When you think of the most central locations in the US to meet, Chicago has always been considered among those at the top of the list. It is known for its architecture, museums, music, sports, love of food, sports, theater, performance arts and cruises on the lake. Chicago also has some excellent hotels and venues that are cost effective for business meetings and events of all sizes.

Chances are you’ll arrive in Chicago through O’Hare International or Midway airports. Both offer easy access to the city with public transportation, shuttle services, private cars and group ground transportation options.

When you get to downtown, you’re greeted by Chicago’s famous lakefront and a skyline that continues to change. You’ll immediately notice the city’s green spaces along the lake: Museum Campus, Grant Park, Buckingham Fountain, Millennium Park and Cloud Gate (popular year-round).

And construction is just about completed to include Maggie Daley Park (to be completed in the spring 2015). It will include rock climbing sculptures, an ice-skating ribbon and a play garden. It’s also worth your time to walk and bike paths along Lake Michigan will make you forget momentarily that you’re in a big city as you enjoy the distractions of people watching  (and the lake’s breeze).

You’ll spend the majority of your time in the city — the Loop, River North, Streeterville and Gold Coast neighborhoods — to meet, shop and enjoy other activities.

Once you’re settled in, the possibilities are endless. And when in Chicago, enjoy the full range of eating options. Of course, pizza is a staple with locals and visitors alike. But there are also 25 Michelin-rated restaurants and more than 77 different neighborhoods in Chicago, so check out the diverse dining options.

If the theater scene is part of your plans, you’ll find that Chicago now offers more than 200 theaters, including the downtown district, The Second City, independent theaters and even storefront theaters.

You can also learn about (and taste) hops and barley at one of Chicago’s 60 breweries. Or check out specialty wine venues and distilleries here.

No visit to Chicago is complete unless you’ve experienced Chicago’s music scene: jazz, blues, rock, Motown, classical and every other genre can be found here. Chicago has also gained music notoriety with its annual festivals, including Lallapalooza.

You can also get your share of sports year-round with the Chicago Bears (Soldier Field), Chicago Blackhawks (United Center), Chicago Bulls (United Center), Chicago Cubs (Wrigley Field), Chicago Fire (Toyota Park), Chicago Sky (Allstate Arena) and Chicago White Sox (US Cellular Field). Each offer a range of suites and other options to host unique special events and meetings.

This is all getting noticed by people who enjoy traveling. In 2013, roughly 7.2 million of the city’s more than 48 million visitors were business travelers. Chicago also attracted a respectable number of international visitors: 1.4 million, according to data from Choose Chicago, the city’s official destination marketing organization. And 2014 is on track to set visitor records for Chicago.

While Chicago has a reputation as the windy city, you can expect the traditional temperatures for each season here. The best time to go is during late spring (April – May) and early fall (September – October). But meetings season runs September through May, and the City of Chicago has an excellent reputation for addressing its transportation needs and keeping its streets clear throughout the winter (especially downtown where it’s most important for business). Summer is warm and the humidity tends to make it feel worse than it really is.


Chicago Hotels for Business Travel

Chicago’s business district has 107 hotels, including more than 37,000 guest rooms. And there’s another eight hotels in development, including Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Hotel in downtown (203 N. Wabash; expected to open January 2015) and the Loews which will be just north of the river and east of Michigan Avenue (455 N. Park Drive; expected to open March 2015). Our Chicago hotel reviews and recommendations include the following:

Hilton Chicago, 720 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL 60605
Located on Michigan Avenue with an impressive view of Grant Park and Lake Michigan, Hilton Chicago is the Hilton’s flagship hotel and a Chicago landmark. It completed the first phase of renovations in 2012 that enhance the hotel’s classic features while adding contemporary touches. This includes the hotel’s lobby and floors for business guest hotel rooms. The Athletic Center is probably one of the best city hotel fitness centers you’ll find, and the Executive Lounge (a comfortable space) has its own concierge to help you navigate the city. It’s not surprising that more than 500 meetings are held here each year. See Hilton Chicago Hotel Review for more details. — Rob Hard (January 2014)

