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Howes: Outfox the weather gods, move auto show to May

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

This year’s Detroit auto show isn’t even open to the public yet, and it’s already endured driving rain, snow, biting cold and a powerful wind that doesn’t go by the name of Donald Trump.

Snow, freezing winds, ice and rain: Detroit auto show visitors have seen it all this year.

It can’t beat any of them, apparently.

I suspect I speak for many journos, PR hands and the public with this simple question: Couldn’t planners of the North American International Auto Show who pride themselves on reinvention move the thing to, say, May?

“We’re willing to make changes,” says Rod Alberts, executive director of the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, organizer of the annual show. “But this concept of changing the dates?”

He rattles off the problems, none easily solved: a show that plants itself in Cobo Center around Halloween and doesn’t finally leave until Valentine’s Day would need to find another such block on the calendar ... when organizers are relatively sure temperatures outside would not soar.

It’s easier to heat the building than keep it cool. Powerful and hot lighting on show stands, combined with people milling about, drives temperatures higher. Several times this week, building managers fired up the air conditioning system to keep the center comfortable.

Second, moving the show from its traditional January spot risks upending the international auto show schedule and pressuring how automakers manage staffing requirements and financial commitments to auto shows. The U.S. market alone boasts 65 shows of varying size and import every year, Alberts says, and foreign markets account for another 40 shows.

Third, the rationale behind the show is encapsulated in two words — be first. Be the first major show of the new year, in the first quarter, at a time when you can entice would-be buyers to think about getting outside in that new Camaro convertible they ogled at the auto show.

Making a move could invalidate that thinking, even if it did open new possibilities to use venues outside for autonomous-vehicle driving courses, corporate hospitality and anything that isn’t the inside of Cobo or a hotel.

The new Detroit show in a newly renovated Cobo run by a regional authority should take a new look at Detroit. It should revisit the new reality of an evolving downtown with streetlights that work, small businesses that thrive, cultural institutions that have reinvented themselves inside stately buildings evoking wealth buried deeply in Detroit.

“We can engage more,” says Alberts. “It makes it a lot easier for us. All these people are enjoying Detroit and all it has to offer. Why not bring it all as a package?”

Exactly right. In the run-up to Super Bowl XL here in 2006, planners worked hard to ensure whatever experience they could muster would embrace the facts of winter in Detroit. And they pushed to honor the authenticity of the city, its architectural bones and its history.

Auto show planners should do no less. Think of the possibilities, especially now that Dan Gilbert’s expanding real estate empire and other private investment are remaking downtown as we’ve known it into a functioning, even very attractive, part of the city.

It’s not 2009 anymore, the year the show hit a depressing nadir not of its own making — and the year before Gilbert decamped for Detroit from Livonia. It’s a new era, literally, that warrants even closer alignment between the show and the city.

The automakers are more competitive and a whole lot more profitable. Suppliers are returning to Detroit with headquarters and product development centers. Hotel construction continues apace. New restaurants and bars open weekly, and the city’s food scene is drawing international acclaim.

The riverfront, long an industrial wasteland, is being redeveloped. The Ilitch family’s District Detroit arena-turned-mixed-use development is rising, connecting downtown to Midtown and Wayne State University. And the QLine is set to begin service in the spring.

But it’s hard to partake of such bounty when a cold front from the northwest dumps six inches of snow on top of a jam-packed press day. Then it turns and blows warm out of the southwest, turning the snow into slush. Ah, Detroit in January — nothing like winter in the heart of the Great Lakes ecosystem with a mind all its own.

No problem, that, if you a) are dressed for it, and b) have nowhere particularly important to go. That’s not the definition of a global auto show like Detroit, one of the rare occasions where industry leaders convene and deign to talk with troublesome journos.

This auto show, a seminal event for the city’s bedrock industry, has endured worse: The Blizzard of ’98 complicated by a visit that year from President Bill Clinton. The union guys working inside Cobo who showed up at product reveals and heaped their plates with free bacon and shrimp.

There was a dilapidated Detroit Metropolitan Airport that screamed “losers” to visitors from Europe, Asia and the American coasts. There were the serial complaints about old Cobo and the now-filled void of downtown hotels and restaurants.

That was then. Now, auto show organizers have a lot more to work with — and they should, even if they can’t change the weather.


(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM