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Georgian College students set to open annual auto show

Barrie’s annual auto show is one of North America’s toughest university assignments.

  • The beginning of morning rush hour, cars on the highway traveling to and from downtown

Barrie’s annual auto show is one of North America’s toughest university assignments.

For five marketing students at Georgian College’s Canadian Automotive Institute, putting together the annual show (held June 3-5) is part of the curriculum.

Since 1985, the show has helped automotive business students forge industry connections and practice the theory picked up in classes like AUTO1000, Concepts of the Automotive Industry. It’s not easy.

“In the weeks leading up to the show, we’re typically in the (auto show) office all day,” says Jennifer Szmilko, 23, the show’s director of finance and sponsorship. “But when we go home, some of us are still doing auto show work.”

For Szmilko and her teammates, “homework” often includes personally visiting the directors of a dozen major car brands; meting out 105,000 square feet of parking lot to various vendors; and hiring, training and coordinating the 165 students who work as the show’s product specialists.

Even with 10 months to prepare, scheduling is difficult — but this year’s team has had only six months, because the show was moved from September to June (not only is the weather better, they’ve got more space on campus, too). That’s why last-minute requests from vendors, carmakers and Barrie’s zoning department were still rushing in the week before the show.

“Last year, things were a little more laid back,” says recruitment director Jonathan Bada, 22, who was also on the committee this past fall. “Now everything is crunched. We’ve got less time to work out hiccups.”

Recruitment was particularly difficult because the September-June shift drained the pool of volunteers; most were instead busy with co-op placements in car dealerships. Thankfully, a new Event Planning course pushed some students into participating in the show.

Those who did were split into 17 teams representing manufacturers from Acura to Volkswagen, and trained on product details at the companies’ head offices. They even got a tutorial in the six-point walkaround — y’know, the dealer’s inside-and-out tour of your prospective new car — from National Walkaround Champion John Bird.

(Yes, there are actually national competitions for this. The Georgian College Auto Show hosts one, too, to evaluate its student brand ambassadors.)

And when the tents have all been pitched, the cars washed and waxed, and the student staff all trained — it is then the headaches kick in.

“Once the show starts, our office turns into a command center,” says Paul Santaera, 39, the show’s projects director. The cramped space, walls plastered in Post-It notes and car posters, is stuffed with radios and walkie-talkies, and frantic students darting in and out. “It gets messy. Well, even messier,” he says.

Over the three-day weekend event, the team is kept busy putting out fires — if they’re lucky, not literally — and supervising their second- and third-year classmates. There’s the new vehicle launch, this year from Volkswagen, and the classic car show and Sunday auction. The wet test track hosted by Pfaff Porsche, featuring a slip-and-slide test drive in a Porsche 911, also needs to be monitored.

It’s a lot to keep track of, but the directors can call on one of their five faculty advisors for help if they need to.

The student product specialists have their hands full, too, as they’re assessed by industry professionals and a team of 50 volunteer mystery shoppers. None of them actually sell any cars, though: the Georgian College Auto Show is a sales-free environment.

While attendees may not feel any pressure, the directors have to carry the weight of the title of North America’s largest outdoor auto show — at least for now.

“We’ve always been in competition with Northwood University (two hours northwest of Detroit) for the largest outdoor show, so this year we’re going to be measuring exactly how big the show is,” says media relations director Stephanie Titus, 22.

Northwood auto show director Joshua Struck says students who transfer from Georgian College admit the Michigan show is larger. Perhaps Titus, who’ll make the switch this fall, can settle the contest.

In the end, though, the hours of preparation, paperwork and promotion pay off, and make for a professional event that rivals auto shows with much bigger budgets.

“For most of our attendees, this is the only show they come to — they don’t go to the Toronto show (Canadian International Auto Show),” says Santaera. “In Barrie, it’s not even thought of as a student-run auto show.

“It’s simply the auto show.”

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