Howes: Competing auto show visions pit October vs. June

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

This much is becoming increasingly clear about the Detroit auto show: it’s likely to see its last January next year.

Staff and directors of the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, organizers of the North American International Auto Show, are deep into their evaluation of the first-of-the-year show — and signs increasingly point to October for the annual rite, starting in 2020.

Fall temperatures are less likely to tax Cobo Center’s air conditioning system, the DADA says. The convention center could accommodate the schedule change; automakers choosing to attend still could use outside venues for product reveals or to host ride-and-drives; and avoiding holidays would yield “significantly reduced labor” and “set-up costs.”

“Our board and team are still doing our due diligence of exploring potential date opportunities for NAIAS,” spokesman Max Muncey wrote in an email Wednesday. “As you can imagine, this involves countless meetings with our key stakeholders around the world. Our ultimate goal is to provide a global stage for participating brands that delivers opportunities and experiences that only Detroit can offer.”

But there’s another idea floating out there, courtesy of General Motors Co.: reshape the auto show into a consumer-first event anchoring a “massive festival of automotive” in the Motor City, said Tony Cervone, GM’s senior vice president global communications. Showcase the best of Detroit along its international border, drawing would-be consumers to downtown venues, concerts, perhaps even the tail end of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix on Belle Isle.

And reposition the show for the people who matter — the people who buy the cars, trucks and SUVs. Evidence is mounting the Detroit auto show is less relevant to industry insiders than it was not too many years ago, with the best evidence being the simple fact that a growing list of automakers and their leaders are voting with their proverbial feet and not showing up.

Blame media, with its 24-7 news cycle and a global reach automakers can use anytime. Blame the techification of Auto 2.0, which is forcing traditional automakers to court investors and tech fan-boy media disproportionately found not at auto shows. Blame a bifurcated market that clusters more European luxury-vehicle buyers on the coasts and more Detroit-brand buyers in the heartland.

And blame the fact that being the first show of the calendar year has a lot less relevance than it did 30 years ago. Automakers launch new vehicles throughout the year, not just in the fall. Internet-based communications technology enables automakers to micro-target media and consumer audiences.

“In the end, we’re all going to band together,” Cervone said, “to put Detroit and the auto industry into the best light possible.”

Things are changing, fast. Simply moving the show to October without fundamentally rethinking what a 21st-century show should be — and for whom — risks missing an opportunity to claim competitive advantage and to demonstrate that a reinventing Detroit (in all that phrase means) really “gets it.”

Undertaking yet another revamp a few years later would signal a scramble for relevance and effectively would be an admission that moving to the fall may have been necessary. But would it be sufficient?

A June festival could, in a real sense, reimagine the show 30 years after its international rebranding made Detroit a marquee stop on the global auto show calendar. Not so much anymore: with the notable exception of Volkswagen AG’s VW and Audi brands and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV’s Fiat and Alfa Romeo brands European automakers mostly are abandoning the Detroit show.

Jaguar, Land Rover, Volvo and Porsche are out. Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Mini are out — accumulating defections all but certain to cause media outlets, especially those based in Europe, to rethink the priority of the Detroit show and whatever access it can provide (or not) to industry leaders.

Auto show organizers say moving to October would make Detroit “the first domestic auto show of the circuit,” would showcase Detroit and the region “in one of the best months of the year,” would enable “cross-marketing events” to be held at Hart Plaza, Campus Martius, the River Walk and Spirit Plaza, would align with “existing mobility-focused events” already happening downtown.

The DADA’s Muncey says too many “longstanding events” on the Cobo schedule would make a move to June “not ideal.” The just-concluded FIRST Robotics championship hits at the end of April. The May schedule includes the NAACP Freedom Fund Dinner, the Michigan Minority Procurement Conference and the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. And AutoMechanica would land in June — all amid what would be the customary months-long auto show set-up.

Additionally, show organizers say, Cobo “cannot guarantee” it “can properly cool” the building in June, when temperatures average 20 degrees higher than in October. Wrote Muncey: “Although all options (and) dates are on the table and under consideration, we have found October to be the most viable option.”

Maybe, depending on what that show would look like some 29 months from now. If the recent past is even remotely prologue, an industry driven by the quickening pace of technology will look a lot different by then — as will Detroit and its hometown automakers.

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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.