The Chicago Auto Show, running since 1901 and currently the nation’s largest, is still going strong.
The Show is located at McCormick Place. With 2.6 million square feet of exhibit space it is the largest convention center in the United States.
McCormick Place probably seemed massive to people who visited it in the 1970’s, when it had 300,000 square feet of exhibit space. Someone who has not been since then would be amazed at how much it has grown. Additions in 1986, 1997 and 2007 have created a massive complex. And all of that is without mentioning the 10,387 seat Wintrust Arena, where DePaul University and WNBA basketball take place, or the 4,250 seat Arie Crown Theater.
The cost of attendance is reasonable. Adult tickets this year were $13. Tickets for children and senior citizens were $8. Advance purchase on the Auto Show web site is probably the easiest way to go.
To park your car in the lot next to the McCormick Place Lakeside Center cost $25 on a weekday evening. But you can probably expect that to vary based on day and time. There are several other lots available and on weekends there was even a shuttle bus from the Millennium Park Garage complex.
According to McCormick Place staff the weekends can be extremely busy. Practical Chicago visited on a Monday night. While there was a substantial crowd it was not overwhelming and finding a close parking spot was no problem.
The basic auto show experience, illustrated in the video above, is alone worth a visit. Auto enthusiasts, wandering through one million square feet of exhibition space, will feel like kids in Candy Land.
And if you are considering a vehicle purchase in the near future the cost of attendance saves you trips to multiple dealerships. Plus, representatives on site seem more like staff people and less like salesmen. That means you can get information without having to play a game of cat and mouse.
In the case of several manufacturers driving tracks were available. If you wanted to try out a VW you could sign a waiver and take a swing around a stationary track. Dodge, Jeep and Toyota all had more extreme obstacle courses. In those cases you could go for a ride with a trained driver behind the wheel.
Actual test drives on city streets were given by at least six different manufactures offering forty or so vehicles. The starting point was a lower level driveway, only a short walk from the showroom floor.
Several attractions were geared for small children, such as driving simulators and an overhead climbing array.
Those with a taste for antiques found something to keep them happy. Many vintage automobiles could be seen, such as a selection from Chicago’s Klairmont Kollections.
Other than auto manufacturers several other organizations were on site. State Farm Insurance, the Illinois Secretary of State, law enforcement agencies and the U.S. military all were present. There were several independent merchants selling auto accessories.
In addition to the basic experience there were special events. Among this year’s celebrity appearances were former Chicago Bull Horace Grant, former Chicago Blackhawk Brandon Bollig, former Chicago Bull Ron Harper, former Chicago Bull Scottie Pippen, and former Chicago Blackhawk Bobby Hull. There were also live local radio broadcasts and a CARA sponsored indoor running event.
It was surprising that electric vehicle maker Tesla had no presence at the show, given recent notoriety. Maybe that is “new economy” arrogance thumbing its nose at the traditional industry. But you would think the largest auto show in the country would be a great place for them to get more attention.
There were other surprising absences. Neither BMW or Mercedes (aside from a Mercedes Heavy Truck display) bought space.
A recent NBC news article says this is part of a larger trend. Auto shows have been shrinking in recent years. The long-running Frankfurt Auto Show in Germany has been cancelled altogether.
They put the fault on Millennial and Generation Z consumers who show little interest in cars and the fact that people tend to do all their research on the Internet these days.
NBC also mentions competition from newer events, like the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January. A dozen different auto makers, including Mercedes, had a presence there.
But all that being said, auto shows still have a place. Millennial and Generation Z buyers grew up glued to smartphones and tablets from a very early age. That creates a myopia to the real world and blinds them to the notion that the Internet is not always the best way to conduct a task.
And as far as them not having any interest in automobiles there is a good chance that will change. Many educational institutions seem to be pushing left wing values these days. But there is evidence that not all students are accepting that. And similar values did not stop the Baby Boomers, huge hippies in their youth, from going to work on Wall Street in the 70’s and 80’s and parking two or three cars in the driveway.
Many young people who now want to bike, walk and bus everywhere to save the planet are likely going to have an epiphany: riding their bike in the middle of winter or cramming into an Uber car pool just to make a point is probably not worth it.
The bigger issue may be that they are buried in student loans. Tuition has gotten overinflated in recent decades and it is hard to find a college graduate that does not owe at least twenty thousand dollars. The Urban Institute says Millennials are buying houses at a rate eight percent lower than Generation X and Baby Boomer buyers at the same age. Student debt is cited as a contributing factor.
As to the notion that technology is the most important part of an automobile that also seems like it could be transitory. Engineers like to build things to prove that they can, often with little connection to what human beings want or need. The obsession with self-driving cars despite possibly having very limited practical application is a perfect example. A recent PYMNTS report found that only 14 percent of consumers were “extremely interested” in owning one.
Despite potential headwinds, at this moment the Chicago Auto Show is full steam ahead. Put a reminder on your calendar for the 2021 edition. It is well worth the effort.
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