Detroit auto show aims for June in 2020

Crowds at the North American International Auto Show at Cobo Center in Detroit  January.

Detroit auto show organizers are finalizing a plan to move the annual show to June in 2020, ranking industry sources close to the situation tell The Detroit News, establishing the cornerstone of an outdoor automotive celebration around Cobo Center and other downtown landmarks.

And at least one hometown automaker is urging the Detroit Auto Dealers Association to adapt elements for a reimagined auto show from the Goodwood Festival of Speed happening this weekend in the United Kingdom.

Since its 1993 founding on the grounds of Lord March’s Goodwood House in West Sussex, England, the festival has been growing over its past 25 years. Each year brings more cars and more industry executives amid a four-day celebration that features a hill climb, supercar runs and a moving motor show that gives the media and would-be buyers a chance to experience the new vehicles.

The push by automakers and the DADA to re-energize the annual spectacle comes as organizers of the North American International Auto Show face growing defections from the show. They include all but one German automaker operating in the United States, namely Volkswagen, as well as competitors from Britain, Sweden and Japan.

DADA Executive Director Rod Alberts declined comment. The dealers association is pressing to meet a self-imposed deadline of July 24 to detail a decision to move the show that already has been made, Max Muncey, a spokesman for the show, told The News last month.

The planned announcement would culminate a months-long assessment that began at the 2018 Detroit auto show as the rumor mill churned, predicting a German exodus from Detroit that has since been confirmed by the likes of Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

Sensing the accelerating pace of desertions, show leadership in January sat down in front of a white board and wrote all 12 months on the board — the first real effort to move the show from its annual first-of-the-year spot on the global auto show calendar. Certain months were crossed out immediately: New York owns April; Los Angeles claims November; and Europe's Frankfurt-Paris axis controls September.

The DADA initially warmed to October because it moved the show from the harsh winter months and slotted it nicely into the North American auto show circuit. It also moved the Detroit auto show ahead of CES in Las Vegas, a technology show and unofficial rival for Detroit because automakers and suppliers in recent years increasingly choose to make tech news among tech bloggers at CES.

Patrick Bero, CEO of the Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority that manages Cobo, said Monday that neither he nor other Cobo officials have been notified of any change in 2020 scheduling. But if the DADA moves the show, it would leave a big gap in the center's programming.

“For a northern city, our January has always been exceptional because of the auto show,” Bero said in an interview. “The auto show is certainly one of our largest and most important shows. If it moved, we would go out to the marketplace and try to find other events. We’re not going to stand idle.”

The prospect of moving the show to October was first reported by The Wall Street Journal in March. The DADA's Alberts told The News at the time a move to October was an "exciting" proposition, citing the advantages of moving portions of the show outdoors in warmer weather and including the Motor City's revived downtown in the show's programming.

Alberts also expressed interest in a name change for the show, which shed its Detroit branding in 1989 amid continuing municipal decline in Detroit that culminated in its bankruptcy just five years ago. A source familiar with the situation says about a dozen names are currently being vetted.

Since a 25-second clip teasing the 2020 Detroit auto show surfaced at the end of last month, the DADA has been seeking support for the move to June from automakers and other key stakeholders, people familiar with the situation tell The News. The dealers association is touting the advantages of a June auto show ranging from outdoor attractions to sliding in after the New York Auto Show.

A June auto show would add to a perennially busy schedule for downtown and the riverfront — from the Grand Prix typically opening the month to the annual Ford Fireworks Detroit extravaganza. And should the struggling Red Wings or Pistons make a playoff run, demand for downtown hotel rooms could soar. 

The about-face from October to June came after General Motors Co.'s senior vice president of global communications, Tony Cervone, told The News a move to June had the potential to create a "massive festival of automotive" aimed at consumers — not the news media and industry executives.

He detailed a vision to draw would-be car- and truck-buyers to the auto show at Cobo, to downtown venues and concerts, to product reveals at sites associated with GM, Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV. The tail end of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix on Belle Isle, typically held the first weekend in June, could be used to jumpstart the auto show.

Enter Goodwood. Ford, a sponsor there for 23 years and a supporter of moving the auto show to June, has quietly encouraged DADA leadership to consider Goodwood a model that Detroit could emulate as auto show organizers mull moving the show from January to a warmer month. 

Goodwood attracted more than 200,000 people to West Sussex, England, over three days in 2017. Along with racing and rallies throughout the event, the planners also squeeze in a show for buyers, media and guests to interact with new vehicles. 

This year's Detroit show saw an attendance boost thanks to mild winter weather. But sleet, snow and freezing temperatures generally limit the Detroit auto show to a mostly indoor event. And automakers from GM to Mercedes increasingly use off-site venues to unveil new vehicles, not the floor of Cobo.

Germany's Big Three of Audi, BMW and Mercedes are opting to skip the show altogether in 2019. They are just the latest to dump Detroit from their schedules: Jaguar, Land Rover, Volvo, Porsche, Mini and Mazda have all bolted the show in recent years, but remain loyal to rival shows in New York and Los Angeles.

The exodus of global players essentially undermines the 1989 re-branding of the Detroit show into the North American International Auto Show. Its inaugural year hosted the launches of the Lexus and Infiniti brands in the U.S and raised the profile of Detroit on the global auto show schedule — status that could be reversed by defections from the annual show and could affect foreign media coverage.