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Chicago Hotels, Restaurants Rolling Out Specials with Obama Themes

By Kathy Bergen, Chicago TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Jan. 19--Starting on Inauguration Day, well-heeled Barack Obama fans can drape themselves in an ultraluxurious Presidential Hometown Tour package, a two-day splurge at the Fairmont Chicago that will set them back $8,244, plus taxes and tips.

The perks include two nights in the presidential suite, a 37th-floor flat decked out with all things Obama; a tour of Obama's favorite haunts in a chauffeur-driven Bentley; and dinner at Spiaggia, where Barack and Michelle Obama celebrated his historic election as the nation's 44th president.

The Fairmont package is one of many inauguration-linked festivities on tap in Chicago as hotels, restaurants, bars and party planners hustle to liven up a traditionally moribund season, made all the more so by the deep recession and the Arctic gusts this year. Other promotions range from $2,009 "Barack and Roll" packages at the Hard Rock Hotel to $4 O bomb cocktails at Moonshine, a Wicker Park watering hole.

The plethora of packages and parties, many of them listed on the city's newly launched tourism Web site at www.explorechicago.org, appear to be drawing some interest. But the payoff is expected to be modest for the hospitality industry, already smarting from diminished business spending and reduced air traffic at O'Hare International Airport.

"The links of the president being from Illinois, and from Chicago in particular, certainly will help to mitigate those losses but can't help reverse those losses," said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial.

The business boosts from the Super Bowl and Valentine's Day probably will outshine the inauguration festivities, said restaurant expert Ron Paul, president of Technomic Inc. "But if you can't get a home run, you go for singles," he said.

A number of local hotels, including the Four Seasons, the Allegro and the Monaco, say their new promotions are beginning to rake in takers. But no one had snapped up the $2,009 package at the Hard Rock as of last week, and the Fairmont package doesn't launch until Tuesday.

The inauguration packages, most of which run through the winter, should boost occupancy rates slightly, maybe by one percentage point over last year, said Brian D. Flanagan, president of Property Valuation Advisors. "But it's easy to beat the past January," he said, noting last year's occupancy rate downtown was 45.7 percent, according to Smith Travel Research.

January is always a tough month in Chicago, but in stronger economic times the January occupancy rates are in the 50 percent range, noted Ted Mandigo, a hotel consultant based in Elmhurst.

And party planners are reporting some tough sledding, as people are reluctant to open their wallets and leave the warmth of their homes.

"If we sold 1,500 tickets, we'd jump up and down and call it a home run," said Karen Barrie, organizer of a benefit inaugural ball at the Aragon Ballroom, where tickets are $65 in advance and $75 at the door. The group was shooting for more than 2,000 attendees.

"We're looking for our sweet spot," said Barrie, who is hoping a blast of weekend promotions will help sales. "We need to get past the Arctic snap. ... We believe the desire is out there."

kbergen@tribune.com

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Copyright (c) 2009, Chicago Tribune

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