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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:

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

Zs came of age in an era of disruption

In many ways, it’s symbolic that Generation Z is named after the last letter in the alphabet because their arrival marks the end of clearly defined roles, traditions, and experiences. After all, Gen Z is coming of age on the heels of what has been referred to as the most disruptive decade of the last century. America has become an increasingly changing and complex place.

For example:

  • ‍Zs were born into a “modern family era” in which highly involved dads help out at home, and the nuclear family model (two parents, married, with children) represent only 46% of American households.
  • ‍Zs are the first generation to be born into a world where everything physical, from people to places to pennies, has a digital equivalent.
  • From the time they were infants, Zs had access to mobile technology. As a result, their brains have been trained to absorb large amounts of information, and Zs are especially adept at shifting between skills and subject matter.
  • Zs tend to have crystal-clear memories of sitting up for the first time at six months old because they can easily and quickly reference the photos and videos their parents shared on social media or saved in the “cloud”. 

Members of this generation have undoubtedly been shaped by crisis and disruption. This generation will largely be responsible for confronting the aftermath of the Great Recession, high youth unemployment, the effects of climate change, terrorism, energy sustainability, and more. These dark events have undoubtedly made this generation more cautious and pragmatic, but they have also provided this generation with the inspiration to change the world – and their grit will likely allow them to do it.

Coming of age during disruption means that most Zs will be comfortable being the disruptors. While Millennials tend to be collaborative and innovative, this generation tends to be sincere, reflective, thick-skinned, and self-directed, and will likely approach work in much the same way.

Zs were raised to be competitive

In the era following World War II, Boomers (1946-1964) were born and eventually became the wealthiest, most prosperous generation in history. Raised to aspire for the American Dream, this very large generation moved into positions of power and influence, and served as the workforce majority for 34 years.

With the American Dream alive and well, Boomers had no reason to teach their children, mostly Millennials, about competition. Instead, they taught them to focus on academic achievement and to be team players because if everyone works hard, everyone can win.

Enter Generation X (1965-1981). In contrast Boomers, Xers came of age during a time when change and economic and political uncertainty began to take root. They have lived through four recessions, struggled with debt and economic decline most of their lives, and watched the best educated and accomplished generation of all time (Millennials) graduate during the Great Recession and become the most debt-ridden generation in history.

Gen Xers can be defined by their independence and anti-status quo approach to life, and they have taught their Gen Z children to be competitive, believing only the best can win. They have encouraged their children to be realists, finding something they are good at and aggressively pursuing it.

Xers have raised their Zs with an intense focus on competitiveness -- in academics, sports, and other activities. This approach to parenting has many implications, but one stands out in terms of business: Gen Z is likely to lead.

Millennials in the workplace created and aggressively advocated for collaborative work environments. In fact, their aversion to leadership has been so strong, some Millennials sought out companies that boasted boss-free or team-managed workplaces.

In contrast, Zs have been raised with an individualistic, realistic, and competitive nature. They have been taught the skills to successfully defy the norm. This means we’re going to see the pendulum shift away from collaborative workplaces towards a widespread demand for, and pursuit of, leadership development.

Zs are career-focused.

While Millennials have been criticized for their “delayed adulthood”, Gen Z is showing signs of “early adulthood”. Educators and parents often describe this generation as being more serious and contemplative about the world. Zs are thinking about their career paths and exposing themselves to career training at an earlier age than Millennials. It’s probable that some of this early onset of adulthood is caused by parents, who are pressuring their children to be competitive and successful and to avoid the debt that plagued both the Gen Xers and Millennials.

The numbers from our global research found 46% of Gen Z said they know what career to pursue and 51% have taken a class at school focused on their career interests. Forty percent joined an extracurricular program (team, club) based on their career interests.

Zs are seeking financial security. 

Zs have been shaped by the aftermath of the Great Recession. They watched Millennials become debt-ridden and are concerned about falling into the same trap. XYZ University’s survey results show 66% of Zs said financial stability is more important than doing work they enjoy, which is the exact opposite of Millennial survey results.  Also, 71% of survey-takers have a paying job.

Zs value leaders who are positive and trustworthy.

When presented a list of leadership traits, Zs ranked positive and trustworthy the highest. While Millennials and Gen Zs both value trust in a leader, Millennials usually cite collaboration and vision as most important. In other words, Millennials focus on the outcomes leaders inspire, whereas Zs are more likely to consider leaders’ attitudes and personalities. To Z, what leaders encourage others to do isn’t as valuable as how they make them feel.


Zs want to be challenged.

Both Millennials and Gen Zs place a very high value on feeling challenged and appreciated in the workplace. However, according to our survey results Millennials rank appreciation slightly higher than challenge, whereas Zs rank feeling challenged slightly higher than appreciation.

Time will tell how Zs go down in history, but we know this generation’s influence on history will be unlike any other.


Does your organization have what it takes to engage the next generation? Take this quiz to find out.


Sarah Sladek is CEO of XYZ University. Our generational intelligence can assist you with engaging and retaining young talent and members.

Sarah Sladek

Concerned about declining engagement in our nation’s membership associations, non-profits, and workplaces, Sarah Sladek founded XYZ University, the nation’s first and only generations-focused training and engagement strategy company, in 2002.

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