Hyatt Regency Chicago, 151 E. Wacker Drive, Chicago, IL 60601
Located just east of Michigan Avenue in an ideal spot that’s just steps away from both the business district and North Michigan Avenue shopping and nightlife, the Hyatt Regency is comprised of two towers. It completed renovations in 2013 and has a new lobby (open and chic), guest rooms, meeting spaces, technology and dining, including Stetsons Modern Steak & Sushi. The Regency Club (Hyatt’s executive lounge) offers snacks and beverages throughout the day. See Hyatt Regency Chicago Review for more details. — Rob Hard (March 2014)

Marriott Magnificent Mile, 540 N. Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL 60611
Located on the Magnificent Mile, Marriott is a business hotel — roughly 1,200 meetings are held here each year (including social events). The lobby is renovated and modern. Guest rooms are the standard size you’d expect, but the Executive Rooms are located on the northeast corner of each floor; they include more space and a nice view. The Club Lounge is a comfortable space that’s located a level above the lobby, near Harvest — the hotel’s main restaurant with a midwestern flare. See Chicago Marriott Magnificent Mile Review for more details. — Patrick Marshall (April 2014)

Other Chicago Hotels

In addition to those mentioned above, others worth considering include Conrad Chicago, Four Seasons, Hotel Allegro, Park Hyatt Chicago, Ritz-Carlton, Sofitel Chicago Water Tower, Swissotel Chicago, The Drake Chicago, The Fairmont Chicago, The James Chicago, The Peninsula Chicago, W Chicago – Lakeshore.

McCormick Place Chicago

The city’s largest hotels offer excellent meeting and convention spaces, but McCormick Place is Chicago’s showpiece. Some of the largest US and international major conventions are held here annually, including RSNA, the Restaurant Show and the International Home and Housewares Show, among others.

The US Travel Association chose Chicago and McCormick Place to host IPW 2014, an event that rotates cities annually and showcases the US to the international marketplace. IPW gives cities an opportunity to demonstrate their capabilities to host citywide events. And Chicago organizers not only demonstrated their ability to compete on the world stage at this level, they effectively managed more than 6,000 attendees to meet and experience all corners of the city over five days.

The campus is the largest convention center you’ll find in the US. So there’s a good chance you may be spending time during the day at McCormick Place Chicago. Highlights include:

  • Comprised of four buildings linked by sky bridges and pedestrian walkways
  • 2.6 million square feet of exhibit space
  • 1.2 million square feet on one level (nation’s largest convention center)
  • 173 meeting rooms (600,000 square feet)
  • Assembly seating for 18,000 people
  • 4.249 theater (Arie Crown)
  • 6,000 parking spaces
Chicago Things to Do

Your options for things to do in Chicago are virtually endless. The city has more than 40 museums, theater (more than 500 productions annually), shopping, dining, festivals, sports and more. Our Chicago things to do reviews and recommendations include the following:

Glessner House, 1800 S. Prairie Ave., Chicago, IL 60616

The Glessner House is a 19th century mansion in the South Loop Prairie Avenue historic district, only minutes away from the large convention centers in the Loop and McCormick Place. William Glessner helped found International Harvester, one of Chicago’s earmark companies, and commissioned architect Henry Richardson to construct a 17,000 sq. ft. mansion for his family. It is one of the seven historic Prairie Avenue Mansions that have survived the years.

There are many treasures located throughout the house such as the unique wood carved furniture crafted by Isaac Scott. Over 90 percent of the furnishings are original to the house as the current Glessner family supports the restoration. Harrison used some interesting technologies of the day such as a switchboard to turn on the gaslights and built in tunnels to shuffle the coal to the fireplaces. The house is a prime example of modern residential American architecture. It’s also available for private social and business events. — Patrick Marshall (June 2015)

Shoreline Sightseeing, Multiple Locations Downtown, Chicago

The most iconic summer event in Chicago is to spend time on on a boat cruise on Lake Michigan or along the Chicago River. The skyline views they offer are popular with locals, visitors, event planners and business travelers. And they offer a much more unique view of the city than you get on the streets. Shoreline has three primary docks for  tours: one is along Navy Pier itself, one is at Navy Pier’s Polk Brothers Park (southwest corner) and at the third is at the Michigan Avenue Bridge (enter at the northeast corner of the street and walk to the lower level).  Options include architectural tours, classic lake tours, fireworks tours, special events, group programs and charters. Check our complete Shoreline Sightseeing in Chicago review. — Patrick Marshall (June 2015)

