Skip to main content

"It's hard to compete with Mickey Mouse": Why Chicago recruits international influencers to promote the city

ChicagoGlobal by AJ Caughey
Alejandro Reyes/Choose Chicago
Two people at the front of a boat with the Chicago skyline behind them.

Chicago's strategy to boost international tourism through partnerships, like Brazilian influencer Lucas Estevam, aims to attract diverse audiences with tailored experiences.

Lucas Estevam travels for work. He just does it a little differently than your average road warrior. 

Estevam is a travel influencer from Brazil with over three million subscribers across Instagram and Youtube. As part of that work, tourism boards around the world — from Australia and Turkey to the EU and Chicago — have paid for him to visit and promote their destinations on social media. His sponsored trips can include airfare, luxury hotel stays, event tickets and, in Chicago’s case, even a spot riding on a double-decker bus in the Lights Festival holiday parade. 

Choose Chicago, the city’s mostly publicly-funded tourism agency, relies on international influencers like Estevam to reach would-be tourists outside the United States. In 2022, almost 49 million people visited Chicago, generating nearly $17 billion and helping sustain about 120,000 tourism-sector jobs. Still, only about 3% of those travelers were from other countries — a far lower rate than in New York and Miami, where international tourists accounted for 17% and 22% of all visits, respectively. 

“There’s more we can do on an international level,” Isaac Reichman, Choose Chicago’s corporate communications director, told ChicagoGlobal. “And everyone that’s ahead of us is on the East or West Coast. There’s a real opportunity.” 

As part of its strategy, Choose Chicago is ramping up trips for media and influencers. In 2022, the agency hosted over 160 influencers from across the U.S. and abroad; last year, that grew to 290. Choose Chicago particularly targets content creators in the U.K., Brazil, Canada, Germany, France, and Mexico. 

 “What we’re trying to do is compete with coastal cities that are more known internationally,” Reichman said. 

How Chicago sells itself

In Mexico, Jessica Segura is best known for playing Tecla in the sitcom “Una Familia de Diez,” but she’s finding new fame on YouTube with her podcast “Envinadas,” where she and her co-hosts — all close friends and former child actors — swap stories, share advice, and talk travel with 900,000 subscribers.

Choose Chicago sponsored a trip to Chicago for Segura and her co-hosts in November 2022, building an itinerary around both their channel’s audience and the city’s tourism strategy — one pillar of which is increasing visits during the holiday season. 

Segura, a self-described “crazy girl for Christmas,” said the trip was perfect: the group heard carolers at ZooLights in Lincoln Park, got hot chocolate in novelty mugs at the Christkindlmarket, and snapped photos at one of Wrigleyville’s holiday pop-up bars.  

“Everything was magical,” she said. 

Subscribe to ChicagoGlobal

This story first appeared in the ChicagoGlobal newsletter, a joint project of Crain's Chicago Business and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.


They also found a taste of home at Tzuco, a Mexican restaurant from Michelin-starred chef Carlos Gaytán featuring food from the state of Guerrero. 

“There are a lot of places that have ‘Mexican food,’” Segura said, making air quotes. But “there are very specific things in Mexico that no one knows how to cook” that she found at Gaytán’s restaurant, like cochinita pibil.

“The people that follow us, our community, get into the experience with us. And they were like, ‘Oh my God, what [did] you try? When did you try that?’” she said. 

“It’s kind of crazy because right now it’s like we are a travel agency,” she said with a laugh. “They say, ‘We’re gonna go there, where is it, can you send me the link?’”

French influencer Marc Nouss gained a following as a photographer shooting cityscapes in Paris, and he’s found that Chicago’s architecture is what resonates most with his audience. He’s partnered with Choose Chicago about half a dozen times, so his audience is used to seeing him in the city. 


A post shared by Marc Nouss (@marc_nouss)

“French people know a lot about New York and Miami,” he said. “So when I post in Chicago for the first time, people will be like, ‘Surprising, wow — it looks super cool!’”

Nouss explained that, to Americans, Paris might look like a museum of sorts with unique, beautiful architecture. 

“But here,” he said, “we aren’t used to skyscrapers — we have very few. When I got to Chicago, I’m amazed by this kind of architecture — it’s super nice. It’s a real playground for photography.” 

And, like many other international tourists, Nouss loves Chicago’s transit system. 

“What I really appreciate is — I know for you, maybe it sounds dumb — but the metro line [being] outside … it’s something really unique.” 

The Second City

Estevam thinks that, for his Brazilian audience, Chicago is probably still not the first choice for U.S. travel, since it’s competing against better-known cities and tourist destinations like Disney parks. But he does see an opportunity for the city to attract travelers who have been to the States before and are looking to try something new. 

When he first came to Chicago in 2017, he struggled to find content about the city that wasn’t in English. Now, he says, he sees more organic content in German, Spanish, and Portuguese. 

“If you’re Brazilian and you’re planning a trip to Chicago, and you watch a Brazilian talk about Chicago, that moves you way more than if you watch an American talking about Chicago with subtitles in Portuguese,” Estevam said. 

Choose Chicago hopes partnering with influencers like Estevam will generate more native-language content for international travelers that reaches them organically on social media. 

“I don’t see many big cities doing this,” said Estevam.

“It’s really hard to compete with Mickey Mouse, but I think you guys are getting there.” 

This story first appeared in the ChicagoGlobal newsletter, a joint project of Crain's Chicago Business and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Subscribe today.

About the Author
Data Journalist
Council expert AJ Caughey is pictured outside in a plaid shirt looking into the camera smiling
AJ Caughey is a data journalist at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He previously covered Chinese and US tech policy at Protocol and, prior to his career in journalism, administered United States State Department exchange programs at Meridian International Center.
Council expert AJ Caughey is pictured outside in a plaid shirt looking into the camera smiling