Phila. auto show offering test rides for first time this year

Back in 2008 at the auto show, the veil was pulled off a new version of the Dodge Challenger. That show revealed the two-door coupé of the '60s and '70s iconic Dodge muscle car.
Back in 2008 at the auto show, the veil was pulled off a new version of the Dodge Challenger. That show revealed the two-door coupé of the '60s and '70s iconic Dodge muscle car.
Posted: January 30, 2011

The Philadelphia International Auto Show is a massive showcase of brawn and beauty - a car-lover's fantasy featuring custom and vintage models and the latest makes.

Covering 550,000 square feet, or every inch of exhibit space at the Convention Center, the 109th annual auto show will offer test rides for the first time.

The show's producer and owner, the Greater Philadelphia Automobile Dealers Association, said the test rides would give attendees the chance to sample cars on their wish lists.

"The rides and drives is what separates us, and why we are one of the strongest auto shows for the consumer, if not the strongest," Kevin Mazzucola, executive director of the local dealers association, said. "There's a buzz. You feel it not just among dealers, but also on the floor."

The auto show, second only to the flower show locally in attendance and economic impact, hopes to get even better with the debut of the bigger convention center, opening in early March.

"We are busting at the seams," Mazzucola said. "I look forward to utilizing the great, new facility to grow the show and keep it as one of the preeminent events in the auto industry in the country."

With the extra space and higher ceilings at the expanded center, Mazzucola said, next year's auto show would explore indoor test rides for electric vehicles. This year's test rides are outdoors.

Ahmeenah Young, president and chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority, said the $786 million expansion - which enlarges the building 62 percent - will allow a national convention to take place at the same time as the auto or flower shows - something not possible now.

"During these major gate shows, the hotels suffered greatly because there was no national associations or bookings in the building because the gate shows took up all the space," she said. "Now, with the additional space, we can do both."

The family-friendly atmosphere of the auto show makes it a joy even for non-car-buffs, but there was a need to make it more entertaining, said show director Michael Gempp, and why test rides were added.

"Rides and drives are really the next evolution of the show, and dealers think it's essential for the consumer," he said.

While the 2010 show shook off much of that old, oversize showroom feeling by showcasing more cars, a serious storm hurt it - with 11 inches of snow falling on the final weekend. It was down by some 54,000 attendees and about $8.8 million in economic impact from the previous year, even though a snowstorm was also a factor in the 2009 and 2006 shows.

Average attendance during the last five years has been about 250,000. The highest was in 2004, with 280,000 attendees. The 2010 show was the lowest at 150,000 attendees, since the Convention Center opened in 1993.

Last week's snowstorm also made getting 700 vehicles into the building "difficult," Mazzucola said.

He expects high attendance for this exhibit.

In Detroit, the car manufacturers themselves fork over big money to make the show the largest in the country in scope. In Philadelphia, manufacturers and more than 400 dealerships from Southeastern Pennsylvania, South Jersey, and northern Delaware, are picking up this year's estimated $9 million tab.

Philadelphia's show is the fifth-largest, behind Detroit, New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Carpeting, enough to fill 200 oversize homes, was laid in the Convention Center to cushion the sea of cars.

Mazzucola says the show influences car-buying, and that, on average, 33 percent of all vehicles sold in the region were influenced by the annual exhibit. That would be roughly 105,000 out of about 300,000 cars sold here every year.

"This is sort of the unofficial beginning of spring," said Geno Barbera, sales manager at Gary Barbera Chryslerland in Northeast Philadelphia, which is presenting some specialty vehicles at the show. "[Consumers] go to the show and start to narrow down their choices, and once the weather breaks, they go out and buy."

Attendees spend an average of three hours and 45 minutes, based on surveys the last 10 years. Men make up about 70 percent of attendance. They range in age from 18 to 64. The majority live in the region, and either drive in, or take a bus to the show.

"Some choose to make it an entire day," Young said, "so, of course, you can see the economic impact with all our restaurants and local venues."

But it does little for Center City hotels, said Ed Grose, head of the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association.

"Outside of a few room blocks for the black-tie gala and representatives from the automobile industry, we don't expect a lot of hotel rooms booked," he said. "However, late January, early February is a slow period . . . so the hotels are happy for the small amount of business that the show provides."

Local parking lots around the Convention Center and the several dozen restaurants and merchants at the Reading Terminal market do well during the auto and flower shows.

"We get a ton of business," said Carmen DiGuglielmo, owner of Carmen's Famous Italian Hoagies & Cheesesteaks at the terminal. "It's nonstop."


Contact staff writer Suzette Parmley at 215-854-2594 or sparmley@phillynews.com.

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