
For three straight days, April 30 to May 2, fans of all team colors came together to explore all the buzz and activities. The actual draft was held inside the historic Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, with the Selection Square area situated just outside the Auditorium Theatre in Congress Park. A limited number of public tickets were given out, appropriately in draft style, but the thousands of others who wanted a piece of the action were welcomed to a free outdoor fan festival called Draft Town. The interactive space spanned 15 football fields in Grant Park and was produced by C3 Presents (the group behind Lollapalooza). It included everything from a skydive simulator to player appearances.
All in all, the entire event attracted more than 200,000 people from all corners of the country—a milestone for the city, though the NFL has not commented yet if it will return to Chicago in 2016. “I think what ultimately came together was a very true portrait of Chicago,” says Bachman.
2015 James Beard Awards
Everyone knew it was a good sign when the acclaimed James Beard Foundation committed to host in Chicago until 2017, several weeks before the 2015 James Beard Awards had even taken place.
Not bad for an idea that started over a simple dinner conversation.
“[Sommelier and restaurateur] Alpana Singh had just come on as a board member at Choose Chicago,” recalls Meghan Risch, vice president of corporate communications at the destination marketing organization. “She was sitting at a James Beard Foundation dinner with Fred Seegal [board vice chair of JBF’s Board of Trustees], and through some small talk, started asking him if they would ever consider bringing the James Beard Awards to Chicago. It was no more than six weeks later when we were contracting JBF for Chicago in 2015.”
From that point forward, Risch says that Choose Chicago, the Illinois Restaurant Association and a special host committee made up of past James Beard Award winners worked tirelessly alongside the culinary community of Chicago to come up with ways that the city would breathe some life into the “Oscars of the culinary world,” which had never left New York City in its 25-year history.
On May 4, the most elite members of foodie nation and nearly 2,000 guests converged on the Lyric Opera House of Chicago to recognize the winners of the prestigious awards and watch the debut of the short film that eventually went viral, called “The Chef Whisperer,” created with help from Illinois Restaurant Association, Choose Chicago, Potenza Productions, The Second City and Kevin Boehm of the Boka Restaurant Group.
“From the beginning to the end, we wanted everyone to feel very welcome, whether they won or not,” says Risch. “It was not your typical large-scale convention, but it did have incredible value in terms of awareness for Chicago and showing how the very best does it.”