The Hilton Chicago reopens, bringing jobs, more business to the South Loop

By Anna Busalacchi, Co-Managing Editor

The Hilton Chicago, 720 S. Michigan Ave., is now open for guests for the first time in over a year. K’Von Jackson

A few of the tasks to reopen the Hilton Chicago after it closed for more than a year included cleaning and refilling the swimming pool with 96,000 gallons of water, cleaning and powering on 72 ice machines and purchasing 37,000 batteries for the 1,544 rooms in the hotel.

The Hilton, 720 S. Michigan Ave., is open for business again, after closing for nearly 15 months beginning on March 27, 2020, due to COVID-19. The pandemic devastated the hospitality industry and suspended the use of more than 15,000 rooms in the Chicago market, with the Hilton making up about 10% of that number.

John Wells, general manager of the Hilton Chicago, said preparing for the reopening was a long process.

“I’ve been in this industry for 36 years, and I thought one of the most difficult things to do was to actually close this hotel,” Wells said. “But now to reopen a hotel, even though it’s twice as hard to reopen, it’s so exciting, and it’s so exciting to see the team members coming back.”

The reopening of the Hilton means the restoration of hundreds of jobs in the South Loop and a likely financial boost for nearby businesses.

Wells said as of now they have brought back 200 of the approximately 1,000 employees that were furloughed. He said it is especially emotional for the tenured team members to return, saying before the pandemic their average tenure for employees was more than 12 years.

Wells said he communicated regularly with all team members on furlough when the pandemic hit, sending a weekly message communicating city services, unemployment information, job opportunities and food services available, as well as sharing what other team members were doing in their own communities.

“It was a way to stay in touch with our culture and keep that culture alive by communicating to our team members throughout. I’m actually doing my 61st message this Friday, and I’m going to continue to do those until we get through this whole period that we’re in,” Wells said.

The historic Chicago hotel was built in 1927. The hotel consists of 2.3 million square feet and is reopening in increments, starting with five floors on Thursday, June 10, and gradually increasing to a full reopen as the Fourth of July and the Lollapalooza music festival approach.

Wells said they are not requiring the vaccination of employees, but they are limiting capacity in elevators and requiring proper face masks and social distancing.

Chicagoans and South Loop community members can once again expect to see the flags put out in front of the hotel. The first arriving guests on Thursday received welcome cards signed by team members thanking them for their business.

“We thought it was a good way to tell the city and all the residents of Chicago that the Hilton Chicago is ready to be open again,” Wells said.

Other businesses in the South Loop may also see an uptick in revenue due to the reopening of the Hilton.

“It’s good that they are open because for the [past] years I have had a lot of customers from them,” said Matt Pookait, manager of Thai Spoon and Sushi, 601 S. Wabash Ave.

Mahde Ashkaar, owner of Harold’s Chicken, 612 S. Wabash Ave., said he also expects more business, saying that having staff working at the hotel and hosting conferences will draw more attention to the area, increasing the lunch and dinner crowds.

“I think it’s not just the Hilton, it’s also an overall kind of a community in the South Loop,” Ashkaar said. “We have all the schools, all the universities, high schools, where it just draws in staff, employees, people from out of town, so it’s kind of an overall whole community thing where everybody is working together.”