Grand ballroom back in business

By Bob Seidenberg

The Hilton Orrington/Evanston hotel’s grand ballroom, which sustained serious water damage at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, has been restored and is back in its place as the city’s premier meeting and event space.

Leticia Phocas, the general manager of the hotel, 1710 Orrington Ave., confirmed in a Tuesday email that the ballroom, which has hosted some of the city’s biggest events over the years, has hosted several successful bookings since reopening in July, “and there is strong demand for the coveted Grand Ballroom into the future.”

“This is an exciting time for Hilton Orrington/Evanston as the hotel approaches a 100-year celebration in the heart of Evanston – walking distance to shopping, dining and the lakeshore,” she said. “The Grand Ballroom has been restored to its original grandeur as a premier space generating interest for future meetings, galas and weddings in downtown Evanston.”

Gina Speckman, executive director of Chicago’s North Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau, which works with the city’s hotels to promote Evanston as a destination, first disclosed at a July 26 Economic Development Committee meeting that the hotel ballroom had reopened.

Events ‘went to Skokie or Northbrook

The venue had been closed since early in the pandemic because of damage caused by a water break, Speckman said.

In August 2022, a real estate investor bought the 269-room hotel, which had been facing foreclosure, and announced a major renovation.

“So it’s opening – there’s a conference here now,” Speckman told Economic Development Committee members, meeting at Thomas & Dutch, a restaurant located in the hotel.

“For the last three years every conference and every convention that have needed meaningful space … went to Skokie or Northbrook,” she said. “This is huge for the city that this is reopened. I mean, this is what is needed here because people who have a conference here are eating, shopping and being out in the community.”

The ballroom – nearly 6,000 square feet with 1920s grandeur – has been the preferred choice for staging some of the city’s biggest events, including the Mayor’s State of the City address, Chessmen Club fundraisers, legislative conferences and numerous weddings.

The city has other hotels – including the Hilton Garden Inn, 1818 Maple Ave., and Holiday Inn, 1501 Sherman Ave. – but they are farther from the center of downtown than the the Hilton Orrington, which was built in 1923 and is listed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and a member of the Historic Hotels of America.

Committee backs bureau funding request

Speckman’s comments at the EDC meeting came as members were considering her organization’s annual funding request; the convention and visitors bureau seeks $69,674 for its marketing efforts on behalf of the city.

Paul Zalmezak, Evanston’s economic development manager, recommended approval, noting that “the CVB is the only organization that markets Evanston and major events happening here beyond our primary service area.”

“Their efforts bring activity to Evanston regionally, nationally and internationally,” he said. “It is important that we redouble our efforts to attract visitors to Evanston hotels.”

Evanston is a founding member of the organization, which now represents 11 communities on Chicago’s North Shore (Evanston, Skokie, Glenview, Northfield, Winnetka, Glencoe, Northbrook, Prospect Heights, Wheeling, Lincolnwood and Wilmette.)

The annual fee for Evanston’s membership represents a reduction in dues compared with that the city paid before the pandemic, Zalmezak said.

“The CVB staff creates and administers sales and marketing programs highlighting hotels, restaurants, attractions, and retail which in turn generates sales tax revenue for the City,” he wrote. “The CVB staff works closely with the local hotels, restaurants, the Evanston Chamber of Commerce, Evanston’s three Special Service Areas, and all of Evanston’s merchant districts to identify events the CVB can market regionally/nationally.”

At the meeting, Speckman, the bureau’s longtime leader, said the organization has received new funding, including Cook County American Recovery Plan Action support.

“These additional resources will enhance our sales and marketing programs we steward on behalf of the City of Evanston,” she said.

The Economic Development Committee voted unanimously in support of the $69,674 request, which will next go to the full City Council for a final vote.

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