Member Spotlight: Dave Sloan and Jen Morand

06 Feb 2024 11:54 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

If the Circus Can Do It, Can’t We? — A Conversation with Dave Sloan and Jen Morand

As MAMA members and as people working in the auto industry, you should know long-time MAMA rock stars Dave Sloan and Jen Morand. We’re slipping this bonus Member Spotlight into Chicago Auto Show (CAS) week to celebrate and honor Dave’s last year running CAS, support Jen as she steps into the lead role of our hometown show, and show both of them how lucky we are to have them. Thanks, Dave and Jen, co-General Managers of the Chicago Auto Show, for taking time out of your jam-packed schedule for this interview, and for your dedication to putting together the best auto show in the country. 

We appreciate you! 

— the MAMA Board




CHERISE THREEWITT, MAMA VP of MEMBERSHIP:

Dave, can you talk about some of your career highlights over your years with the auto show?


DAVE:

Sure. I’ve been with the Chicago Auto Trade Association, I was Executive Vice President, in 1993, so I’ve been President of the CATA and general manager of the show since 2010, and then in 2022, is that when it was, Jen?


JEN:

Yup.


DAVE: 

We became co-General Managers. That was so we wouldn’t lose Jen.


JEN:

[laughs]


DAVE:

And it’s all worked out… spectacularly. So, career highlights, one was when we expanded into two halls in 2005. We made an announcement in 2004. First, we had to get the North Hall. 


DAVE:

We had to convince the tourism bureau, whose job it is to fill hotel rooms, that a public show, with largely drive-in attendance, was good for using that much of McCormick Place for that much time in a month that’s normally a quiet month on the McCormick Place calendar. And so we were successful in doing that and it happened to coincide with Chrysler, at the time probably Daimler-Chrysler, coming up with the idea of Camp Jeep, and so we had to convince the people at McCormick Place that we could have vehicles moving up and down hills, inside the show, and our initial answer from them was “no.” I wrote a letter to the mayor, and thankfully we had a very well-connected labor lawyer at the time who helped us get that letter into the right hands, and so the safety officials, it was really with the city, reconsidered, and it’s funny because we got the “no,” and the answer was, you can’t have vehicles moving where there’s, you know, the public. I was watching a commercial, this was some time during the year, after we got the “no,” and it was the circus at United Center and they had motorcycles going inside these steel balls, and it was like, “If the circus can do it, can’t we?” So anyway, we asked that question, better worded than what I just did there, and we got the “no” turned into a “yes.” As we got bigger, Daimler-Chrysler that year went from 60,000 square feet to 180,000 square feet, just with Dodge, Jeep, and Ram, and Chrysler. So they had a multi-brand track, they had a Dodge track, which was the trucks, back then before Ram, and then Jeep. It was just wildly successful for us, and has been for 20 years. And we’ll get them back [editor’s note: Stellantis, now the corporate parent of Jeep, Dodge, Ram, and Chrysler, will not be participating at the Chicago Auto Show this year].


DAVE:

Another highlight was the summer show. To think that this team, this small team, we were trying to get the show open during the pandemic and Mark Bilek just did an amazing job helping us be able to sell all of our tickets online and have timed entrance windows so we can sell all this to the city and to the state and get a “yes.” We couldn’t get a “yes” for February 2021 (the special edition ran in July 2021), but I’d had this idea for how we could refashion the show to be shorter and smaller and have an outdoor element to it with test drives, and make it less expensive to the manufacturers due to the shorter move-in and we’d charge less for five days rather than 10 so we cut our exhibits price by 40%. We got it approved and I remember the day we announced it at McCormick Place, the governor and the mayor were there, and Jen was like, her fingers were smoking on her keyboard, like, standing at this highboy table just getting us everywhere, just PR social media extraordinaire. Then we were able to open without too many, really any health restrictions at all because it was during a lull in the pandemic and it just really went well. We were the only show then, the only big show, that was able to run every year during the pandemic. Never missed a show.


CHERISE:

So, Dave, what are you going to miss most in retirement and what are you looking forward to most in retirement?


DAVE:

You know, for all the show anxiety that we have, as it goes… Jen’s been saying for the past couple of weeks, “I just can’t wait to get it open.” 


JEN:

We need to get down to McCormick Place.


