Finley: We can't afford to screw up auto show

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Is this the end of an era or the beginning of one? Or both.

That's what I'm wondering as I head into Cobo Center today for the opening of the North American International Auto Show. 

I've been covering the Detroit show at some level my entire career. For me, it has taken on the characteristics of a holiday, not unlike the Christmas season. There are traditions I hew to, must-attend parties that roll over on my calendar year after year, and familiar faces I'll see only at Cobo.

So I'm apprehensive and skeptical about the seismic changes that are coming to the NAIAS once this final winter auto show closes. But hopeful as well.

And I know this: Detroit can't afford to screw up its auto show. 

NAIAS provides a break in the dreary winter landscape, Finley writes. And winter offers the auto show what amounts to a captive audience.

The NAIAS has a nearly $500 million impact on the regional economy. Hundreds of carpenters, electricians and other skilled tradesman count on the show for two to three months of work each winter, when the construction business is typically slow.

The 800,000 visitors who might otherwise stay in their warm homes venture out to fill restaurants, bars and parking lots downtown. Friday's Charity Preview will keep the hair dryers blowing all day at local salons, empty dress shops, jam car services and stuff the cash registers of florists and caterers.

Those business and many more experience a January surge in what would otherwise be a sluggish post-holiday stretch.

Can they expect the same windfall when the show moves to June in 2020, after taking an 18-month hiatus?

The NAIAS faces little competition in January, when not much else is going on in Detroit.

Not so in June, the month of weddings, auto races, baseball games, outdoor concerts, graduations and summer vacations. The auto show will be just one of many entertainment options Metro Detroiters will have to choose from.

The challenge for show organizers between now and June of 2020 is to craft a show that can both compete with and complement all of the other stuff local residents try to cram into their short Michigan summer.

They have some advantages to work with. Detroit looks a lot better in June than it does in January, creating an opportunity to market the show nationally as a tourist attraction. The threat of massive snow and ice storms will evaporate.   

And the opportunity to spread the auto show throughout downtown Detroit and tie it in with other event is intriguing.

I've accepted that the NAIAS has to do something to stay ahead of the auto industry's disruptive forces. Automakers no longer need splashy shows to reveal new product and target customers. They can do that 100 different ways on the internet.

The near absence of European automakers and most foreign luxury brands from this year's Detroit show is clear warning to NAIAS that it has to change or die.

I hope the June move is the right change. Again, the show's impact is too great to lose this bet.

I've always viewed the auto show as a welcome break in Detroit's interminably long, gray winters. Next January, I guess I'll use the opportunity to rest up for what promises to be an insane June.

Catch “The Nolan Finley Show” weekdays 7-9 a.m. on 910 AM Superstation.