Chicago Auto Show: Behind the Scenes

By Mohammad Samra


A group of Chicago Auto Show attendees observe some new vechicles being displayed.  

Sydney Garret, 40, walked up to one of the new 2019 Toyotas and lifted up the delicate black windshield wipers as people of all ages were enjoying the other Toyotas around him.  The Auto Show employee prepared to wipe down the car, beginning with the windshield before he expanded to wiping down the rest of the car.

“We’ll pretty much start a morning shift and evening shift which the managers usually schedule,” said Garret. “I’m the morning shift, so I work from 6:30 to 3:30,”

The Chicago Auto Show is the nation’s largest auto show, and is annually held at McCormick Place. The show is open to the public February 9th through the 18th from 10 A.M. to 10 P.M. and boasts 30,000 feet of overhead truss, 6,000 lighting instruments, one-million square feet of flooring, one-hundred semi-trailer loads of display material, three indoor test tracks and nearly one-thousand of the latest cars, trucks, and SUV’s, according to the Chicago Auto Show website.

Each phase in constructing, disassembling, and maintaining the Auto Show is carefully thought out and executed. First, contractors come in and begin installing lighting trusts that are then raised to ceiling. After the lights are raised, contractors begin installing carpet onto the bare floors. Various displays are then unboxed and assembled and then the cars are brought in to be placed in their assigned positions. The final step to this process is to remove the covering to the carpeting as well as add aisle and entrance carpeting according to Mark Bilek, Senior Director of Communications and Technology.

“The actual physical setup of the Auto Show takes about ten days,” said Bilek. “We have a general contractor called Global Exposition Services and we contract with that company to coordinate the move-in and every step of the way is choreographed.”

Preparation for the Auto Show begins about eight months before the doors of the McCormick place are opened to the public. An outline displaying plans for setting up the show is constructed, and once the ten day setup period begins, over ten-thousand one-day worker-exhibitor badges are issued, according to Bilek.

“We’ll sit down, the staff of the Chicago Auto Trade Association, and we’ll take a look at what we want to accomplish and what our goals are,” said Bilek. “We’ll begin to work towards meeting those goals one of which is obviously seling a million square feet.”

The Auto Show then meets with exhibitors to discuss how they will present themselves at the event.

“We reach out to all of our exhibitors, reach out to potential new exhibitors,” said Bilek, “We see what kind of displays they want to bring, do they wanna make news at our show, and then we also at the same time are coordinating with sponsors that want to be at the show and start to put those puzzle pieces together,”

Exhibitors all have to abide by certain rules regarding their displays. Around November, exhibitors begin constructing their displays on paper and submitting them for approval. There are height limitations as well as more specific rules such as having to build in one foot for every foot that’s built up or restrictions on building any walls around the displays. Promotors also are restricted from leaving their displays to promote in public areas, according to Bilek.

Like any major event, the Chicago Auto Show has an evacuation plan in the event where the public needed to be evacuated. Floor plans for an evacuation plan are submitted to the Fire Marshal for approval, according to Bilek. There are also several security officers who walk around during the show’s hours to ensure the safety of the public.

“There are all kinds of protocols,” said Detective Flynn, 54, “We have protocols for suspicious devices and different scenarios that we cannot share to the public.”

Garret, an auto-mechanic working seasonal for the Auto Show, finished the wax-job on the 2019 Toyota. He inspected his reflection in the shiny red door of the car before slinging his long, ruffled brush onto his shoulder and walking away.

“We have to keep the polish on the cars,” said Garret, “We have to wipe, buffer, and polish the cars to make sure they look and stay clean,”


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