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Chicago Bars, Music and Nightlife

You have a lot of choices in Chicago after hours. Whether you’re interested in a swanky lounge, piano bars, microbreweries, pubs or dance clubs, you’re in the right city. Our Chicago bars, music and nightlife reviews and recommendations include the following:

CH Distillery, 564 W. Randolph St., Chicago, IL 60661

Craft distilleries are the latest tasting trend these days, and CH Distillery has taken this to another level. Located in a historic building and offering seating for roughly 50 people, the bar is chic and offers views of the distilling tanks. This “distilpub” pairs cocktails with a range of small plates — Central and Eastern European cuisine. CH Distillery offers a handcrafted cocktail menu as well as traditional mixed drinks. Check our complete CH Distillery review. — Patrick Marshall (June 2014)

Chicago Beer Experience, Multiple Locations Chicago

For many, a trip to Chicago would not be complete without exploring the lively bar scene and sampling beer in its scenic neighborhoods. The Chicago Beer Experience is a three and a half hour tour in either the Lincoln Park/Lakeview or Bucktown/Wicker Park neighborhoods.

The Lincoln Park/Lakeview Tour encompasses four different bars and a liquor store with 14 beers sampled. Some highlights include drinking Guinness at a bar that was entirely brought from Ireland, drinking a beer that won a contest at the 1893 world fair and a bacon and beer tasting. The guide provides insight into each of the bars, beers and even how to drink beer! If you are a beer drinker looking for a social activity after work or a convention, then the Chicago Beer Experience is for you! — Patrick Marshall (July 2015)

FEW Spirits, 918 Chicago Ave., Evanston, IL 60202

Located just about 12 miles north of downtown Chicago, FEW Spirits was founded in 2011. The distillery offers a one hour tour and tasting to public and private groups. The tour guide Katherine is a spirits expert. She highlights the facility and the distilling process as well as the different types of spirits produced in Evanston. Of course, you get a chance to sample eight different spirits that a are produced at FEW, including gins, whiskeys and liquors.

Interesting fact:  Evanston was the epicenter of the Women’s Temperance movement that drove Prohibition.Evanston did not allow the sale of alcohol until 1972 when the city council voted to allow restaurants and hotels to serve liquor on premises, and later approved the sale of alcohol at retail liquor outlets in 1984. — Patrick Marshall (August 2015)

Koval Distillery, 5121 North Ravenswood Ave., Chicago, IL 60640

Located on the north side in the residential neighborhood of Ravenswood, Koval Distillery is a craft distillery in a small, but chic building with a brick interior. Koval produces organic whiskey, liqueurs and specialty spirits. It is here where you Koval produces its single barrel rye whiskeys. Founders Robert and Sonat Birnecker are former academics who opened the distillery in 2008 to produce its spirits from scratch (by the way, this is the first legal distillery in the Chicago area since prohibition). Koval ages its product in charred, 30-gallon oak barrels for under two years.

It’s here where you can get a fun education from an expert guide about the history of distilling and the distilling process itself, including your chance to smell the product at various stages. Koval offers scheduled tours for the public (up to 25 attendees) that last about an hour, and it seems to attract the interest of millenials and others. During our visit, we sampled whiskey bourbons, a rye whiskey and two liqueurs. There’s also a small shop where you can buy the bottles you like. But if you can’t get there, Koval has been seen in the duty-free shops at O’Hare (at least terminal 1). For meeting professionals and special events, contact Koval to learn more about their availability for workshops and classes. — Patrick Marshall and Rob Hard (December 2014)

The Zebra Lounge, 1220 N. State Parkway, Chicago, IL 60610

Located just steps off Division Street in the Gold Coast, Zebra Lounge is a tiny piano bar that’s in a storefront space of a vintage apartment building. The atmosphere is relaxed and a piano player performs nightly. They’re very interactive with the patrons, so you’ll get a chance to hear a few of your own pics and favorites without completely breaking the bank. However, because it’s small, there’s about a dozen seats at the bar and a few small tables. So, it’s helpful to get there early (9 p.m. during the week and even weekends). — Rob Hard and AnnMarie Koss (August 2014)

As locals to Chicago, our team at Business Travel Destinations will do its best to help point you in the right direction and share our reviews with you. Check back from time to time to find our latest insights.

Updated. Initially published November 16, 2014.