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Canceled June auto show disappoints, but is 'absolutely' right thing to do

Kalea Hall Breana Noble
The Detroit News

Detroit — Cancellation of the first Detroit auto show in June to enable the TCF Center to become a field hospital for COVID-19 patients is a disappointment to dealers and another hit to the regional economy. But the decision is also being acknowledged as “absolutely” the right thing to do.

The move is another burden for Detroit's restaurant and hotel industries already reeling from the effects of the COVID-19 stay-at-home shutdown. Organized by the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, the North American International Auto Show draws thousands of visitors from around the globe to downtown Detroit, infusing the regional economy with hundreds of millions of dollars. The next show will not be held until June 11, 2021 — 866 days after the last show in January 2019.

“The loss of the Detroit auto show is both a psychic blow and another chunk taken out of our local economy," said Patrick Anderson, CEO of the East Lansing-based Anderson Economic Group, in an e-mail to The Detroit News. “We are losing the income from the visitors and the exhibitors, and the attention. However, the coronavirus recession would have demolished attendance even if the show pressed onward. It was a difficult decision, but the DADA made the correct one."

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In 2019, the last year the Detroit show was held in January, European automakers, except for Volkswagen AG's VW brand, passed on the event. A used-car display from a dealer in sports cars and exotic vehicles helped fill vacant floor space.

The event drew 774,179 ticketed visitors, which was about 35,000 fewer guests than in 2018; attendance was down in part because of a major snowstorm. Despite the downturn, the show brought a $430 million boost to the regional economy, the equivalent of hosting two Super Bowls.

The auto show "brought hundreds of thousands of people who spent money in Detroit while they gawked at the cars and imagined themselves in the drivers' seats, as well as tens of millions of dollars in expenditures by the manufacturers," Anderson said.

Jim Seavitt is the president of Village Ford in Dearborn and a DADA committee member. He said "It's absolutely the right move, obviously" to cancel the show. As the coronavirus continued its spread in recent weeks, the organization struggled to decide whether or not to press ahead with plans for the June show. But the decision "became very, very simple once they decided to use Cobo Hall," now known as the TCF Center, as a temporary field hospital.

The Detroit auto has been canceled after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers chose the TCF Center to serve as additional space for COVID-19 patients.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will supply TCF with about 900 additional hospital beds, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Sunday. This year's auto show was scheduled for June 7-20 at TCF Center and at nearby outside venues such as Hart Plaza. The show had traditionally been in January but was moved to the summer to be more consumer-focused and to give automakers varied venues for product reveals and demonstrations.

"While it’s disappointing for a variety of reasons, it’s completely the right thing to do," said Glenn Stevens, executive director of MICHauto and the Detroit Regional Chamber's vice president of automotive and mobility. "It’s one of Detroit, Michigan’s signature moments, and we are looking forward to it being that way in 2021."

The auto show's move from from January to June this year had been an effort by organizers to reinvent the show and inject more excitement. There had been a decline in the number of global automakers participating in recent years, and public attendance had been down.

With the move to summer, there were to be outdoor debuts, test rides, demonstrations of robotic cars and off-road events at the TCF Center and Hart Plaza. Rally cars were to "drift" on the rooftop of the convention center. A new event, the Motor Bella festival of Italian and British cars was to have been held outdoors on Broadway next to the Detroit Opera House.

The Charity Preview ball was to have added a more casual and less expensive “summer chic” outdoor option in addition to the event with formal dress inside the convention center. 

All tickets purchased for the 2020 show, including for the public show, industry preview and Charity Preview will be fully refunded, officials said. The ticket office will be in contact with ticket holders. Those with tickets to the charity event will have the opportunity to donate the proceeds of their refund to one of the nine beneficiaries had the event been held. NAIAS officials are discussing plans for a fundraising activity later this year to benefit those charities.

Organizers were "hoping that this pandemic will be gone, and we can have a great show," NAIAS chairman Doug North told The Detroit News on Saturday. "All our partners and stakeholders were really excited. Up until the last few days, we were getting calls from companies and individuals that wanted to get involved."

But COVID-19 respects no schedule. The 2021 event will begin June 11-14 with the Motor Bella festival. Press days will be June 15 and 16, with the Charity Preview event June 18. The public show will run June 19-26.

Walt Tutak, general manager of Matthews-Hargreaves Chevrolet in Royal Oak, preferred the auto show in January because he thought "it was a shot in the arm" to the dealership and it got people excited about buying cars. Still, he was hopeful the June auto show would spur more interest since the show was expanding.

"Now that you're not going to have it, it's a detriment because that's what gets people excited when they look at the different models," Tutak said. 

In the past, Tutak's dealership would see an increase in sales, which is something dealers would need right now. The governor's stay-at-home order closed all dealerships in the state through April 13, but dealerships were already facing low demand as concern about the virus started to spread. 

But Tutak said "once this is over with ... we are really going to be busy because we have about 1,000 new cars on the ground right now just sitting there waiting for a new owner. There's people whose leases are expiring, and there's a lot of people who in the spring want to buy new vehicles. So I think there's going to be a surge in business once this is over with."

Staff writer Henry Payne contributed