CHICAGO (CBS) — The Chicago Auto Show marks a return to major events at McCormick Place, but its bread and butter is smaller trade shows booked throughout the year.

The first trade show at McCormick Place since the start of the pandemic kicked off on Tuesday – put on by the Advertising Specialty Institute. And it had better attendance than the hosts ever expected.

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CBS 2’s Marie Saavedra took us inside the ASI Show Chicago on Wednesday night.

“I’m very surprised – very, very surprised,” said Rich Carollo.

Four months ago, Carollo didn’t think it was possible that he would be mixing and mingling on a convention room floor at this point. He was thrilled to be proven wrong.

“Oh, it’s super exciting, I mean, we’ve been waiting for this for a good year and a half now,” he said.

Carollo is the owner of specialty printer Lion Circle, based on the South Side.

“Paper fans, headbands, a lot of refrigerator magnets, buttons – all things paper,” he said.

And after a year without much need for swag bags, he is one of hundreds of companies with promotional products, making up McCormick Place’s first trade show since the pandemic.

“And the people that are here, they want to do business – which is the best part about it,” Carollo said.

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With guests traveling cross country and the Delta variant of the coronavirus surging, Advertising Specialty Institute chief executive officer Tim Andrews aims to keep vendors and shoppers safe.

“If they are vaccinated, they don’t need to wear a mask,” Andrews said. “We’re following the CDC guidelines, and we’re suggesting social distancing.”

But in the aisles, we found that unmasked, face-to-face interaction alive and well.

At ASI’s last show in 2019 before the pandemic, they had 4,000 people walking the floor. When the company decided to have the show back in March, they didn’t know what turnout would be in July – but it is only down 20 percent.

“We came in thinking we’d be down about 50 percent, so if we do down 20 or 30 percent, I think we’ll have a very successful time,” Andrews said, “and people couldn’t be happier about being back.”

What’s more, every one of those people in attendance are spending money at Chicago hotels and restaurants. It’s a return to business travel that downtown must have to recover.

And indeed, those travelers do look happy to be back.

“And it’s just so much better. You can touch and feel and smell it,” Carollo said. “I’m still thrilled it’s back, to be honest with you.”

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The Chicago Auto Show begins on Thursday at McCormick Place. And don’t miss “Behind the Wheel at the Chicago Auto Show,” our CBS 2 special on the show, Thursday at 6:30 p.m. on CBS 2.

Marie Saavedra