It has been such an honor to have been involved in the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival as Founding Chairman since 1992. We started with a small procession the Saturday before Thanksgiving to
light the Magnificent Mile and it has grown to become one of the nation’s premiere holiday events. What makes the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival so special is that it started as a volunteer event and remains a volunteer events with strong civic and city support. We are particularly grateful this year to have the Harris Bank become the first presenting sponsor of the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival. Harris provided a great deal of help–in financial support to produce such a high quality event and in human capital with great volunteer support by Harris people.
The broad base of suport for the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival presented by Harris was highlighted in the
following cover story in the Forum, the publication of the Chicago Association Forum.
Signature Story: Unwrapping the Wonder
Featuring Greater North Michigan Avenue Association
By Heather Ryndak
When Mary Oelerich considers her favorite holiday memories, she recalls her children interacting with iconic Disney characters dressed in holiday garb. She also thinks of the annual, sizeable holiday party she hosts in her Gold Coast home, and occasions for which her dear friends drive nearly 250 miles from Maumee, Ohio, to visit with her family and drink up the
bustling Chicago atmosphere. Luckily, Oelerich doesn’t have to travel to distant corners of her mind to conjure up these memories. They occur each year. They are part of a tradition. They are possible because of the Greater North Michigan Avenue Association’s (GNMAA) Magnificent Mile Lights Festival.
A day-long celebration, The Magnificent Mile Lights Festival presented by Harris may be best known for its ceremonial lighting of more than 1 million white lights, setting Michigan Avenue ablaze during the holiday season. The festival has grown to become the country’s official start to the holiday season, drawing nearly 1 million spectators — and significant
business — to this thriving tourist and business district. It boosts retail sales, sells out hotel rooms, draws record numbers of diners to restaurants and
impacts virtually every business in the region. And that’s great news to the GNMAA, which produces the festival — the association’s largest-scale event — and
aims to preserve, promote and enhance Chicago’s Magnificent Mile district.
Oelerich and her extended family have attended the annual, burgeoning festival each year, which occurs the weekend before Thanksgiving, since its inauguration 15 years ago. It is here where Snow White planted a kiss on the cheek of her then 4-year-old daughter, Madeline, who afterward refused to wash her face all weekend. It is here where her close friend, Ann Searles, and her family drive to from Ohio every year, with their belongings and holiday shopping lists in tow, to also enjoy endearing Disney entertainment while kicking off their holiday shopping and visiting exclusive
shops like Anthropology and Burberry that aren’t found near their town.
It is here where the majority of the women’s combined seven children, also longtime friends and festival attendees, have gradually traded in their enchantment with American Girl dolls and Disney
characters to a desire to visit, reminisce, shop and dine out with old friends.
“It’s fabulous, it’s moving and it’s absolutely a tradition,” Oelerich says. “It’s what starts our holidays.”
Extending the best season
The Magnificent Mile Lights Festival begins with eight stage performances in the morning, followed by dozens of acts of pre-procession entertainment. Next is the lighting of more than 1 million white lights on 200 trees along 16 blocks of North Michigan Avenue, from Oak Street to Wacker Drive, led by Mickey Mouse and his Disney pals. The event culminates with a holiday fireworks show at Michigan Avenue, over the Chicago River. Only the July 3 fireworks display along Lake Michigan eclipses the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival as the largest, single-day Chicago event. That success, which has manifested since 1991, would not be possible without the vision and tireless work of staff and key volunteer leaders at GNMAA who mobilize more than 650
individuals to produce this seasonal spectacle.
“The Magnificent Mile district differentiates itself from all other destinations and shopping centers — and the lights festival is the pinnacle,” says John Maxson, president and CEO of GNMAA.
“Michigan Avenue is among the 10 great avenues of the world. Our Magnificent Mile Lights Festival presented by Harris reminds them of why. We want people to say, ‘What an experience.’ We want people to leave on a high note and feel like they can’t stop talking about it. We want the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival and The Magnificent Mile district to be the place where people’s holidays begin.”
Producing the lights festival the week before Thanksgiving was a strategic decision. The GNMAA committee knew it didn’t want to hold the event the Friday after Thanksgiving because that day is already extremely busy on Michigan Avenue. Through marketing research, they discovered one of the lightest public relations periods was during the weekend before Thanksgiving. They decided to take advantage of a time when typically not many events are promoted.