DAVE:

It really is fun to see just how much people enjoy the show. And then, on the association side, we’ve had a couple of big legislative victories that our team’s been involved in. We work with the best of the best of dealers. I know that there’s a bad reputation for dealers sometimes, but we work with really great people, really great businesspeople who are a big part of their communities and it’s gratifying to see just how they work together in their communities and work for something like BBQ for the Troops, or the betterment of this organization, and there’s a lot of great things about it. So, the excitement of the show and the fun of working with dealers who are just great businesspeople. 


CHERISE:

What are your plans for retirement?


DAVE:

I’m looking forward to spending time with my granddaughters. My wife watches them every day. We moved close to their school, where they will go to school and where my daughter-in-law teaches, so we get to watch the little ones every day and then the older one, we get to see every day. Being a grandfather has just really changed my outlook on life. To be able to retire early and buy five extra years with my wife and my granddaughters is really exciting. 


CHERISE:

This is for both of you — why is Jen the perfect person to take over for Dave? You can sing your praises here, Jen.


DAVE:

I will sing her praises. So, Jen is, like, the perfect employee. And [MAMA President Robert] Duffer will tell you this, because we had this conversation. When Jen came to tell me she had been recruited to a PR firm downtown, I said to Duffer, “It’s, like, my worst day. My one job was to hold on to Jen.” Then, he said, “Well, how long did you have her?” and I said, “10 years,” and he said, “That’s probably five years longer than you deserved to have her.”


CHERISE:

Sounds like Duffer.


DAVE:

Her expertise with social media and everything digital has allowed us to expand the reach of the show far beyond the 10 days at McCormick Place. That really is the future of where auto shows are going. So to lose her at this critical time, we could have made it work, but it was too much to overcome at the time. While I might have been the right leader for that particular moment, she’s the right leader for the future, so if we lost her, the question would be, could we ever get her back? I just couldn’t take that chance. So I accelerated my timeline, which worked, again, for me and my wife personally. It’s not a sacrifice, I don’t want to make it sound like it is. It’s what is right for our association, and Jen and I have had this discussion many times. The opportunity for me to put her in an opportunity to succeed at CATA really puts a nice little bow on my career because she is the right person to take us forward. 


JEN:

Every time I hear that story, I told Dave this, I don’t have the words to thank him quite yet [laughs] because it just seems to fall flat. What I would say is, I’ve always looked up to Dave as a mentor throughout my whole career and we actually come from a very similar background, which is kind of full circle how we met and how I came to work at the Chicago Auto Trade Association in the first place. So our background is very similar, public relations, and that as we all know on this call has transitioned more to the digital…back in the day I was faxing press releases, and then it turned to, how do you reach the people where they are? The advent of social media actually started the Chicago Auto Show’s Facebook fan page, when it wasn’t a profile page, it was a fan page back in the day, and our Twitter account, so it’s kind of fun to come full circle. I give Dave a lot of credit for his foresight to see that because I don’t know many people who would have that same take on the situation. I feel very humbled, I always say this, [for Dave] to be really selfless and to think about the show and the positioning of our show moving forward. I feel very lucky to be in this position every day. Obviously we’re faced with a lot of challenges… we do have a lot of challenges, we’re not sugarcoating anything, and we’re going to adapt. Our whole team, Dave mentioned Mark, but we have a fantastic team. Jim OBrill, obviously, is a board member of MAMA, he’s a crucial team member to us. Hayley Feichter is another MAMA member, fantastic, talking about digital and social, it’s almost like the next generation. It’s been really fun to lead this team and co-lead with Dave. His knowledge, the 30 years’ historical knowledge, is so important. I would just add that there’s no one in our industry, the auto trade association leaders, that have done this. Sometimes the person retires too soon or unexpectedly and they don’t have a transition in place, so it’s actually sparked some of our leaders across the country to follow what Dave’s doing and say, “Wow, that’s really smart,” because this job is so unique. Like Dave said, he kind of alluded to it, we have a lot of legislative priorities, we do a lot of different behind-the-scenes things that people don’t always pinpoint with this job. You think of the auto show, what everyone knows about and hears about. It’s our Super Bowl, it’s our big event. But there are a lot of other priorities that we have throughout the year, so it’s been fantastic to have Dave as a leader and a mentor and to have him here these couple of years, to continue to learn from him has been… I mean, I’m just so fortunate and so lucky every day. 


DAVE:

Just to elaborate on Jen’s strengths and the Chicago Auto Show for a moment, we have always branded ourselves as “the consumer auto show,” right? And the pendulum has swung back to, “Oh, auto shows are really about the consumer, it turns out,” singing our song that we’ve been saying for 10 years. The value we get through social media and hundreds of thousands of people on the show floor with a recording device, a phone, then pushes all that content out to their friends and family and followers, to be able to harness that and measure it and then be able to report those measurements to the OEMs, that is what Jen and Mark and now Hayley and Jim have done so well and really positioned Chicago well for the future, again. I echo what Jen said earlier about Mark and Chris Konecki, they’re kind of close to me in age and to make the move to Jen just signals to the manufacturers, the OEMs, the exhibitors, that we’re in this for the long haul. We see the future. And to have someone Jen’s age and experience and expertise shows exactly where we think the shows are going. 


JEN:

Dave sort of mentioned this too, but in terms of the auto show, it’s not just the in-person event that’s an auto show, it’s all the digital tie to it. That’s where the sweet spot happens because what we found is that car shopping websites have a major uptick in traffic when our auto show is taking place. Showing that people are going to their sites, shopping for vehicles, learning about their vehicles. We know that our digital impressions, the numbers are crazy, it’s millions and billions of impressions, I almost feel silly saying that, but that’s the kind of reach that our hashtag and our mentions get during that period. Our team, Jim and Hayley, to their credit, we take a 10-day public show and the content from that show and we literally communicate with our fans throughout the whole year. That’s very unique to our show. I know other shows sometimes tend to go dark when their event’s not taking place, which makes complete sense, but we are lucky in the fact that we have other assets, like Drive Chicago, with our radio show, with our website, with our social channels, to use that as a platform as well. I think that because of our team’s strength and background in marketing and digital that we’re able to carry that message out in a year-round way.


CHERISE:

You can both speak to this. How has the partnership between CATA and MAMA been beneficial?


DAVE:

You may know that my predecessor, Jerry Cizek, told Jim Mateja, “Hey, we need to have a media association here in Chicago,” and Mateja got it going. I think I was around for the first rally, I was working for a PR firm and Rick Popely and my boss went and sent us a rally route before Mark Bilek got us in with Road America. It’s been a great relationship and the one thing that wasn’t said when talking about the investment in the Chicago Auto Show and so on, we do go halvers on that breakfast, MAMA and the CATA, and it used to be that someone from MAMA would sit, collect $20 or something like that for the MAMA luncheon at the time, which started on a Wednesday afternoon, and then we finally said, “Let’s just make this free and make it a breakfast,” and it worked for the two-day thing that we had. It’s really been a great relationship, obviously. We built this building during that time and then it became a place where MAMA could have luncheons and not have to pay a lot of fees for hosting something at a hotel or something like that. We love it because we’ve had four staffers as board members of MAMA in different capacities and there’s been a great relationship there over the years. 


JEN:

I’d just elaborate too by saying that the MAMA group, and I think a lot of us share the same sentiment, just feels like family. It’s so wonderful to just be able to pick up the phone and call you, Cherise, or call someone at a manufacturer, and you already have that relationship established. Road America and the Spring Rally and those events certainly help cement that, but I just always appreciate the candidness that our group has with one another and just the ability to help one another, really. It’s been wonderful, and we look forward to continue that relationship. I know we’ve kind of gotten away from the in-person events because of the pandemic, we’ve had a lot of virtual lunch-and-learns, which are great, time-efficient and everything, that’s great, but our building was kind of the meeting place, too, so, happy to continue to offer that location to MAMA members. We look forward to another long-term relationship with the MAMA breakfast, of course, and us sponsoring and partnering on the Spring Rally. It’s been great. And I should mention, Chicago Drives Electric, that was one of those crazy ideas, well, not crazy but it came out and we said, “Well, we have six months to pull this off, let’s line it all up.” We’re going to have a consumer test drive day, of course, but also a media day, we called our friends at MAMA and they were of course on board and had some wonderful ideas about how to get it off the ground.That’s been a wonderful partnership now over the past couple years and we look forward to partnering for a third year in the fall. 


CHERISE:

Thank you! See you soon!


This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 



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