For the first time in its 48-year history, the Twin Cities Auto Show will be held outside at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. The big question for this weekend’s opening is which will draw the bigger crowd: the new Ford Bronco or Sweet Martha’s cookies?
“I’ve had people asking me about the food almost as much as the cars,” said Scott Lambert, president of the Greater Metropolitan Automobile Dealers Association of Minnesota, which puts on the annual auto show—the largest of its kind in the Upper Midwest. Since the 2020 show had to shut down mid-run on March 13, 2020 as the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, Lambert has been trying to figure out how to bring it back.
The Twin Cities Auto Show typically attracts more than 100,000 people, about half of whom say they intend to buy a vehicle within 6 to 12 months. “Dealers market all year off of contacts they make at the show,” Lambert said.
Typically a year in the planning, the car dealers association waited until December to decide they would proceed with a 2021 show. They delayed until May in hopes of warmer weather.
But weather wasn’t the only marketing challenge. With new vehicles in short supply due to a global microchip shortage, many of the manufacturers that usually participate declined. Local dealers stepped up instead, Lambert said, so this year’s show will feature a mix of local and nationally sponsored car displays. “Consumers won’t know the difference,” he said.
One of the largest convention center shows, spanning 400,000 square feet of exhibit space, Twin Cities Auto Show organizers were worried their event could look tiny on the 322-acre fairgrounds. So they created “neighborhoods” from the Grandstand up to the north end of the fairgrounds. There’s an electric vehicle neighborhood; another for classic cars and hotrods, and one for motorcycles. A Truck Track will allow show goers to experience various SUVs and crossover vehicles. They’ll also be able to take a ride on the “Raminator” monster truck. Among the new models expected to garner the most excitement: the 2021 Ford Bronco, the Ford Mustang Mach-E, and the Jeep Grand Wagoneer.
But Lambert is well aware that fair food might be nearly as exciting a draw as the cars and trucks. Pronto Pups, Tom Thumb Mini Donuts, Original Cheese Curds, the Perfect Pickle, Fresh French Fries, and yes, Sweet Martha’s Cookie Jar are among the State Fair food vendors that opted to open, adding a long-desired element to the auto show, which has previously been limited to the convention center’s standard hot dog-and-popcorn fare.
“I used to complain bitterly to the convention center that people wanted a food experience,” Lambert said. “As soon as we announced that we were coming [to the fairgrounds], vendors started calling.”
The Minnesota State Fair determines which concessionaires are invited to participate in events like the auto show based on product mix and location, said spokeswoman Danielle Dullinger.
“In a typical year, non-fair events make up a small percentage of the fair’s revenue,” Dullinger said. “In a year with out a fair, event revenue was a much more significant part of keeping the lights on. We have a great deal of admiration and respect for all of the promoters who pivoted in the past year to make their events happen at the State Fairgrounds and are grateful for the partnerships.”
The Twin Cities Auto Show is the first major show of its kind to move outdoors, Lambert said. About a dozen car show organizers from other parts of the country are coming to the Twin Cities this weekend to observe. “Many don’t understand the fairgrounds and what a big deal it is as a well-known destination for so many Minnesotans.”
Could this change in venue outlast the pandemic? Lambert said, “We haven’t made any decisions about 2022.”
The Twin Cities Auto Show runs Saturday through May 23. Masks are required and crowd caps will be enforced at indoor areas, but with the recent lifting of state restrictions for outdoor gatherings, crowd size will not be capped. Still, the show encourages those planning to attend to order tickets online in advance for ease, discounts, and tracking purposes. Tickets for adults are $15 online; $20 onsite. More details at twincitiesautoshow.com.