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Next Generation Association Highlight: Choose Chicago

This post is part of XYZ University’s “Next Generation Association” blog series, highlighting associations around the country who are making strides in engaging the next generation of members and leaders. If you would like to nominate an association for our “Next Generation Association” series, please contact Melissa Harrison.

This post is part of XYZ University’s “Next Generation Association” blog series, highlighting associations around the country who are making strides in engaging the next generation of members and leaders. If you would like to nominate an association for our “Next Generation Association” series, please contact Melissa Harrison.

Choose Chicago is the official sales and marketing organization charged with bringing regional, national and international business and leisure visitors to Chicago for the economic benefit of the city, the community and its partners. XYZ University chose this organization as the “Next Generation Association” of the month because of its new, accessible and inclusive membership model as well as the association’s digital offerings and features that allow them to keep up with the next generation and deliver its message based on value, relevance and flexibility.

The XYZ University team recently spoke with Nina Winston, vice president of strategic partnerships for Choose Chicago. Nina has 20 years of experience helping organizations build results-oriented initiatives based on mutually beneficial partnerships with a global range of government, nonprofit and Fortune 100 stakeholders. She was a wealth of knowledge when it came to sharing how Choose Chicago has successfully revamped its membership strategy.

What has been challenging for Choose Chicago as it relates to membership recruitment, engaging new audiences and sustaining your organization’s growth? How have you overcome these challenges?

Nina Winston/Choose Chicago: Choose Chicago, the city’s destination marketing organization (DMO), had a static and pricy membership model for its non-hotel partners which had been in place for decades. With an entry-level fee starting at $950, it was costly and also inflexible in its offerings. This led to ongoing retention issues and an inability to capture new audiences. In particular, there was a need to engage smaller businesses and organizations that are a critical segment of the visitor industry, including restaurants, not-for-profit cultural organizations and retailers in Chicago’s diverse and vibrant neighborhoods.

2011 brought new leadership to Choose Chicago, and in 2012 we became a newly shaped organization with expanded and enhanced responsibilities. This elevated the need for an accessible and inclusive membership model that delivered on value, relevance and flexibility.

New membership structure

A third party consultant performed external research in early 2012 which was the basis for identifying a possible new membership structure. While the tiered approach was considered, it was not the only option – other possibilities included a new single price with many a la carte add-ons, or doing away with a fee altogether and simply having “pay to play” options.

What ultimately led to the decision for the new Partnership Packages model at Choose Chicago was a series of internal and external meetings and discussions – we wanted our prospects and existing partners to have more control over how they connected with us, but we also wanted to simplify the process for them and establish some consistency in benefits between our partners.

It is also important to note that a strategic decision was made at this time to transition the metrics of the department away from the primary performance measure of membership sales. While department revenue goals are one measurement of results, the department’s focus has evolved and is now centered on excellence in service, communication, building a cohesive partner community, and delivering compelling marketing, educational and networking opportunities. Sarah Sladek’s book, “The End of Membership As We Know It“, was a great resource for me as we worked through our new membership structure process.

In addition to your new membership model/structure, how are you using next-generation communication tools (ie: apps, responsive design, social media) to engage younger generations and members “on the go”?

Nina Winston/Choose Chicago: Our communication efforts can be categorized into B2B (business to business) and B2C (business to consumer) efforts. We offer a variety of methods for both groups.

B2B communication

With a completely redesigned partners section of, we have been able to redefine what it means to be a part of our organization. The messaging is friendly, the online registration and secured payment process is completed in four easy steps, and we have created a digital one stop shop – which is all well-tuned to how people working in a fast paced industry and environment want to make decisions and perform transactions.

Additionally, we have completely redesigned our ongoing partnership communications and rolled out a monthly e-newsletter which goes to all of our partner contacts. This not only highlights our services, events and programs, but also features a monthly profile written by a partner and interactive content to ask key questions of our stakeholders.

Before we made changes to our website, the password protected section of our Partners section, the Partner Extranet, was not user friendly – we rebuilt this section to create a much more logical space for sharing data, educational resources and delivering account management capabilities to our partners. We also engage our partners using our LinkedIn group, which has close to 2,000 members, helping to grow our online conversation.

Finally, we worked in partnership with Second City Communications to create three short videos that highlight the new partnership model in a lighthearted way. Each video lives on a different page within this section of the site.

B2C communication

In terms of specific benefits and services we now offer through which our partners can reach visitors to Chicago, the following new media have been leveraged:

  1. Introduction of a free mobile app for iPhone and Android, featuring partner content for visitors to access – to date we have had over 40,000 downloads.

  2. Mobile couponing which allows our partners to feature special offers that can be accessed directly from our mobile app’s in the “Deals” section in partnership with

  3. Links within partners’ customized listings to their social media pages and reviews on Yelp and TripAdvisor.

  4. Increased use of Facebook (35,000 friends), Twitter (38,000 followers) and Pinterest to connect with social media savvy visitors

Can you talk about the success of collaborating with other organizations as a result of your new model?

Nina Winston/Choose Chicago: In the 60 days since the new model launched, we have begun conversations with key local organizations to engage their stakeholders in ways that will continue to build our face to face and online community of partners.

An example of this is our outreach to Chicago’s neighborhood chambers of commerce.  As Choose Chicago develops marketing strategies promoting the neighborhood experience to visitors, partnerships with these organizations will grow. Neighborhood organizations can ultimately share with their members the added value our partnership program delivers, and in time our connection with neighborhood businesses will grow significantly.

What about your partner events and programs? How have you revamped those efforts to be “next generation” as well?

Nina Winston/Choose Chicago: In addition to the areas already covered, we have reinvigorated all of our partner events and programs to create more interactive engagement, and have committed to consistently featuring digital materials from our presentations on our Partner Extranet following our educational events. We also did away with some of our longstanding networking events and are reformatting them to feature a wider range of our partner base and more varied venues for connecting in new ways. Finally, creating a stronger online community remains a top priority and we hope to launch a blog specifically for our partners in the coming months.


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