Driving North on Michigan Avenue, the image became clearer near Wacker Drive.
Yup. That definitely looks like a tulip on the south exterior of the Sheraton Grand Chicago hotel. And that must be a sun with a spray of sunrays in the left corner.
If you’ve driven through downtown this past year, you’ve likely seen other images: a heart at the peak of the pandemic; a gingerbread man at Christmas; a martini glass at New Year’s.
Or maybe the nods to Chicago institutions: a Cubs “W,” the “LU,” when Loyola University progressed in the NCAA Sweet Sixteen.
“I’ll send an idea to the general manager and say, ‘What do you think?’ Then armed with a map of the building, the targeted windows and the room numbers, we unleash our fantastic engineering team,” said Sheraton’s chief engineer, Mike Dukelow.
“They go room to room, switching on the lights. It’s the room lamp and the standing floor lamp — right in front of the windows, with the curtains open.”
Like most of the hospitality industry, Sheraton, one of Chicago’s largest convention hotels, with 125,000 square feet of meeting space on the downtown riverwalk, was shuttered by the pandemic. Its doors closed Mar. 27, 2020, three weeks after COVID-19 halted all travel.
After it closed, 635 employees — 1,000, if you count part-time staff — was reduced to a crew of 32. General Manager Mark Lauer said there was a desire among remaining managers and engineers to connect with a city devastated by the rising death count.
“One of the managers first came to me and said, ‘Everyone’s putting a heart on their buildings.’ I told Mike, let’s do it. After the heart was up a number of months, I challenged him to come up with other ideas,” said Lauer, 63, who lives near his hotel.
Lauer has worked in the industry for 40 years. Before his seven years at the Sheraton was four years with the New York Hilton and nine with the New York Waldorf-Astoria.
“At first we wondered if anyone would even notice. Then we started seeing photos of our window designs all over social media. It was bringing just a little bit of joy, which was all we were trying to do at a very difficult time for so many. And it’s been fun,” the hotelier said.
Like much of the industry, the Sheraton, at 301 E. North Water St., has looked forward to reopening in spring or summer, as vaccines took hold nationwide.
Local economies have begun emerging from a COVID-19 recession that pummeled the leisure and hospitality sector, and spring travel trends were encouraging for summer.
Bookings are starting to come in, and the Sheraton expects to reopen in June.
Illinois remains in a “bridge” phase to a return to normal, with the Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association pushing for larger capacity limits for meetings, conferences and conventions.
“I’ll never forget last March. Everything happened so quickly. My department went from 27 people to 10 — by far one of the worst days of my career, just surreal,” said Dukelow, 50, of Oak Forest, who’s been with the Sheraton for nearly three years.
Prior to that was two years with London House, a year at Trump Tower, 12 1/2 at Ritz Carlton.
Surprisingly, turning the massive windows into an art canvas is very low-tech.
“I print out a picture, put it on a building map and start filling in the windows with a sharpie, then run white correction ribbon over the sharpie to simulate light, label the rooms on the ribbon, and then we go room to room, first of all turning off the old design,” Dukelow said.
“As simple as they’ve been — a snowflake, mug of beer for St. Patty’s Day, heart with ‘XO’ in the middle for Valentine’s — it takes several tries to get them right. Curves are hard to simulate with square windows. Sometimes you’re trying to light half a window.”
Marcus Cornelious, director of sales and marketing, also will never forget last March. For him, it was watching hard-earned bookings of thousands of guests cancel, one after the other.
“About the time the governor’s stay-at-home order went in place, travel in general came to a screeching halt,” recounted Cornelious, 38, of the West Loop, who’s worked at the Sheraton two years.
Before that was The Glen for three years; and several years at New York City hotels — including two with W Hotels there — had followed 10 years with The Langham here.
“I remember sitting around the table, thinking, ‘What can we do to send a message of hope?’ That’s when we came up with the windows,” he said.
“After that initial heart image, people started tagging us in photos of our windows on social media, and calling the hotel, sending handwritten ‘Thank-you’ notes, saying the designs were uplifting them in such a dark time. It was really powerful,” he added.
“In the beginning, it was more about solidarity. Then we started to get more playful. There are brighter days ahead for all of us. And our visuals are changing to match that.”