“Before the lights festival, holiday lights traditionally went on Michigan Avenue the Monday before Thanksgiving, but it was anti-climactic,” says Eli’s Cheesecake President Marc Schulman, GNMAA board member and founding chair of the lights festival. “A crew went out and just did it, and suddenly they were on. Years before, starlets would come and light the lights. I saw the potential. But, we didn’t want to duplicate Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York. We needed something that would fit Michigan Avenue.
“It made sense to have it early and kick off the holiday season before the traditional busiest shopping day of the year, the day after Thanksgiving,” Schulman says. “We came up with a magical and fun procession on a day that many retailers now report to be their biggest sales day of the year.”
Maxson says advancing the busiest shopping day of the year by nearly a week and extending the most concentrated shopping period creates a competitive edge against alternatives in Chicago’s suburbs — which are all competing for the same dollar. Additionally, the event sustains North Michigan Avenue as a peer of other experiential world-class venues like Beverly Hill’s Rodeo Drive, New York City’s Fifth Avenue and Paris’ Champs-Elysées.
“We want to remain one of the premier shopping and hospitality destinations in the world. That’s why the festival is always the week before Thanksgiving,” Maxson says. “Our goal is to help our members extend their best season with more holiday shoppers and visitors. Come see our kick-off holiday event. Then, stay and shop.”
At the time of the inaugural Magnificent Mile Lights Festival, hotel occupancy stood around 33 percent.
“Before the lights festival, the big holiday shopping push started after Thanksgiving and you could shoot a cannon through most restaurants the week before Thanksgiving,” says John Chikow, member of The Magnificent Mile Lights Festival Steering Committee, 2002-03 festival chair and a founding committee member of the event.
Four years after the event’s inception, hotel occupancy reached and has sustained 99 percent the week before Thanksgiving, according to the GNMAA. Restaurants and parking facilities also report that they are at capacity. Retailers have seen their sales increase 5 to 7 percent annually since 2002. Some retailers report sales are higher the day of the
lights festival than the Friday after Thanksgiving.
Now, getting a seat in a restaurant on the festival weekend is as difficult as during the National Restaurant Association’s Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show or Mother’s Day, Chikow said, who is a top volunteer for GNMAA and the U.S. compliance and development manager for Dynamex Inc.
Hoteliers and the restaurateurs were the first to support the event. “They had a void and organized to fill it,” Chikow says. “If it wasn’t for them, this event wouldn’t have gotten off the ground. Around the third year of the festival, as the economic impact hit the retailers, they came on board. This is also when Walt Disney Corporation became a major partner and
Disney paired up with many retailers to host ‘meet and greets’ with Disney characters.”
Store owners in The 900 Shops at 900 N. Michigan since 1988, when the property opened, noticed the increased level of activity in the shopping center and on Michigan Avenue once the lights festival began.
“The atmosphere that day is just as bustling as the day after Thanksgiving,” says Barbara Corrigan, senior marketing manager of The 900 Shops. “It’s an absolutely magical experience. People all have smiles on their faces. It is the highlight of all the events on Michigan Avenue , it’s exciting and is very important to the retail world.”
Even if spectators are not specifically shopping that day, the experience of seeing the illuminated avenue makes them want to return to recapture that holiday experience, Corrigan says. “It introduces them to retailers they might not have been aware of before.”
Anne Findley, manager of Hershey’s stores on 822 N. Michigan Ave., says last year’s event marked the store’s biggest sales day of 2005.
“It was such an exciting experience last year that two people from the home office (in Hershey, Pa.) are hoping to make the trip this year to see what it’s all about,” says Findley, whose store opened in June, 2005.
Nicole Jachimiak, the 2006 Magnificent Mile Lights Festival volunteer chair and director of marketing and public relations at the Swissotel Chicago, says the hotel has been sold out the weekend of the festival for the past 10 years. Before the festival, capacity was at 30 percent.
Past festival chair Grant DePorter, who also is managing partner for Harry Caray’s Restaurants, says he saw results in 1996, the first year he volunteered.
“I was walking around the day of the event in a Santa hat, handing out holiday activity guides,” says DePorter, a member of The Magnificent Mile Lights Festival Steering Committee since 1998. “I explained to people I own Harry Caray’s. People said they’ve heard of it, and asked where it was located — which is only four blocks from the procession route. So many
people came that day that we ran out of food at lunch time. It turned a slow day for us into one of the busiest days of the year.
“People make a day of it; they come down for the shows during the day and then the lights procession at night. The whole region benefits. Not everyone can eat on Michigan Avenue, so they branch out to the surrounding neighborhood. Now every restaurant is packed around River North. We’re all experiencing the same thing.”
