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Susan El Khoury/MEDILL

Navy Pier remains a popular tourist destination, attracting more visitors on warm winter days.

Warm winter boosts Chicago's tourism industry

by Susan El Khoury
Jan 30, 2013

From wind chill to the lake effect, Chicago is not the place most people would choose for a winter vacation, but that may be changing as winters are becoming more temperate.

With the sun shining and temperatures in the low 60s, a long stroll through Millennium Park in January seems the perfect way to work off a big lunch. Venturing over to Navy Pier at dusk for a ride on the Ferris wheel would be a great way to see the city.

As the weather changes, popular tourist destinations are staying busy during traditionally slow periods.

“Typically we are very slow in the middle of winter,” said Jerry Johnston, vice president of guest services at the Brookfield Zoo. “We don’t have many guests so we close down some of the amenities like restaurants and shops.”

This season Brookfield has seen bigger crowds than usual with more than 200,000 guests in December. The zoo’s holiday magic event had record-breaking attendance of more than 150,000 visitors.

With the increase in visitors, Brookfield could have reaped more revenue if the full range of its attractions and shopping opportunities were open.

The zoo is now considering adjusting its business operations to include more winter employees and venue offerings.

While the warm winter brings new business opportunities, it also means that some winter activities are being negatively affected. Brookfield already is making backup plans for some of its winter promotions.

“We have a Freeze Day in February where we’ll have sled dogs and some winter activities,” Johnston said. “Hopefully there is snow--if not they can just do some demonstrations.”

Unseasonable weather complicates the tourism business because dramatic changes in temperature affect demand. That makes budget planning and seasonal hiring difficult.

But most attractions are happy with the short-term tradeoff. One beneficiary of the balmy winter is the Chicago Architecture Foundation, which offers more than six types of tours including walking, biking and Segway. It also runs river cruises through a partnership with boat operator Chicago’s First Lady.

“Without a doubt the mild winter is positively helping us,” said Justin Lyons, communications director for the foundation.

“We continue to do a lot of outdoor walking tours and, at last check, all of those are exceeding expectations for what we would typically budget for attendance and revenue.”

The foundation is expecting another early spring, so its river cruises will potentially open in mid-April for the second year in a row. Cruises account for a significant portion of the foundation’s tour business and typically run from May to November.

Currently the foundation is focused on indoor tours suited for the typical frosty Chicago winter, but Lyons said it would take some time before considering any long-term changes.

“If this weather becomes the norm then we would reevaluate at that point. But it would take years of this happening before changing tour offerings.”

Other river cruises also are finding that moderate temperatures offer opportunities to expand their seasonal business.

“We are planning on staying open later this season and having a boat at the ready to take advantage of these warm days, which we seem to be having on a regular basis every winter now,” Gregg Pupecki, director of sales and marketing for Wendella Boats & the Chicago Water Taxi, said in an email.

Chicago experienced record winter temperatures Tuesday with a high of 63 degrees, breaking the previous record of 59 degrees set in January 1914 according to the National Weather Service.

Last week’s snow marked two records, latest first snow of the winter season and longest period without an inch of snow.

But the warm weather did not last, with temperatures falling back into the low 30s Wednesday heading to the teens for the remainder of the week.