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Chicago Auto Show execs pitch city, state on summer event

A July version of what has been a winter ritual at McCormick Place could herald a revival of the convention business.

A young car enthusiast take a look at the 2020 Dodge Challenger at the 2020 Chicago Auto Show Saturday at McCormick Place.
A young car enthusiast looks over a Dodge Challenger at the 2020 Chicago Auto Show at McCormick Place.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

Representatives of the Chicago Auto Show discussed with state officials Thursday a plan to safely stage the event at McCormick Place in July. It could serve as a trial run for a return of large-scale conventions.

Dave Sloan, president of the Chicago Automobile Trade Association, said the group discussed limiting crowds by using online ticket sales with timed entrances. He also said the show, typically held in February, could have an outdoor component to take advantage of summer weather.

The auto show, typically the biggest annual event for the general public at McCormick Place, has been on indefinite hold because of the pandemic.

“We presented our plan to the state and we are awaiting feedback. We still have to present to the city and get an OK,” Sloan said.

A spokeswoman for Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office didn’t specifically address the auto show but said the administration is “working to create a plan with the goal of having conventions this summer.”

Sloan declined to discuss specifics about capacity limits. A big issue is that the show needs to draw large enough crowds to make it pay for exhibitors while abiding by health protocols.

Mark Bilek, CATA communications director, spelled out that concern with a reference to the city’s recent announcement that it will allow small crowds at this year’s Cubs and White Sox games.

“Unlike sports, where substantial revenue is generated by television contracts and sponsorships, auto show revenue is based on participation from our exhibitors and ticket sales,” Bilek said.

“If we don’t have enough ticket sales, we don’t provide enough value to our exhibitors, who might spend more than $1 million on a display and activation at our show. So to guarantee that return on investment from our exhibitors, we need approval to have enough people each day to make it worthwhile.”

Cynthia McCafferty, a spokeswoman for McCormick Place, said the convention center is discussing a safe reopening with government officials. Several conventions and trade shows on the typical calendar have canceled this year’s plans, but others are waiting on possible relaxation of restrictions.

Those events, however, need to hear from city and state officials soon because the shows can take months to arrange.

“We are eager to reopen when public health conditions allow and will continue to work with both state and city officials to ensure that when the time is right, we are ready to open our doors and welcome guests back to McCormick Place,” McCafferty said. “Guests can learn more about what to expect when we do reopen at www.HealthyMeetingsChicago.com.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office released a statement promising continued dialogue with the auto show, McCormick Place and the governor’s office. It said the city has “the goal of safely bringing conventions back to Chicago in accordance with public health guidance.”

Sloan said the meeting Thursday included Deputy Gov. Dan Hynes and representatives from the Illinois Department of Public Health, labor unions, McCormick Place and the tourism group Choose Chicago.

Hynes told Crain’s Chicago Business that the state hopes that if COVID-19 trends remain positive, large-scale meetings and conventions can resume in mid-summer. Hynes said the auto show could kick things off around July 15.

The 2020 auto show had a 10-day run ending Feb. 17, weeks before the pandemic forced lockdowns.

Contributing: Rachel Hinton