As the Chicago Auto Show ramps up, its longtime chief looks back
[From Crain's Chicago Business] Chicago’s mighty McCormick Place Convention Center is best known as a host facility for trade shows, corporate meetings and other private, limited-audience events. But its biggest show of the year is a public affair: the Chicago Auto Show, which is expected to draw close to 400,000 people this year, ranking it as the biggest promotional spectacle for cars in the nation.
The show runs Feb. 10 to 19 and occupies an important void in the McCormick calendar, filling local restaurants and hotels and 840,000 square feet of the South Building at a time when cold and snow keep visitors otherwise at bay. The show has also reached a crossroads this February, which marks the anticipated return of the big throngs of visitors last enjoyed four years ago, before the pandemic, as well as the retirement of the show’s longtime general manager, Dave Sloan.
Sloan, 60, is giving up the general manager post as well as his title of president with the sponsoring organization, the Chicago Automobile Trade Association, based in Oakbrook Terrace, after this show. He’s being succeeded by Jennifer Morand, 37, a Lemont native with a strong background in social and digital media who has worked closely with Sloan for the past two years preparing for the handoff.
A decade ago, social and digital media were considered serious threats to the show’s future. With a new generation of consumers negotiating to buy cars online and not visiting traditional retailers at all, why visit a trade show? But crowds were up by nearly 100,000 last year and are expected to be up close to another 100,000 this year. Social media has only expanded the show’s reach, Sloan explains.
“Social media has actually enhanced the show,” Sloan says. “Hundreds of thousands of people come here with phones in their pockets, and they generate all kinds of pictures and video and other content and then push it out to their friends on Facebook and Instagram and TikTok and so on. The shows are very photogenic, and we’ve gained a bigger audience than we ever had in the past.”
The Auto Show has always drawn visitors from around the Midwest eager to see new car models on display. But with the advent of social media, the reach extends far beyond that nationally and even internationally — to 64 million people in all, according to social media surveys. “That’s a crazy number,” Sloan says. “Back in the 1980s we could only have dreamed about reaching that many people.”
There are more than 60 car shows in the U.S., though the marketplace is dominated by just four big ones — in New York, Detroit and Los Angeles, as well as Chicago — but Chicago is the first on the calendar each year and traditionally has been looked upon as the favored place for carmakers to announce new models and technology.
The biggest car shows overseas are in Tokyo, London, Paris, Frankfurt and Geneva. But many of them are run just every other year and they’re sponsored by manufacturers, not retail dealers as in Chicago. Also, Chicago held its first show as far back as 1901, at the long-gone Coliseum, and is older than virtually every rival. Before 1900, such events showed off bicycles and horse-drawn carriages, not cars. Thus the Chicago Auto Show was a trailblazer.
Even so, the event has had to scramble to stay relevant. As new cars have become less mechanical and more electronic, many carmakers have focused their efforts on displaying their latest technology at the Consumer Electronics Show held each year in early January in Las Vegas. “CES became an important place to make news for the car industry,” Sloan says, while noting that nearly 2,000 media people from around the world are nevertheless expected to attend the Chicago show this year. “CES is a trade show closed to the public. We’re a fully public show, and we’re all about helping our member dealers sell cars. So we’re apples and oranges to each other.”
To boost interest, Sloan and his staff have encouraged carmakers to build test tracks, both indoors and outdoors, to allow visitors to actually drive new cars. In one survey, some 70% of respondents who tried electric vehicles on a test track came away more likely to buy an EV sometime soon because of what they experienced.
Test tracks are expensive, and rising costs have kept some carmakers away from Chicago in recent years. BMW and Mercedes and Audi all suspended their attendance five years ago and more. Stellantis, parent company of Chrysler and Ram, caused a stir at the beginning of January when it announced that it was pulling out of the Chicago event. And yet, on the other hand, Sloan reveals that BMW is returning this year and he’s working hard to pull back the other major European carmakers. Meanwhile, his staff has erected a special display corral on the show floor for exotic foreign makes such as Aston Martin, Bentley, Mclaren and Rolls-Royce, all priced at $300,000 and up.
“Our visitors love being able to get up close to great cars like these,” Sloan says.
Crain’s contributor H. Lee Murphy attended his first Chicago Auto Show in 1965 and is currently the owner of 12 vintage cars, kept on display at a private museum in the western suburbs.
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