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Sunday, March 25, 2018

Discovering Chicago's Neighborhoods: WIcker Park and Bucktown

Booking a hotel in an urban neighborhood provides a visitor with the tools to feel like a local — and for Chicago-bound tourists seeking out a hipster vibe, the Wicker Park/Bucktown area is the place to be. Here, you'll find the addition of the 606, Chicago’s version of the High Line, where you can rent a Divvy bike or jog along the paved 2.7-mile path carved from abandoned elevated rail line. Below, you’ll witness streets filled with locally owned boutiques, bistros, and bars (with a few chain stores and juice shops thrown in).  


Perfect for all budgets are the neighborhood’s music shops and bookstores. Head to Myopic for poetry readings, live music, and used books or grab a beverage at Volumes Book Cafe. Fans of vintage records will find their heads — and their turntables — spinning. The vinyl frontier includes Dusty Groove, Reckless Records, and Shuga. And there's plenty of places to eat, drink, and sleep. From budget to splurge, here's our guide. 

On a Budget

Where to Eat: There are plenty of cheap eats in this area. Try Irazu for a Costa Rican take on Latin American cuisine. You can grab three empanadas for $9 or casado, a typical Costa Rican meat and rice dish for $15. It’s open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Need a snack? Try the horchata or a uniquely flavored shake. Just bring cash — they don’t take credit cards. Continuing the international cheap eats theme, En Hakkore dishes out bibimbap bowls ($9) and Korean-inspired tacos (two for $8).


What to Do: By day, hang out at Wicker Park. The park for which the neighborhood is named is a playground for kids and adults. In addition to its sports fields, the park often hosts free movie nights and farmers markets. By night, sneak into the Hideout, a Prohibition-style bar with live music. From January to April, there’s free soup and bread, made by local foodies and artists; your donations go to local food banks. 

Where to Stay: Urban Holiday Lofts offers up shared rooms with shared baths, along with private rooms with shared or private baths. Don’t be surprised to be sleeping in a bunk bed, though. The rooms are barebones (no TVs, no lotion), and the lobby is a bit dingy, but the place is certainly well-located, and it has convenient amenities like free breakfast, a common room with a pool table and television, and a guest kitchen. (Dormitory style room with shared bath go for $39 per night; private room sleeping up to four with private bath: $137.)

Mid-priced Options

Where to Eat: Enoteca Roma is one of those family-run Italian joints with scratch-made food and a rustic feel reminiscent of the Old Country. On a nice day, mosey to the back patio for an al fresco dinner (a pizza for $20 and plenty of wines for less than $10 a glass). Despite its name, Dove’s Luncheonette provides counter service for three squares a day. Menu items (between $12 and $17) are inspired by south of the border and Southern fare.

Dove's Luncheonette
What to Do: Head to Trap Door Theatre for avant-garde performances of challenging and obscure works. The Den Theatre has five unique venues, which present productions developed by its multiple resident companies. After a show, head to the Den’s bar for live music. (Ticket prices average about $25 each.) 

The Robey
Where to Stay: The Robey ($250 per night) has the same high design and unique amenities sported by many of the downtown hotels, but at a cheaper price tag. Located in an Art Deco building at the triangular intersection of Damen, Milwaukee, and North Avenues, the hotel offers easy access to the city. If you have a choice, go for the extra-roomy industrial-style rooms in the Annex Loft. The El’s Blue Line, which runs downtown and to O’Hare Airport, is right next door (and can be heard from some rooms — so if you are a light sleeper, be sure to ask for a room on the quiet side).

The Splurge

Where to Eat: Mirai Sushi is a stylish sushi and sake bar. The menu includes the standard items you’d expect, plus more creative fare. For sushi, it’s not that expensive, but is still one of the pricier restaurants in the neighborhood with shared plates that run $7-$17. Another nice date night option is Cafe Robey, serving upscale American fare. 
What to Do:  It’s not a huge splurge, as entertainment options in the neighborhood aren’t excessively pricey, but WhirlyBall offers bowling, laser tag, and Whirlyball courts that can keep anyone entertained for hours. What’s Whirlyball?  It’s a made-up sport that marries lacrosse and hockey and involves riding around in souped-up bumper cars. Fuel up before, during, or after your session at the on-site bistro. ($15 per per for a half-hour; bowling starts at $60 per hour for 8 people.) 