Measures of success
GNMAA quantifies and qualifies the success of each year’s event. Past and current chairs gather shortly after the event to establish goals for the upcoming year’s festival. Festival organizers set three main goals: 1) number of event attendees and the live television broadcast audience; 2) number of volunteers; and 3) number of sponsorships.
“Each year, the event is enhanced and, in turn, that increases the number of attendees, volunteers and sponsorships,” Jachimiak says.
Festival crowds first surpassed 1 million after the 9/11 tragedy. “After 9/11, the first city-wide event was the Columbus Day parade. While it was a nice event, it was a bit somber,” Chikow says. “I think people were wondering whether it was OK to have a good time so close to the national tragedy. It was an uncertain time and we just didn’t know how the lights festival was going to go.” That year, attendance was about 20 to 30 percent larger than previous years and that volume has sustained. “The lights festival that year was the first event where people seemed to let their hair
down and smile,” he says.
News outlets around the country are promoting the festival at an increasing rate. In 2005, the broadcast media audience was 20.5 million people — an increase of 47 percent from 2004, says Ellen Farrar, GNMAA’s vice president of marketing and communications. Some viewers are watching the festival broadcast from local station WGN-TV Channel 9 and nationally via the
WGN Superstation. Others learn of the event through coverage by CNN, The Weather Channel, MSNBC and Fox News. Individuals in certain outside markets including Washington, D.C., Phoenix, New York, St. Louis, Tampa, Houston and many other locations are able to tune in as well. Throngs of individuals also are logging onto themagnificentmile.com for more information. In November, 2005, more than 52,000 first-time users accessed the site.
As attendance and entertainment increases, volunteer needs increase. Jachimiak saw the number of volunteers rise from 200, when she became a volunteer coordinator four years ago, to 650 in 2006. Additional pre-procession entertainment, more vehicles in the procession, larger and more elaborate displays and special effects entails additional volunteer help.
“We are fortunate to have volunteers that have the dedication and passion that our leaders do,” she says. “It’s the one event that is very heart-warming. It brings personal and professional gratification. Volunteers return year after year.” In 2006, 30 volunteers from Columbia College returned to help with virtually every aspect of the event — from stage shows to
GNMAA staff’s role is one of facilitator, Maxson says. They motivate and recruit volunteers, set up facilities and ensure the mission of the committee is being fulfilled. They are accountable for the
overall management of the event. But, says Karen Hickey, GNMAA membership director: “This event simply would not be possible without many key volunteer leaders and an army of willing and savvy volunteers.” The lights festival also is an opportune way to introduce participation in GNMAA, Hickey says, which has 35 volunteer-driven committees that carry out the work of the organization. About 350 volunteers serve on these committees.
In the first years of the lights festival, a contingent of only 35 key volunteers was required. By 1996, it became apparent that a committee-of-the-whole approach would not continue to work, and a more segmented organizational structure was needed to effectively manage the details and steer the process of the development and execution of the event. Simultaneously, more attention was being given to growing event leaders. As a result, GNMAA created two major festival committees — operations and marketing — which boast 100 volunteers. Six operational sub-committees have since formed that assist with event production and crowd safety. Opportunities on both committees range from the coordination of the procession marshal to disabled viewing along the procession route to creating The Magnificent Mile Holiday Activity Guide.
Around 2001, city budget issues arose and to augment the necessary police security for the event, GNMAA organized the single largest volunteer Chicago’s Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS) program in the city — recruiting and training around 175 volunteers to assist with procession security such as traffic control. The training program was developed by a memberof the Chicago Police Department and coordinated by association volunteers.
The volunteer process starts two weeks after the previous year’s event by asking volunteers to return the next year. The formal recruitment process starts in May, when past volunteers who have not yet responded are contacted by mail and e-mail with a sign-up sheet. In that timeframe, the committee co-chairs also identify key people who are willing to train volunteers. That’s also when event sponsors are invited to participate in the “adopt-a-block program,” in which two captains and 10 to 30 volunteers from a sponsoring organization manage a block along the procession route. Organizations participate to experience team building, Jachimiak says. She adds that volunteers must be recruited by members or staff.
Two days before the event, volunteers attend a two-hour orientation for welcoming remarks, introductions and break-out sessions for 10 specific areas ranging from procession safety to pre-procession entertainment to stage shows to surveys. As recognition, GNMAA also gives volunteer pins that note the number of years volunteers have been involved. People treat it as a badge of honor. They have to earn the pin, and they are proud of the amount of time they have contributed to this event,” Farrar says.
