How One of the Country’s Largest Parades Pivoted Amid the Pandemic

A Q&A with Kimberly Bares, CEO of the Magnificent Mile Association, about the organization’s new plans for its annual tree lighting parade

By the <i>FORUM</i> Magazine editors

FRM NovDec Pulse Lights

The Magnificent Mile Association didn’t have much of a choice for its annual tree lighting parade: You can’t host a festival that gathers a million people in the middle of a pandemic. The association, which does business development and advocacy for Chicago’s famed Michigan Avenue and the surrounding area, will instead produce a virtual festival for the first time. (The association will still turn on all the lights and set up decorations for the area as a way to entice visitors.)

CEO Kimberly Bares details what’s the same — and what’s new — for an event that is typically one of the country’s largest parades.

FORUM: Let’s first take a step back. Can you walk us through how you got to this decision?

KB: In March, we realized the extreme burden the pandemic would have on our members, and thus, our association. Our district is home to the best Chicago has to offer: We boast 65% of all the downtown hotel rooms (numbering more than 26,000), as well as world-renowned museums, shopping, dining and attractions. 

Due to travel restrictions and public health concerns, we need to market downtown to Chicago residents and those within a regional drive time for the foreseeable future. We can no longer rely on conventions, international tourism or even national tourism to give our downtown businesses the customers they need.

FORUM: What was the decision-making process like to forego a live event in favor of a digital one?

KB: We spent a lot of time thinking about how to honor the spirit of the event and represent the great city of Chicago before deciding on our final plan. As we processed the letdown internally, we knew we had to get ahead of a public conversation and proactively made the announcement on ABC 7 before Labor Day.

It was important to us that this year not feel like a loss but rather an opportunity to build on our holiday tradition. Understanding what we cannot do during the pandemic has provided a soft reset and refocus of our event priorities. The Lights Festival was always meant to provide a lift for our member businesses by kicking off the holiday season, and that couldn’t be truer this year as we head into the long winter months.

FORUM: What will that look like?

KB: Americans are gearing up for the holidays especially early during the pandemic. Our fans are eager for something warm and familiar, as we all are.

So while we cannot produce an event, we can provide an ongoing experience of holiday cheer. The Magnificent Mile will be illuminated through the winter. The Association will use the tree lights as a springboard for digital and experiential marketing to support our businesses through what we hope will be the final months of the pandemic and will provide a compelling reason for families from Chicago and beyond to spend time downtown.

FORUM: How are you working to keep members happy and satisfied during these difficult times?

KB: Despite relentless challenges, our member businesses have found new ways to reinvent, innovate and survive this pandemic. In turn, we have evolved and become even more nimble with our marketing efforts to match their changing needs.

We monitor consumer sentiment daily across social media platforms, which can be quite a rollercoaster, and aim to provide the latest information on on how to navigate downtown Chicago with enhanced health and safety guidelines. Our content is rife with new keywords that didn’t exist before March 2020.

FORUM: Any last thoughts?

KB: The past six months have been a transformative effort. Still, The Magnificent Mile Association has worked for the past 108 years to grow Michigan Avenue into one of the great avenues of the world, including construction of the iconic DuSable Bridge through the Spanish flu in 1920. We’ve curated each detail from signage to storefronts to the width of the street and the gardens that line the public way. We will continue to shine bright through the holiday season and into the new year, representing the best our great city of Chicago has to offer.

Written by FORUM Magazine editors.

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