By: Abraham Tekippe April 12, 2013
After nearly a decade and a half in the hotel industry, Nichole Williamson is taking her career to new heights.
As the new general manager of the John Hancock Observatory, Ms. Williamson, 32, is leading a multi-phase redevelopment of the tourist attraction, which was acquired by Paris-based Montparnasse 56 Group for $45 million last June.
Her mission: to make the observatory on the 94th floor of the John Hancock Center a must-see destination for tourists and locals alike.
“Because we’ve been part of the skyline since 1969, sometimes I think the observatory is not necessarily at the top of people’s minds when it comes to a vital place to come visit,” Ms. Williamson said. “We’ve got so much to offer . . . and our biggest challenge will be going to market and making sure people know that.”
Ms. Williamson and her team kicked off the redevelopment effort last month with the installation of 15 interactive monitors on the venue’s observation deck, allowing guests to experience a self-guided, multilingual tour of the Chicago skyline.
By Memorial Day, she said, the observatory plans to unveil an improved queuing area on the building’s concourse level, complete with an expanded ticketing desk, self-serve kiosks and a new 2,100-square-foot retail store carved out of underused space.
After that, Ms. Williamson said, Montparnasse plans to install a “guest experience” on the concourse level while making improvements to the 94th floor. She declined to discuss specifics, saying the changes are “in the early design stage,” but the company plans to wrap up the project by the end of first-quarter 2014, just in time for the U.S. Travel Association’s International Pow Wow, a five-day trade show that Chicago is scheduled to host next April.
The question is whether the changes will narrow the attendance gap between the observatory and Willis Tower’s Skydeck Chicago, which underwent an $8 million renovation in 2009.
About 530,000 people visited the Hancock Observatory last year, about the same as 2011 and nearly a third of the Skydeck’s visitors during the same period, according to a Montparnasse spokesman and Skydeck General Manager Randy Stancik. Attendance at the Skydeck has jumped more than 40 percent since 2008, from about 1.1 million to 1.6 million, according to Mr. Stancik and a Crain’s list of the city’s largest tourist attractions.
The addition of the Ledge, a set of glass cubes that jut out from the building 1,353 feet above ground, has contributed to the increase, Mr. Stancik said.
“The numbers don’t lie,” said Mr. Stancik, also vice president at U.S. Equities Realty LLC, which handles leasing and management at Willis Tower. “We are on an incredible pace here and the nice thing about it is we’re bringing locals back.”
Willis Tower’s status as the tallest skyscraper in the Western Hemisphere—it’s 1,451-feet tall versus 1,128 for the Hancock, according to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat—gives it an edge, even though the Hancock is more conveniently located for tourists, some of whom may decide to visit one but not both of the skyscrapers, said Rob Hunden, president of Chicago-based real estate consulting firm Hunden Strategic Partners.
“It’s just something that people have on their bucket list,” he said. “I think the Skydeck is always going to have that sort of advantage over the Hancock.”
While Ms. Williamson sees “the potential” in Skydeck’s attendance numbers, catching or surpassing the competition isn’t her No. 1 priority, she said.
“Is the Skydeck visitorship this number that we have written up in the office that we target? Not necessarily,” she said. “We’re much more focused on the experience that we offer the guests.”
Montparnasse bought the observatory from a partnership including Deutsche Bank A.G., which took over the Hancock building last year and is selling it off in pieces in an effort to boost its return on investment.
A native of Crystal Lake, Ms. Williamson earned her bachelor’s degree from DePaul University in 2003.
She joined the observatory last month after spending more than 14 years in the hotel business, most recently as hotel manager of the 500-room Doubletree Chicago Magnificent Mile, southeast of the Hancock building. Prior to that, she served as general manager of the Aloft Washington National Harbor near Washington, D.C., and hotel manager and director of operations at the Inn of Chicago.
In addition to spending much of her career along the Magnificent Mile, Ms. Williamson recalled making regular trips into the city while growing up, often staying with her family next door to the Hancock building. For her, the role of general manager is a new title in a familiar location.
“The first place I remember being allowed to go when I was allowed to wander around the city by myself was the observatory, so I have a personal connection to the 94th floor,” she said. “I’m motivated by a desire to remind Chicago and the visitors of how unique the experience is up there and really how spectacular the views of the city are.”