Hotel at Midtown
Where to Stay: The Hotel at Midtown is on the northernmost end of Bucktown, and while it feels a bit isolated from the rest of the neighborhood, it's an easy 10-minute walk to the main drag. Even though it’s the highest-priced hotel in the neighborhood, consider that the cost of your room (plus the $25 a day resort fee) gains you free entry into the fancy-schmancy Midtown Athletic Club. In addition to having access to the latest gym equipment, you can choose from dozens of daily classes, ranging from barre to yoga, without paying extra for the privilege. (Rooms go for $250-$300 per night plus the resort fee.)

This article was written for Shermans Travel. The original version of the article appears here.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Brain Dating: Thought Leadership Conferences and the High-End Traveler

This article originally appeared on Skift.com. I am that publication's luxury correspondent.

Nowadays, luxury travel is all about discovering new frontiers. It’s not just about expanding physical and geographic boundaries. The travel cognoscenti are “brain dating” around the world in order to stretch their minds.

First came TED in 1984. Soon thereafter, in 1987, there was South by Southwest.
Now, after a bit of a lull, thought leadership conferences are popping up all over the map, with Vivid SydneyC2 MontrĂ©al, and Light City Baltimore launching in the last decade.
Light City Baltimore: Photo by Perry Mandelboym
These conferences, which meld creative components with thought-provoking programming, deliver high-end visitors, while providing a host city with the opportunity to develop, solidify, or refine its brand.
According to J. Walter Thompson’s Future 100: 2018 forecast, “Events like these indicate the increased appetite for thought leadership and innovation among consumers. These experiential events combine self-improvement with entertainment, networking, and access to today’s influencers, who are often tech leaders or startup founders, rather than traditional celebrities.”
Vancouver thought the sector important enough to woo TED to the British Columbian metropolis. Working with Destination Canada, the city developed a two-year financial incentive package to entice TED to relocate from Long Beach, California.
Image result for vancouver ted
Courtesy cantechletter.com
“The average economic impact for TED from 2014-2017 was $3.8 million per year, but the true value far exceeds that as the TEDsters are distinguished and influential leaders who can help share Vancouver’s appeal as an incredible convention destination, great place to do business, and an unforgettable place to visit,” Tourism Vancouver said.
According to Dave Gazley, vice president of meetings and convention sales for Tourism Vancouver, most TED visitors stay downtown in four and five-star hotels, meaning that “Vancouver also benefits from the affluent crowd in that people will come back here on their own and experience the city on vacation,” given that the TED schedule doesn’t allow for much city exploration time.
South by Southwest, or SXSW as it is widely known as, celebrates its 31st anniversary in March. It’s grown from what was primarily a music festival into one big event made of music, film, interactive, sustainability, and education tracks.
“The interactive conference has the largest per capita spend, between the individuals who may stay at more expensive hotels and the corporations spending more money to host events at ancillary venues around the city,” said Ben Loftsgaarden, a partner in Austin-based Greyhill Advisors, which analyzes the economic impact of SXSW.
“One of the things that has made SXSW so successful.” said Loftsgaarden, ‘is that while the organizers realize it’s largely about networking, to keep people coming back, you have to make it fun.”
Vivid Sydney light festival
Courtesy Vivid Sydney
Perhaps that’s why so many conferences seem to be melding elements of creativity and commerce. Witness Vivid Sydney.
What started as a modest light festival ten years ago, designed in part to attract visitors to Sydney during the winter, has become a huge draw for tourists. The 23-day show has grown from 255,000 attendees in 2009 to 2.33 million in 2017.
Destination NSW took over the event two years into its run and started transforming it into what it is today: a festival of light, music and ideas. According to Sandra Chipchase, CEO of Destination NSW and executive producer of Vivid Sydney, the pivot to thought leadership “reinforces Sydney’s position as the creative services hub of the Asia Pacific region….and builds access to global markets.”
Chipchase said that most international travelers stay at high-end hotels and extend their stays to travel throughout New South Wales and beyond. “The international luxury traveler comes because it’s unique. These are people who want to learn and immerse themselves in creativity.” What excites them is “what they are going to learn, who they will meet and how they can be inspired.”
Moreover, as Sydney looks to attract even more high-end spenders, Chipchase believes Vivid is the perfect brand ambassador. “Vivid is a reflection of who we are: beautiful, sexy, outrageous, optimistic and fun.”
Indeed, the branding benefit is one of the intangible elements that hosting thought leadership conferences can provide.
“SXSW is an invaluable brand that has helped define Austin as the center of creativity and commerce, a community that is innovative, entrepreneurial and cool,” said Michael W. Rollins, president of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.
But to be successful at brand-building, according to Tourism Vancouver’s Gazley, an event must have “unbelievable, compelling content that is meaningful to people,” while also aligning with a city’s DNA.

Interested in reading more about light festivals around the world? Read more here.