At 6 a.m. event morning, the final set-up begins: first, for the 11 a.m. hands-on activities and stage shows; then, at 5 p.m., when the avenue closes for pre-procession entertainment; again, at 6 p.m., when The Magnificent Mile Lights Festival Procession begins; and, lastly, at 6:55 p.m., when the festival literally ends with a bang — the fireworks display.
“The careful identification of board level volunteer leadership, as well as staff selected over the years, had an immense impact on the event’s growth,” Chikow says. “Allowing the event to expand also required many levels of civic involvement and encouragement. This required a multi-faceted education and influence process from the association’s leaders — both staff and volunteers.”Getting and staying involved
Six past chairs of the event remain involved. One of them, Harry Caray’s Grant DePorter, says he stays active because of what he experienced his first day as a volunteer.
“It was unexpectedly kind-of fun and I couldn’t believe its instantaneous impact on our business,” he says. “I saw how important this was not only to me, but the whole city of Chicago — to not only increase business, but also increase the exposure.
“I’ve ridden in a procession vehicle with my wife. And I’ve gotten to watch my 11-year-old children growing up with this and see them react to the Disney characters. This festival really is a family affair. Kids have a great time and adults like to remember that time in their childhood.”
Eli’s Marc Schulman, who was festival chairman for the first four years, says it’s like presiding over “Chicago’s Rose Parade.” “I’m still involved because it’s one of the most significant things I’ve been involved in,” he says. “I don’t go to every meeting now; sometimes you just have to be a cheerleader for the event. But you feel so emotionally strong about it because it’s grown into something so big. It’s tremendous how it has caught on to such a degree that it is considered the leading event for the
holidays. Yet, it continues to be a very community- and volunteer-driven event.”
It’s worth the time and commitment to be a volunteer, and be behind the work that sets Michigan Avenue aglow, Schulman adds. “It’s been an important part of my life as a resident, community service member and business owner. I live on Michigan Avenue, I chaired GNMAA 12 years ago and I am president of Eli’s Cheesecake Company, so I have many reasons to stay involved.”
Chikow says the reason why he remains active is because he ties many of his personal and professional achievements to his festival involvement. “My involvement started with selfish business reasons — to grow and develop my business — but now it has evolved,” he says. “I am proud to watch so many people get involved and grow themselves. We grow leaders.”
For example, current event chair Nicole Jachimiak’s involvement began seven years ago on the marketing committee when coordinating the windows judging competition. Her responsibilities increased through the years.
“We regularly pitch senior leaders that the lights festival is a great opportunity for them to grow their people in leadership roles outside their organization. This event involves out-of-the-box thinking, networking, problem solving, people management, etc. on a different scale, all of which positively reflects back on the member organization,” Chikow says.
The first two years of the lights festival were more homespun in programming and detail, Chikow says. Traffic didn’t even stop
on the avenue.
When Walt Disney Company called the GNMAA to inquire about becoming a major partner, it significantly raised the level of the event from 1993 and beyond — providing Mickey Mouse as master of ceremonies, stage acts with Disney characters and production support. The festival received another giant boost in 1994, when GNMAA partnered with the Tribune Company and
WGN, enabling the event to be televised nationally, instead of a half-hour local broadcast.
In 2000, GNMAA looked at improving the experience for attendees and decided to expand the procession entertainment by 40 minutes, which involved recruiting local groups to provide entertainment while people awaited the procession.
Three years ago, volunteers began performing “man-on-the-street” surveys during the event for the committee’s and sponsors’ benefit. The surveys are conducted to determine the demographics and motivation of the event audience and to understand the impact of the marketing endeavors for the event, Farrar says.
The lights festival also became the catalyst for the creation of GNMAA’s other annual, large-scale, seasonal marketing events on “The Magnificent Mile,” a slogan trademarked by GNMAA and created in 1947 as part of an extensive promotional campaign. Gardens of The Magnificent Mile, Tulip Days on The Magnificent Mile and Light Nights on The Magnificent Mile are growing in popularity and attracting national attention.
“We wanted to experiment with other time periods to do something similar, though we knew we couldn’t create an event of the same magnitude as the lights festival with the time and manpower it requires,” Chikow says. “Still, these events are strategic and enable association members to partner with local and state tourism efforts.”
