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Convention demand picks up, McCormick Place exec says

Larita Clark says show sponsors are returning to Chicago as pandemic restrictions ease.

Larita Clark, CEO at the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, speaks May 4 at an event announcing the rescheduled Chicago Auto Show in July.
Larita Clark, CEO at the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, says convention and trade show sponsors are returning to McCormick Place.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

Citing interest from longtime customers to return to live events as COVID-19 restrictions ease, McCormick Place officials said Wednesday conventions and trade show sponsors are coming back to the facility, one of Chicago’s leading economic engines.

Larita Clark, CEO of the agency that runs McCormick Place, said 122 events are on the calendar from July through the end of next year, with notables such as the “candy show” and the “tool show” returning in 2022 and the lucrative radiologists convention returning this fall.

Events will start ramping up this summer and the agency will reopen its Marriott Marquis hotel to private events in June and to the public in July. The hotel is next to McCormick Place and has been closed since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020.

Clark, head of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, said the agency has been winning back show sponsors who shifted to virtual events or to other host cities. One tool used to recruit business is broadcast equipment that can use the 4,200-seat Arie Crown Theater to stream events and connect in-person attendees with a remote audience.

“McCormick Place is not only well positioned to compete in this pandemic, we are moving forward with complete confidence that McCormick Place will thrive,” she said.

The production studio is “Hollywood-grade technology” and will help events expand their audiences and potential revenue, Clark said. It will be used June 18 for a virtual summit of the Illinois Health and Hospital Association dealing with equity in care.

She said the 122 events have a total estimated attendance of 1.9 million people. The crowds will be welcome at Chicago hotels, including several large operations built for the convention market that are now gradually reopening.

Her agency furloughed most of its employees because of the pandemic, but she expects about 1,700 people back working full-time by June 2022. Most of the agency’s impact in local jobs is in the contractors who work in the shows and in the business that conventions generate for hotels and restaurants.

For the public, the summer version of the Chicago Auto Show, scheduled at McCormick Place July 15-19, will serve as a kind of coming-out party. But other events are planned that month, including the Nike Tournament of Champions for student athletes July 10-12 and the ASI Show that highlights promotional products July 13-15.

Also, the NBA Draft Combine, using the agency’s Wintrust Arena and the Marriott Marquis, is scheduled the week of June 21.

Among the returning events are the Radiological Society of North America, scheduled Nov. 28-Dec.2, and the International Manufacturing Technology Show, known as the tool show, Sept. 12-17, 2022. The popular candy show, formally the Sweets & Snacks Expo, will return to Chicago May 23-26, 2022, after meeting this year in Indianapolis.

Peter Eelman, vice president of exhibitions at the Association for Manufacturing Technology, said the pandemic taught his group about the benefits of digital connections. “We learned that hybrid capabilities can enhance the potential of your show,” he said.