The Chicago Auto Show will return to the Windy City’s McCormick Place convention center in July, a move marking the first major auto show since COVID pandemic lockdowns began in March 2020.
The event is normally the biggest in the U.S. from a consumer turnout perspective. But it is expected to draw smaller crowds this year, in part due to a shorter run than normal but also due to the fact that not all the manufacturers that participated in the February 2020 Chicago Auto Show will be back for the summer event.
Nonetheless, industry officials expressed optimism, as did members of the Chicago business community who have seen hotels and restaurants close over the past year due to pandemic restrictions.
“Tourism and hospitality was one of the first industries hit by COVID, and by all accounts it will be one of the last to recover,” Glenn Eden, chairman of trade group Choose Chicago, told TV station WLS. “But today’s news is a beacon of hope.”
Auto shows hit by pandemic
The auto industry also was hit hard by the COVID pandemic, U.S. new vehicle sales tumbling by more than 40% in March and April 2020, and the North American manufacturing network shuttered for roughly two months. The situation wasn’t much better in other parts of the world due to steps taken to stem the spread of the virus.
The Chicago Auto Show, normally staged during a nine-day run in early February, turned out to be the only major public car show of 2020 in the U.S. and much of the rest of the world. Events in New York, Detroit and Los Angeles were canceled, as were the big shows in Geneva and Paris. The exception was the Beijing Auto Show last autumn.
The Shanghai Auto Show took place a month ago but, at the time, it was far from clear whether any other big car show would follow before 2022 considering the recent surge in COVID infections in many parts of the world. But Chicago organizers began planning for a possible return and moved ahead as Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker announced a major rollback in COVID-related restrictions, including those banning large public gatherings.
“We can’t predict the future, but we feel very confident if we continue to follow public health guidance and get people vaccinated, that this summer is going to be very different, very festive,” Lightfoot said during a news conference on Tuesday.
A change of plans
“We’ve been working with McCormick Place officials for months on an opening plan, and very early on they saw that our show may provide a pathway to re-opening the facility,” Chicago Auto Show General Manager Dave Sloan said in a statement.
“We stand committed to providing a safe environment for all involved and will carefully adhere to the health and safety protocols and guidelines set forth by city and state officials. McCormick Place is an important economic engine for our city and state, and we take very seriously the responsibility that comes with helping to get it running again.”
The 2021 show will be different from prior events in a number of ways. There will be fewer automakers participating this year, TheDetroitBureau.com was told, some indicating they have no plans to return to the auto show circuit until 2022. The show itself will be shorter. Rather than the normal nine-day run it will take place from July 15 to 19.
The show will switch to an online-only ticketing process, meanwhile, and “organizers will also intentionally regulate the number of attendees throughout the day to control the number of people on the show floor at any given time,” a statement said.
Other auto shows may return
While Chicago will be the first big auto show of the year in the U.S., it won’t be the last. Organizers of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit plan to hold their own abbreviated event at a racetrack 20 miles north of the Motor City this summer, rather than at the downtown convention center. New York and Los Angeles organizers are also signaling they may return in some form.
Some automakers — notably including Mercedes-Benz — cut back on their auto show presence even before the pandemic. At major events like Chicago or Detroit, the cost of a stand could run into the millions of dollars, especially if a big news conference were factored in.
But other companies have doubled down on auto show events, citing studies that indicate a large share of show-goers are in the market for new vehicles.
“According to Foresight Research, nearly 70% of adults who visit the Chicago Auto Show are in the market to purchase a vehicle within 12 months,” said Ray Scarpelli Jr., the 2019 Chicago Auto Show chairman.
More changes could follow
For their part, officials indicated the Windy City show may return to its traditional February timeslot once the pandemic is past. But that’s not locked in stone.
“While we believe February is the right time for the Chicago Auto Show to have its biggest impact on the industry and the area economy, we’re thrilled to be able to experiment with the July dates,” said Sloan. “The timing has allowed us to get creative and try new things and the automakers have really embraced it.”