IFB returns to a renovated Palmer House in December

By Tammie Sloup

Dean Lane just needs to look at the Palmer House parking garage to know Illinois Farm Bureau’s Annual Meeting has started.

“I love to see ... all the pickup trucks. It signals the Illinois Farm Bureau has arrived,” said Lane, the Chicago hotel’s general manager.

The Palmer House has hosted the group of more than 1,000 IFB members, staff and guests nearly 30 times since 1973. The annual conference has been in Chicago continuously since 2011, except for last year when the conference was virtual.

While business is the priority, the four-day conference is also about the experience.

“It’s a tradition for the Illinois Farm Bureau to be in Chicago at the Palmer House the first full weekend in December,” said IFB President Richard Guebert Jr.

“It’s an opportunity for folks to go to the big city, have different experiences from shopping on the Magnificent Mile, to different restaurants providing different experiences, and museums … our members take advantage of being in Chicago.”

And a stay at the Palmer House is the icing on the cake.

Conference-goers this year can look forward to a return to the storied hotel Dec. 4-7.

The hotel reopened June 17 after a 14-month shutdown, unveiling a scrubbed down, partially renovated interior that cost $4.2 million. Half of that cost was refurbishing a swimming pool installed in 1963. Located on the 7 ½ floor, the 14,000-gallon pool sits atop the Grand State Ballroom.

Staff vacuumed more than four miles of carpeting, replaced 17,000 batteries and 10,000 light bulbs, touched up paint, replaced HVAC filters and repaired furniture, among other tasks.

“We did a complete punch of every room,” Lane said. The hotel has 1,641 guest rooms.

While it was being repaired and polished, Lane said the guest-less hotel was unsettling.

“I never got used to the hotel being empty.”

When the hotel reopened – just in time for its 150th anniversary – Lane was teary-eyed with happiness for guests and appreciation for staff.

“I was there to welcome them and unlock the door; it was very emotional personally to not only see our guests but team members in uniform assisting guests,” said Lane, who’s managed the hotel since 2006.

While many of the retail and restaurant businesses on site haven’t yet reopened, guests have a few options for a quick bite or to grab a cocktail with friends. The onsite Starbucks hasn’t yet reopened, but the new Lockwood Express located off the lobby is a “high octane grab-and-go” option, Lane said, adding selections range from breakfast sandwiches to dry snacks to adult and child beverages. (Fun fact: the brownie was created in the Palmer House kitchen in the late 19th Century and is still one of the hotel’s most popular confections.) Breakfast also is available, and patrons can order small plate fare from the lobby menu after 4 p.m.

While the food and beverage outlets are not at pre-pandemic level, Lane expects demand to increase and in turn, hours to expand, especially by the IFB’s December conference. He’s optimistic restaurants and retail will bounce back.

And reopening the Palmer House could be the catalyst.

“It really cascades to so many local businesses,” Lane said.

Nearby business owners previously approached Lane concerned the hotel would never reopen. Coupled with the closure, the hotel is in foreclosure. New York-based owner Thor Equities defaulted on mortgage payments, and until the conclusion of the foreclosure process, CHMWarnick is providing advisory services on behalf of the lender and working with Hilton, which manages the hotel.

The Palmer is opening in phases, with less than half of the rooms now available for reservations. But as demand picks up heading into convention season and events such as Lollapalooza, and more staff is brought back, more floors and rooms will open.

“There’s encouraging signs with business travelers, but it hasn’t come back. It’s probably 20% of where we were pre-pandemic.”

Another struggle is the familiar storyline of violence in Chicago’s streets. Lane said hotel guests can be assured the hotel’s security staff constantly communicates with the Chicago Police Department.

“We are on the front line from a communication perspective,” said Lane, who also complimented the Chicago Loop Alliance’s State Street Ambassadors, who provide hospitality services while helping keep the area safe and clean.

IFB continues to adjust to members’ needs, and will offer some virtual options for this year’s conference. But Guebert said many are looking forward to celebrating successes and conducting business in person.

For the Illinois Farm Bureau, the historic hotel symbolizes tradition.

To Lane, IFB is part of the hotel’s culture.

“In some cases they know our building better than we do,” he said, laughing. “They have personal relationships with our team members. And the fact that they’re from our home state is incredibly meaningful to all of us, and they take a lot of pride in their stay with us in what is one of Illinois’ grand hotels.”

This story was provided by FarmWeekNow.com.