Detroit auto show mulling move to October, name change

Nora Naughton
The Detroit News

The Detroit auto show could undergo some significant changes in the coming years, including a move from January to October as early as 2020 and a possible name change that could emphasize Detroit in the branding.

Crowds flow amongst the vehicles at the final day of the North American International Auto Show at Cobo Center in Detroit on Jan. 28, 2018. Organizers of Detroit’s big auto show are talking about moving it from frigid January to October starting as early as 2020.

Rod Alberts, executive director of the Detroit Auto Dealers Association — organizer of the North American International Auto Show — said a date change has been under consideration for years. But talks about moving the 2020 show are “more in-depth,” driven by such factors as the city’s downtown resurgence and greater demand for outdoor demonstrations of self-driving cars.

A potential name change for the annual Detroit rite has been under discussion for years, Alberts said, and talks have continued as the city’s revival gains both traction and credibility. The show rebranded in 1989 as the North American International Auto Show to broaden its global appeal.

“We’re talking (about the name), but that’s a separate decision from the move,” Alberts told The Detroit News in an interview Friday. “With a consideration of a date change, all things are being considered.”

He emphasized the decision to move the show to October, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, is still not final. But Alberts spoke enthusiastically about the possibility.

“A decision would still be several months down the road,” he said, “but October is a prime, fresh, exciting month. The weather and the timing make a nice blend if it were to work out.”

Alberts’ take on an October Detroit show echoes some of the advantages of CES, a technology show in Las Vegas that usually takes place the week before the Detroit show in January. The shows have become rivals as automakers and suppliers choose whether to make their tech news among the hordes of tech bloggers at CES — or do it in Detroit.

Warm Las Vegas temperatures also foster an indoor-outdoor show, with stands in the parking lot next to the Las Vegas Convention Center often housing self-driving car demos. NAIAS even pushed back its public days this year in response to a later-than-usual CES, losing the valuable Martin Luther King Day public attendance.

There could be trade-offs. Moving away from the CES dates and the Midwest cold might cater too much to desired media attention and not enough to the consumers who attend the show’s public days, said Michelle Krebs, an analyst for AutoTrader.

“January is a great time to have an auto show for consumers because there’s not much else to do then,” she said. “You have a captive audience.”

Despite the growing vibrancy of the greater downtown area, winter weather inhibits visitors’ ability to get out and see the city. Transitioning the show to a fall date would add the chance for outdoor events — and easier travel — to the Detroit auto show.

New restaurants, bars, hotels and other developments within walking distance of Cobo Center are opening regularly, a sharp contrast to the doldrums of not too many years ago. Within the last four years, the city has seen esteemed chefs open swanky new restaurants within the central business district downtown. Those join new park space, art walks and other attractions that are easier to enjoy in better weather.

The auto show has always played an important role in stimulating the downtown at a slower time of year. But that annual crutch, a generator of millions of dollars of economic activity each year, isn’t quite as necessary as it once was, said Eric Larson, CEO of the Downtown Detroit Partnership.

“The need to have individual events specifically prop up and drive activity in downtown have been lessened,” said Larson, adding a date change “is a very important thing for all of us to consider and support. I think it could really enhance not only the level of activation of programming we could provide, but the support and visitorship that the show deserves.”

And Cobo Center, the show’s venue, appears to be on board.

“There is no conflict between DADA and Cobo Center on date changes for the show,” Cobo Center officials said in an emailed statement. “Cobo Center and the Detroit Auto Dealers Association have worked closely with the North American International Auto Show on many changes over the years. We are continuing to work with NAIAS to accommodate any possible changes in the future.”