Auto show's move to June leaves winter lull in downtown Detroit

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

Detroit's TCF Center expects the number of winter visitors to drop steeply as the Detroit auto show skips January and moves to June in 2020, but officials expect to make up that traffic in the next few years.

TCF Center unveiled.

Those running the former Cobo Center TCF Center said they expect around 175,000 people to visit the convention center from December to February this time. That’s a loss compared to the nearly 800,000 people who attended the final January Detroit auto show.

TCF Center officials declined to say whether they've made up the nearly $500,000 loss in revenue due to a shorter auto show build-in and tear-down time expected in June as portions of the event move outdoors to the riverfront at Hart Plaza. 

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Still, TCF Center General Manager Claude Molinari said there are some benefits to the show's shift. The Detroit convention center will post its most profitable December in recent history, he said, because the convention hall was all but shut down for the month of December over the last few decades as automakers used that time to build auto show displays. Other officials expect the region to adjust to a new schedule.

"We didn't do any events in January because we were so tied up with the auto show," said Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber. "It really sort of blotted out the sun in January. I expect we'll see organizations start to fill in January over the next few years."

The annual show historically has monopolized the center for nearly three months: Automakers used most of December to set up displays, the show ran during January, and February was used for teardown.

The Detroit auto show has traditionally filled the former Cobo Center from December through February. With the auto show moving to June in 2020, officials at the convention center have been lining up events to take the show's place.

When the shift to a summer show was announced earlier this year, those in charge of the convention center said they'd "make the best" of the change.

More than the seasons will change in 2020. Those in charge of the auto show expect to incorporate outdoor events into the show that's been held in the deep cold of January.

Baruah expects the show to grow as it shifts to the summer. The activity will coincide with the annual Detroit Grand Prix and the Rocket Mortgage Classic golf tournament.

Molinari says a handful of events are scheduled for the center this month: The center hosted a corporate holiday party, and the Michigan Educational Theater Association is hosting its state festival over a weekend. Six events are booked for multiple days in January, and five events are booked in February.

"Based on the availability of exhibit and concourse space, new and returning corporate events were able to expand into areas historically occupied by the move in of the NAIAS," Molinari said.

He characterized the wintertime gap and subsequent summertime boom as a "shuffling" of the deck. 

More than 774,000 people attended the 2019 auto show, which had an estimated economic impact of $430 million on the regional economy. That, however, was 35,000 fewer guests than in 2018. Show organizers and city officials hope the show's shift to June could boost attendance as auto shows around the world see waning attendance and interest from automakers.

The Detroit auto show is booked in June at the TCF Center through 2027. That contract covers the entirety of TCF Center. Molinari expects the auto show's June floor plan to look similar to that seen at the winter shows, with added space outside. 

The center had to negotiate to move some events typically held in June, Molinari said.

The Detroit auto show in the past represented more than 40% of Cobo's annual revenue and created thousands of jobs for carpenters, electricians, Teamsters and others. But Molinari expects the winter rentals to improve over the next few years.

"Each year going forward will see greater occupancy for the winter months that were traditionally held by the auto show," he said. "We have  significant bookings in 2021-23 and will continue to fill up the calendar. TCF Center is busy year-round, so groups jumped on the open dates."

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau