June 5, 2009 at 5:32 pm

Experts say auto show still important to automakers, Michigan

Volkswagen unveils the BlueSport concept car at this year's show. Experts say automakers are starting to treat shows as part of their overall marketing strategies, as opposed to a primary way to reach consumers. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)

Detroit -- It's been hailed as the grand dame of automotive events, the one thing Detroit absolutely can't afford to lose to another city or its own political infighting.

But, with the recession dragging automakers to their knees -- and two once-mighty American manufacturers with Michigan headquarters into bankruptcy -- is there a point to expanding Cobo Center, or any facility for that matter, to make way for a bigger, better North American International Auto Show?

Experts say yes, though the recession makes the need seem less immediate and unavoidable restructuring will result in a smaller industry.

"This isn't an auto recession; it's a depression," said industry expert David Cole, director of the Ann Arbor-based Center for Automotive Research, a well-funded industry group.

"But it's definitely cyclical, especially for auto shows. We're going to come back in a big way."

Though Cole's views may seem overly optimistic, in light of the intense turmoil roiling the industry, others agree.

Industry experts say the automakers won't be down and out forever. When they do bounce back from the economic malaise, they'll be looking to again vie for the dollars of car-hungry consumers, even if they'll be gazing at futuristic clean and green small machines instead of hulking, gas-guzzling SUVs.

"This isn't forever," said Michael Robinet, vice president for global vehicle forecasts at industry analysis firm CSM Worldwide. "There's been a bit of shift in the importance of auto shows in that they're now part of an overall marketing formula as opposed to the chief vehicle for reaching consumers. But the fact remains that they will still be an important way for manufacturers to show the world what they've got."

In the short term, the auto show outlook is mighty grim.

For one thing, Robinet said, it's a bad time for auto companies to look overly ostentatious, with millions of people out of work and the current marketing atmosphere trending toward more austere bids for customer attention.

"Nobody wants to appear too flashy these days," he said.

And, if this past year has been any indicator, automakers are, for now at least, increasingly looking to target how and where they spend their marketing dollars, focusing on markets where they command the biggest presence and are likely to grow their share.

That meant big cutbacks at this year's Detroit show:

  • Suzuki, Mitsubishi and Nissan, longtime exhibitors, bowed out citing declining sales and a desire to focus marketing spending on core markets. Toyota scaled back its fetes, deciding to not to host a first-day press party event.

  • Chrysler LLC dramatically downsized its entertainment for this year's auto show.

  • Exhibitors once confined to small, lower-level Cobo spaces were able to take a bigger footprint at this year's show. Even the College of Creative Studies was able to get ample floor space to show off its students' work.

    The show attracted fewer attendees: 650,517, a 7.4 percent decline from 2008.

    The automaker cutbacks didn't just fuel trouble here in Detroit; rumors swirled almost relentlessly about the possibility that the Tokyo Auto Show would be canceled.

    The show went on, but without Detroit's Big Three.

    Cole, the research center director, thinks the current downturn shouldn't deter serious consideration of the need for a large venue with long-term viability for an auto show with international appeal.

    Cobo "has a lot of limitations and the labor situation in the city drives the manufacturers up the wall," Cole said. "Whatever happens to get it fixed, it needs to happen soon. We can't see it lost to somewhere else."

  • "Whatever happens to get it fixed, it needs to happen soon," ... (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)