Chicago’s Auto Show: The $16 Billion Gorilla

The murmur generally starts just after Christmas, when the public sees the first glimpses of the Chairman of the Chicago Auto Show on TV, pitching for the wildly successful First Look for Charity. Then, gradually and steadily, the tempo builds for six weeks leading up to the opening of the nation’s biggest auto show, this year in its 99th edition in the Windy City.

Over each day of its 10-day run, the turnstiles at McCormick Place will process tens of thousands of Midwesterners, all eager to escape the battleship gray mentality of February and to entertain the thought of replacing the current rolling residents of their garages.

But why all the hoopla? Why is it that virtually every television station in the market will have its reporters camped out from early morning to late at night? Why will the newspapers print multiple special sections that feature virtually every aspect of what goes on at the show? Why are the displays inside punctuated with radio stations doing remote broadcasts to promote the show and their programming?

The answer is simple and you’ve heard it before: Follow the money.

So sure, you can say that with as many people who attend the media preview, the show, and the 1.3 million sq. ft. of display space bedecked with the most astounding displays anywhere in the world, the impact must be huge. And truly, it is. But where is the real impact? It’s certainly not important to the automotive industry how well McCormick Place does or how well-stuffed are the 69,000 hotel rooms that surround it.

It’s not a stretch to think that the “Dieters, Ricks, Bills, Jims” and their counterparts really don’t give a rip about the travel and convention industry. They seem to be as more focused on selling product—and that is the genius and effect of what goes on during these upcoming 10 days on the shores of Lake Michigan.

The economic impact those CEOs and their stockholders care about lasts throughout the year. The post-show surge in sales at dealerships across the huge and influential Chicago market is palpable and annually account for more than $16 billion in new-car sales. Think about that number for a moment, would you? $16 billion, put another way, is 16 thousand million dollars. Add to that staggering number the revenues of used vehicles, parts and service and the total swells to nearly $26 billion. Comprehending numbers like that is tough, but it demonstrates the enormity of what might on the surface appear to be just an “annual event.”

The Chicago Auto Show is considered by the industry as the show where all the balloons, confetti and hoo-rah meet the cold reality of a neutral playing field and a sea of consumers who aren’t tied to the industry in any way other than which dealership they choose to enter and spend their hard-earned dollars. When the industry blips the consumers’ radar screens you can measure the true economic impact of a show. A $16 billion blip is not a blip. It’s big. It’s why 15 manufacturers build the biggest auto show displays they build anywhere in the world right here in Chicago.

Simply put, it makes the Chicago Auto Show the place for automotive consumers.

Now that is economic impact.

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