Palmer House, a Hilton Hotel, has been catering to travelers in downtown Chicago for more than 140 years. With a long and lush history, the property has hosted almost every U.S. president since Ulysses S. Grant. The hotel’s famed Empire Room—now a venue for lavish weddings and high-end corporate events—was once a supper club that showcased the top performers of the day, including Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and Louis Armstrong, just to name a few. According to Ken Price, Palmer House’s director of public relations and resident historian, it is the people who built and stayed at Palmer House who are responsible for its rich history. “It is their blood, guts, and DNA that make it so fascinating,” he said.
Price is especially well versed in the origins of the hotel and family who built it—the Palmers. Constructed as a wedding gift from Chicago entrepreneur Potter Palmer to his bride, Bertha Honoré, the original Palmer House was open for less than two weeks before it was destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. The hotel was rebuilt at Bertha’s insistence, a decision that Price credits with helping the city get back on its feet after the cataclysmic blaze. The Palmers, especially Bertha, would continue to play a massive role in Chicago’s growth and prominence.
To highlight the property’s history, Price, who has worked at Palmer House for more than 30 years, gives guests of the hotel a special tour, “History is Hott.” The tour allows guests to visit Price’s self-curated, in-house museum, stuffed full of relics from years past. It also gives them an opportunity to travel through the hotel with Price leading the way, explaining the history of the different spaces, many of which received a facelift during a $170 million renovation project between 2007 and 2009.
Palmer House attracts all types of guests, from tourists looking for a hotel with historical significance to business travelers hoping to take in some of Chicago’s culture. It is the latter group in which Palmer House has seen a sharp uptick in attendance, and as such the hotel has started to develop programs meant to cater to this audience. Through its new Building a Business Travel Community program, the hotel hosts private events in business travelers’ honor, encouraging them to leave their rooms and socialize with other guests. Past events have included making gingerbread houses with Palmer House’s pastry chef and learning about Palmer House’s rooftop beehive, which produces honey that is used in the hotel’s cocktails.
For its most recent Building a Business Travel Community event, Palmer House partnered with Stop Hunger Now, a charity that sends food and life-saving aid to vulnerable populations and is working to end global hunger. During the event, which took place on April 21, volunteers filled, weighed, and sealed bags of nutritious meals, then packaged the bags into boxes and loaded them onto pallets for shipment.
Before volunteers manned their stations, Gene Hare, director of sales and marketing, Hiltons of Chicago, gave volunteers a pep talk highlighting not only the good that participants were doing for their community, but also calling attention to the need for people to connect with each other on a personal level while traveling. “The important thing about these events is that we get a chance to connect outside of our business lives. We all have crazy schedules. It’s so cool and so rewarding to watch people from totally different types of companies get together and work like this,” he said.
This is the second time that Palmer House has partnered with Stop Hunger Now. Volunteers included employees of the hotel, Hilton employees from around the country, employees of neighboring Chicago institutions, such as the Art Institute, and Palmer House guests who only learned about the event when they checked in to their rooms that day. Together, the volunteers packaged more than 10,000 bags of food (60,000-plus meals) for hungry people.
Devin Walker, program manager, Indianapolis, Stop Hunger Now, said that actually packaging the food can make much more of an impact on volunteers than simply making a monetary donation. “If you’re hands-on person, and you want to get your hands dirty, you’re actually putting food in a box for someone who really needs it. It’s very powerful,” she said. Walker added that Hilton has always been a great sponsor of Stop Hunter Now. “They’ve always supported our mission, and I’m always excited to get a chance to work with them.”
By all accounts, the event was a great success. “In the end, you feel like you’ve really accomplished something special, and that, ultimately, is what we’re about,” Hare said. “We want to be a part of something special, be a part of a bigger community, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”