Special Coverage

Chicago Auto Show

CHICAGO – The dealer trade group that puts on the Chicago Auto Show has a message to the media: It’s not about you.

The show is for consumers, Jerry H. Cizek III, Chicago Automobile Trade Assn. president, tells the press at the start of two days of industry news conferences and vehicle debuts preceding a 10-day public run.

“Auto shows are here to sell cars,” he says. “This one doesn’t begin until thousands of consumers start going through the turnstiles.”

The CATA seems miffed at some auto writers who judge a show’s importance by the number of vehicle debuts.

Chicago may be lean on major product introductions during this year of austerity, but Cizek tells journalists, “If you are thinking about writing an obituary for auto shows, are you only looking at the media-preview part? Come back during the public days to see what this show is all about.”

In the softest automotive market in years, splashy vehicle debuts are on the endangered list here and elsewhere. Gone are stunts of yesteryear, such as new Chrysler minivans on cables dropping from the ceiling and onto a stage. Back is the low drama of pulling a sheet off a vehicle.

“It’s time to say good-bye to the days of over-indulgence in auto shows,” says John Krafcik, CEO and president of Hyundai Motor America.

Some cost-cutting auto makers take advantage of a new common staging area for debuts in Chicago. Offered at no charge, the setup eliminates the need for building individual stages with separate lighting, sound and video equipment.

“A couple of people from auto companies came up to me afterwards and said, ‘Thank you for that,’” says dealer Mark Scarpelli, the show chairman. “It saved them $100,000 to $150,000.”

The Chicago show cut back “here and there,” Cizek says. Still, 44 auto makers are represented and 1,000 vehicles displayed on 1.3 million sq.-ft. (120,733 sq.-m) of floor space.

After 100 shows over 108 years, Chicago knows what it’s doing, he says. “It’s all about selling cars and increasing traffic to dealerships.”

Scarpelli tells Ward’s the event here has another thing going for it: the venue.

“What an extraordinary place this is,” he says of the McCormick Center, the nation’s largest and, in many respects, most-elegant exhibit hall of its kind. “It’s a world-class facility in a world-class town.”

The show floor features an open obstacle-free look. Organizers resisted some auto makers that, “wanting their own kingdoms,” sought to encapsulate their displays, something that would create sight barriers, Scarpelli says, walking the floor.

The openness makes it easier for visitors – especially those in the market – to navigate, cross shop and take in the entire show, he says.

Holding the show in frigid February works for the CATA. “It’s a prelude to the spring selling season, when things get better for us,” Scarpelli says.

But what about this year, when car and light-truck sales are not expected to be better than last year’s 13.2 million units, the fewest annual deliveries since 1992? “This year, we’re cautiously optimistic,” he says.

Chicago is one of the nation’s most vibrant auto markets, with more than 500 new-car dealers, including Scarpelli, his father and brother. They own two dealerships selling Chevrolets, Kias and Suzukis.

“There are a lot of volume-leader dealers in Chicago, a lot of success stories,” the show chairman says. “It’s a very competitive market. You have to be on your toes.”

He is in an unusual position because, before becoming a dealer and after graduating from Northwood University’s automotive program, he worked as a General Motors Corp. district manager. His duties included visiting dealers and allocating cars to them.

“Doing that and then going back to the family business gave me a good perspective,” Scarpelli says. “It made me realize dealers and manufacturers are partners. If they are against each other, it’s not going to work.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com