DC auto show's one-year move to spring offers potential lesson for Detroit

Keith Laing
The Detroit News

Washington — The Washington Auto Show, which opens to the public Friday after a one-year move to spring last year, is a potential cautionary tale for the Detroit auto show, which has shifted from January to June.

Facing a scheduling conflict at the convention center that houses the car confab in the nation's capital, organizers hoped to piggyback on the National Cherry Blossom Festival that draws thousands to downtown Washington, D.C. But public attendance for the April show did not meet expectations, and after just one year, the D.C. show is returning to late January.

John O'Donnell, president and CEO of the Washington Area New Automobile Dealers Association, which organizes the D.C. auto show, said going head-to-head with the outdoor Cherry Blossom Festival was tougher than expected. 

A scene from last April's Washington Auto Show, when attendance dropped by 25% compared to the January show in 2018.

"For years, we've talked about if we had a magic wand and we could name our dates, when would we go," he said, noting that coinciding with the annual festival seemed like a good idea initially. But organizers found there was a lot of competition for the public's attention. 

"It was the first beautiful weekend coming out of a dreary winter," O'Donnell continued. "Tiger Woods was winning the Masters (golf tournament) and (the University of Virginia) was in the Final Four." 

O'Donnell said attendance for the 2019 Washington Auto Show was down 25% from prior shows, the largest dip in his nearly six years of being affiliated with the dealers association. 

But O'Donnell said there was a bright side for D.C. area dealers who were showcasing new models at the springtime show.

"The people who choose to be indoors on a beautiful day like that are very much car shoppers," he said. "All but two of our manufacturers saw an increase in leads." 

O'Donnell said Washington Auto Show organizers have to balance a lot of factors when it comes to scheduling. 

"We have to consider all the other U.S.-based major shows, the international major shows, and as a public policy show, we have to consider when Congress is in town," he said.

He said auto show organizers in every city should remember the point of the gatherings.  "It's not about the latest reveal or how many impressions can you generate," he said. "It's about getting the general public interested in buying cars." 

O'Donnell said the D.C. auto show will remain in January going forward for the foreseeable future. 

Organizers of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit have expressed confidence that moving to June will not hurt attendance, and they have touted the potential for more outdoor events with their move to June. 

"This was not a decision that the Detroit Auto Dealers Association made quickly or took lightly," a statement provided by the North American International Auto Show said. "This was a decision that was under consideration for several years and was only made after a tremendous amount of study and consideration and after talking to our OEM partners, other sponsors and our dealer members." 

"June certainly is a busy time for other outdoor events but most of those events also take place in downtown Detroit," the NAIAS statement continued. "This will give people many more reasons to spend time in Downtown Detroit, providing visitors from metro Detroit and across the Midwest with more options of events that they can combine and turn their time in Detroit into a multi-event or even a multi-day visit." 

North American International Auto Show Chairman Doug North also touted the potential for more outdoor events in a speech Jan. 13 speech this month at TCF Center.

“You can expect experiences both inside and outside that will touch every one of your senses," North said. "You’ll smell the tires burn on the rooftop and maybe even on the road below.  You’ll ride very rugged terrain. You’ll experience cutting-edge, electric and autonomous shuttles and passenger vehicles. You’ll take ride-and-drives along Detroit’s incredible waterfront." 

Brent Snavely, public relations director for the Detroit auto show, said the changes touted by North — including Motor Bella, a celebration of European supercars in downtown Detroit — would not have been possible without the move to June. 

“Both Motor Bella, the new street festival NAIAS announced, and the changes that were announced for Charity Preview in December, introduce exciting new elements and new ideas to 2020 NAIAS that simply would not have been possible if the show was still held in January," he said. 

Andy Hollinger, a Washington, D.C., resident who says he regularly attended previous Washington Auto Shows held in January, said he skipped last April's event.

"I'm much more inclined to go during the winter," Hollinger said, noting that he usually attended both the January auto show and the International Motorcycle Show that usually takes place a week or two before the auto show. 

"Why do I want to be in a convention center looking at motorcycles or cars — even really cool ones — when I could be out riding?" Hollinger continued. "I get too few weekends on the road as it is." 

Michelle Krebs, senior analyst for Autotrader, said carmakers need to retain people like Hollinger in an era when the number of visits to dealerships is down. 

“While the ideal timing of a show can be debated, we do know consumers are visiting fewer dealerships and seeking ways to immerse themselves in product details without the help of a salesperson," she said.

"In recent research, 70% of consumers were interested in concepts like 'Brand Experience Centers' that allow them to interact with the vehicles on their own terms, without sales pressure," Krebs continued. "Certainly auto shows offer that, which is why we believe auto shows are still an important part of the car-buying process no matter what time of year they are held.”


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Twitter: @Keith_Laing