Will the (auto, boat, home and garden) show go on? I-X Center closure, coronavirus pandemic cause turmoil for consumer events planners

CLEVELAND, Ohio — More cars are sold in March in northern Ohio than any other month, according to Lou Vitantonio, president of the Greater Cleveland Automobile Dealers Association.

Boats on display at the Progressive Cleveland Boat Show in January 2020. Will the event return in 2021? Organizers hope so.

© Gus Chan, The Plain Dealer/cleveland.com/TNS
Boats on display at the Progressive Cleveland Boat Show in January 2020. Will the event return in 2021? Organizers hope so.

Why? Because the weeklong Cleveland Auto Show always ends in early March, kicking off a flurry of car buying.


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Whether that happens in 2021 is anyone’s guess.

Organizers for the auto show, the Great Big Home and Garden Show, the Cleveland Boat Show and other popular consumer events were thrown for a loop on Wednesday, when the company that operates the International Exposition Center in Cleveland announced that it was closing the facility.

The news comes on top of what is already a very challenging time for the events industry, as the state continues to restrict most large gatherings due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Despite the challenges, Vitantonio said he is cautiously optimistic that the car show, which drew nearly 350,000 visitors over 10 days early this year, will be held in 2021.

Michelle Burke, president of the Lake Erie Marine Trades Association, which produces the popular Progressive Cleveland Boat Show every January at the I-X Center, said she, too, is hopeful. Her event draws 50,000 attendees and 300 vendors over five days. Some boat vendors said they generate 40% of their annual sales at the Cleveland show.

Burke is leading an effort to convince Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine to allow consumer shows to operate.

Statewide, convention centers have been largely restricted from reopening, at least for their intended purposes, as most large gatherings are still prohibited in Ohio (although there are numerous exceptions – for weddings, Browns and Bengals games, performance venues and other facilities).

Burke argues that consumer shows are not mass gatherings – they’re more like retail operations or entertainment venues and should be permitted under already existing state guidelines.

“We won’t have people all together, elbow to elbow,” she said. Like museums and amusement parks, consumer shows can restrict capacity, sell timed tickets, require one-way aisles and put rules in place to keep attendees safe.

She is organizing an effort on behalf of event operators throughout Ohio to put pressure on Columbus to ease restrictions. “There’s a problem and we have to solve it,” she said.

The Ohio Travel Association also is seeking clarification from the governor’s office on the issue of mass gatherings. Melinda Huntley, executive director of the association, said that the size of a venue should be considered when dictating how many people can attend an event.

A massive facility like the I-X Center shouldn’t be governed by the same rules as a small club.

“Here we are with an absolutely devasting travel economy,” she said. “We have to give these businesses the opportunity to do as much business as they can in a safe manner.”

DeWine spokesman Dan Tierney said the state will listen to

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