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Chicago Boat Show setting sail for Rosemont in 2025

The Chicago Boat Show, long a winter attraction at McCormick Place, is leaving the city and setting sail for the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont next year.

The annual show, which has seen dwindling attendance in recent years, is relocating to the northwest suburbs after nearly a century in Chicago, in part to be closer to its target recreational boat-buying customer, organizers said.

“We met with our exhibitors and the decision was made that we need to go out to the suburbs,” said Darren Envall, manager of the Chicago Boat Show. “It is closer to where people are doing boating in the Fox Lake area as well as Lake Geneva, and it is closer to where the dealers are located.”

The show, which dates back nearly a century, has throughout its history been a Chicago event of national importance on the boating industry calendar.

Owned and operated by the National Marine Manufacturers Association, the show was a mainstay at McCormick Place for decades, and before that at the since-demolished International Amphitheatre. The show has gone through several incarnations, reaching its pinnacle in the 1990s as the Chicago Boat, Sports & RV Show, which regularly attracted more than 50,000 visitors each year.

While attendance had declined in recent years, it still drew about 40,000 visitors annually before temporarily shutting down in 2021 and 2022 during the pandemic.

The most recent five-day show in January, hampered by a heavy snowstorm, drew fewer than 20,000 attendees, Envall said.

A loss for McCormick Place, a win for Rosemont, the migration of the boat show represents something of a zero-sum game for the Chicago-area convention business, which has been recovering in the post-pandemic landscape.

“Big exciting news,” said Christopher Stephens, executive director of the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center.

While there had been discussion in the past about luring the boat show to Rosemont, Stephens said things got “more serious” this year, helping the northwest suburb land a major regional event.

Stephens said the Rosemont convention center offered the boat show and its attendees adjacent hotels, entertainment and a 9,000-space parking facility, all of which helped seal the deal. Down the road, the show could expand to the entire 840,000 square feet of exhibition space, as needed.

He also touted safety as an advantage for Rosemont over Chicago, which has struggled with the perception of increased crime in the wake of the pandemic.

“We always want to make sure when people come here that they feel safe,” Stephens said. “We provide as much policing and traffic controls as possible for attendees.”

While corporate meetings are still down, Stephens said conventions and large public events have returned to pre-pandemic levels in Rosemont, with the 2025 calendar now significantly bolstered by the addition of the boat show.

At the same time, he said Rosemont doesn’t try to “poach business” from Chicago.

“We’ve always thought that a strong McCormick Place was good for Rosemont,” Stephens said. “We’ll obviously never turn down an event, if they want to relocate out to Rosemont and we can accommodate them, but we don’t actively solicit.”

For McCormick Place, it’s been win some, lose some in March.

Earlier this month, Microsoft announced it was returning its Ignite information technology conference to McCormick Place in November after a nine-year absence. The inaugural event in 2015 drew 20,000 attendees to Chicago’s convention center.

“The sales cycle can be very dynamic in the convention industry,” said Cynthia McCafferty, a McCormick Place spokesperson. “Microsoft Ignite was a great addition to our calendar this year, we have a very robust pipeline of new business ahead and feel good about the future.”

The loss of the boat show is both symbolic and substantial for McCormick Place, erasing a solid and historically well-attended event from the January calendar in 2025, and likely beyond.

The Chicago Boat Show was often the first big public event of the year, setting the table for the annual Chicago Auto Show and filling the exhibition halls with visitors dreaming of summer during the coldest winter months.

In 2025, the Chicago Boat Show will keep the city’s name, at least for now, as it migrates to the suburbs for a scheduled Jan. 8-12 run.

The new version of the show will focus more on fishing boats and weekend warriors who hitch up a trailer and head for the Chain O’Lakes to drop a line, as opposed to plying Lake Michigan in larger crafts. Envall said that represents about 85% of the boaters in the Chicago area, most of whom reside in the suburbs.

Despite its long history in Chicago, Envall said he expects Rosemont to be the event’s home for years to come.

“There’s a time to change and the change was to get out to the village of Rosemont where more of the recreational boater is reflected in the market,” Enval said.

rchannick@chicagotribune.com