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by Padraic Gilligan, Vice President, Ovation Global DMC

Mythologising our memories

For over two decades meetings and events professionals congregated in Chicago in late September / early October to attend the IT&ME show. It remained IT&ME for many of us long after it was renamed The Motivation Show but our memories of the show, and the supporting cast of thousands that it bought to town, are now larger and more exaggerated that what actually happen. Sybaritic indulgence and bacchanalian excess might describe how we like to recall the pan industry parties hosted by the likes of Sheraton and Las Vegas CVB but they probably didn’t go that far. We mythologise our memories and these ones from the 90s certainly provide radical contrast to trade show networking events in these more austere and stringent times.

But I digress.

Hyatt Regency, Chicago

I was back in Downtown Chicago this week  for  a board meeting and had the opportunity to catch up with a city that has played such a central role in our lives as meetings and events professionals for so long. To be honest I wasn’t initially enthused by the prospect of 3 days at the Hyatt on Wacker. I’d stayed there on many occasions in the past but, beyond the excellent location overlooking some iconic buildings on the north bank of the Chicago River, I’d found little to recommend it. I always felt lost in a big box facility of over 2000 rooms and tended to gravitate to smaller, quirkier properties such as The James, Kimpton’s Hotel Allegro or IHG’s Hotel Indigo.

Screen Shot 2013-10-04 at 15.05.09Today the Hyatt Regency Chicago is still a big box convention hotel but deftly overcomes that “lost” feeling by connecting with you through a combination of face-to-face and technological initiatives. The interior design of the vast two level lobby, re-deigned by Bentel +Bentel, is divided pleasingly into distinct cluster areas where you can gather to drink, eat, chat or work. WiFi is free of change in these public areas and there’s a bank of terminals where you can check in or out or print off a boarding pass for your flight. Plasmas are in great abundance providing information about the hotel and encouraging you to connect and interact on Facebook or Twitter. When there was no bathrobe in my room, for example,  I tweeted it and promptly had one delivered.

Hyatt associates in casual black are on hand to help and there’s a killer sound track of upbeat, tuneful songs by contemporary bands like The Script and Two Door Cinema Club. Early AM risers can grab great coffee and toast their own cranberry bagel at the Market, the beautifully laid out, well staffed outlet on the ground floor. The old Hyatt, full of earnest, slightly over-weight conventionists in tucked-in shirts and belt mounted devices is gradually yielding to a new Hyatt, responding to a new generation of travellers, with different tastes and needs, less formal, more digitally savvy, more connected and definitely more mobile.

A night on the town

Screen Shot 2013-10-04 at 15.08.11I was fortunate that some of us actually live in the city and so I was able to experience a night out with insiders – the perfect way to immerse yourself in a destination. Following our two days of meetings, we started in Pops for Champagne on State Street and enjoyed a fresh and tangy Cava while we waited for our party to assemble. With over 200 different champagnes available, Pops is a serious drinking emporium that effortlessly balances informality and refinement, oozing a sense of sophistication without being up its own rear end. I could happily have stayed for dinner too, enjoying the appetisers and small plates which they serve to complement the bubbles but Colleen had arranged for us to dine at Osteria via Stato and it was time to go.

Osteria via Stato

Screen Shot 2013-10-04 at 15.09.38One of many restaurants nationwide under the ownership or management of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises (LEYE) Osteria via Stato is a whole generation closer to Italy than “Goodfellas” or “The Sopranos” and serves truly authentic cucina paesana alongside a wine list as long as an Italian family dinner. On advice we drank Adrian from the Kellerei Cantina, a Pinot Noir from Alto Adige, one of the lesser well know wine areas of Italy. It turned out to be a great recommendation, enhancing an well balanced menu which included a pretty amazing Farfalle with Basil Pesto and Toasted Walnuts and Chicken Mario, inspired by Trattoria Sostanza , a renowned restaurant in Florence located behind the Westin Excelsior. I particularly loved the Parmesan Crusted Onions, one of three wonderful antipasti that were served. Dinner was presented to us in a private room off the main dining area decorated with framed handwritten greetings from a host of famous Italian wine producers who had been entertained in that very space – not surprisingly they all complimented the authenticity of the experience.

Victory at Three Dots and a Dash

Screen Shot 2013-10-04 at 15.11.04Our night out in Chicago ended at another spectacular LEYE managed facility, Three Dots and a Dash, a Tiki bar off North Clark specialising in classic cocktails. By then our party had swelled somewhat with the arrival of several additional industry friends. Spirits were high – and powerfully intense in colourful liquid concoctions – and, for me, jet lag kicked in, prompting a hasty retreat to the Hyatt. Next morning, wide eyed and bushy tailed at 5:30AM, I power-walked past the crime scene, grateful, for once, that wimpish tiredness had steered me home before the die got cast.

Chicago = Modern day Florence?

In 20 or more visits to Chicago I hadn’t managed to connect with its architectural heritage and harboured a long hope to visit Oak Park and the extraordinary Frank Lloyd Wright legacy in that neighbourhood. You can visit his home and studio there and then take a guided or self-guided tour of the historic district surrounding them which contains the largest number of Frank Lloyd Wright- designed homes anywhere – most of them still inhabited and in private ownership. It’s one thing seeing good photography of the architectural detail of the homes but it’s totally different seeing them in their  wider environmental context where the genius and innovation of Wright becomes even more apparent. It was a great privilege to take this tour with Mike and Kathleen O’Connor and their beautiful family – cousins whom I hadn’t seen in over 30 years.

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I also took the famous architectural cruise which shows Chicago from the unusual perspective of the river and convinces you, if you still need to be so convinced, that this city represents the apex of modern, contemporary and post-modern architecture in the United States. Finally I revisited the Chicago Art Institute enjoying the new Annex Building accessible through Millennium Park. I spend most of my time there mesmerized by the recently reinstalled Marc Chagall windows and was left with the abiding thought that Chicago might just be a modern day Florence where art and artists are supported by businesses and integrated into the very fabric of the the city.

Padraic Gilligan works for MCI and, with Patrick Delaney, leads the Destination Services division of the company, branded as Ovation Global DMC. He sits on the Hospitality Partners Advisory Council of FICP, the financial and insurance conference planners association and enjoyed Chicago in the scintillating company of his fellow board members. Thanks guys for a great meeting and a great time together. 

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