As the lights festival entered its 15th anniversary this year, many new activities and features were introduced. This year marks the first year of an important economic development. Harris, a financial service organization headquartered in Chicago, entered a three-year agreement to become the first presenting sponsor. GNMAA also enhanced and expanded its other sponsorship agreements. The association doesn’t divulge how much of its $1.1 million annual budget is earmarked for the lights festival, but says the majority of the cost is absorbed by sponsorship support and in-kind donations for facilities, food, publicity, equipment and other needs.
New procession vehicles were introduced this year, as well as the use of snow machines and a “Chicago version” of balloons. Another new feature this year is the American Girl Theater joining the festival, providing four holiday stage shows.
Goal: 3rd Largest Holiday Event
While The Magnificent Mile Lights Festival is already touted as the country’s first major holiday event, the GNMAA also wants it to be one of the nation’s largest.
“Our goal is to make our lights celebration become America’s third largest holiday season activity, outside of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and The Rose Parade,” Maxson says. That achievement can be measured by comparing attendance figures and national reach through public relations and televised broadcasts, Farrar adds.
“We already are in line with attendance figures and are emerging as tied as the largest single-day event in our city,”Farrar says. Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade recorded 2.5
million attendees in 2005, the Rose Parade had nearly 1 million spectators in 2006 and the July 3 fireworks in Chicago reported less than 1.1 million attendees in 2006.
Jachimiak believes it’s possible the lights festival can become the third largest holiday event as it’s the only major holiday evening event and lighting procession. She also believes the festival
stands out because of its content and its family focus.
“Here, you don’t see coolers. You see families and children with smiling faces,” Jachimiak says. “Families return every year.”
That is exactly the feedback Hickey receives each year from faithful and dedicated spectators.
“One e-mail from a family mentioned how they love the ability to see Mickey Mouse and many other Disney characters without having to travel to Florida or California. Another mentioned how her family makes the festival an annual holiday tradition and brings their entire, extended family,” Hickey says.
That’s also true for Mary Oelerich, who made sacrifices on occasion to attend each festival the last 15 years.
This year, Oelerich had to choose between attending her long-time babysitter’s wedding or the lights festival. Both the wedding and reception were downtown, but the reception started at 6 p.m. — in the midst of the festival entertainment and her traditional holiday gathering with family and friends.
“When we found out the timing of Meagan’s wedding, we called her right away and said, ‘That’s the lights festival! What are you thinking?’ We ended up telling her we’ll go to the Mass, but not the reception. She’s understanding.”
About the GNMAA
GNMAA was founded in 1913 to plan and promote the development and beautification of Michigan Avenue and help transform the avenue into a major commercial boulevard. GNMAA represents the interests of a broad membership of 660 organizations. Nearly half of the membership represents the tourism industry, including restaurants, hotels, retail stores, cultural attractions, various personal services, nightlife and travel services. The other half of its membership is comprised of professional services such as law firms, real estate, sign companies, landscape companies, printers, advertising and public relations firms, accounting firms, healthcare organizations, educational institutions, transportation and more.
A staff of 10 full-time association professionals and four interns manage the association.
-Market the Magnificent Mile district as a premier retail and travel destination.
- Create networking opportunities for members.
- Protect and enhance the streetscape through close vigilance over architectural changes by working with developers, architects, landscapers and the City of Chicago to ensure that visiting, living and working on The Magnificent Mile is enhanced.
- Establish, facilitate and host an annual gala, four quarterly meetings, membership projects and fund-raising
Magnificent Mile Stats
• A commercial district of 460 retail stores and morethan 275 restaurants
• A visitor destination featuring 52 hotels offering
• 50,000 pedestrians walk Michigan Avenue every day
• 22 million visitors each year
• 40-plus parkway gardens
• $1.9 billion in retail sales generated annually
• 3.3 million square feet of retail space
Magnificent Mile Lights FestivalBy The Numbers
• 1 million lights
• 850,000 to 1 million attendees each year
• 650 volunteers• 200 trees
• 100-member strategic committee
• 48 snow blasts
• 35 acts of pre-procession entertainment
• 30 vehicles in lighting procession vehicles
(Mickey and eight friends, city departments, sponsors)
• 16 pyrotechnic-shoots
• 16 city blocks
• 8 stage shows
• 6 past chairman still involved
• 6 major sponsors and content partners
• 1 presenting sponsor
• 1 amazing fireworks show
Heather Ryndak may be reached at email@example.com .