When the Detroit auto show shifts to June next year, it will be …
A) a good thing B) a bad thing C) an opportunity D) a risk.
Or a big unknown.
Before the public has had a chance to descend on Cobo Center beginning Saturday for the final January staging of the North American International Auto Show, the fate of next year’s show has already been a hot topic among journalists, industry watchers, insiders and politicians, who have offered variations on the opinions above.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, after a tour of the show floor Tuesday, struck an optimistic tone:
“I think that June will offer us some more opportunities to showcase Michigan, to showcase this region, in, you know, some of our best months. I acknowledge that this has really been a great boost for our economy at this time of year and that’s really important, but it is moving and so we’re going to make it the best auto show ever.”
Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel wondered how Cobo Center in January going forward would fare.
“How are they going to backfill it?” Hackel said during a stop on his own trip to Cobo Tuesday, where he suggested that a June show will face lots of competition from other seasonal activities.
On Tuesday, the second day of the media preview, Hackel noted a change in the vibe from his previous trips to the show dating to his time as Macomb County’s sheriff in 2000.
“The mood was kind of sad. It was weird,” he said of the feeling he got walking in the door this year.
Part of what stood out for many who visited this week was the array of vehicles parked on the show floor — many of them exotic sports cars — that were not tied to an automaker display. As eye candy goes, those vehicles are hard to beat, but the impression is of change afoot. To be fair, however, there were empty spaces on the show floor last year that were not necessarily occupied by Ferraris or Lamborghinis.
Media preview days with fewer vehicle unveilings than previous years, a clear dip in media attendance and the shifting of a major industry announcement Tuesday to a conference call instead (that was the big Ford/VW collaboration news), did seem to set a tone of a show on the wane, or transition as some have called it.
But a pop into Cobo the day after the Hackel and Whitmer visits, and the gleam of shiny sheet metal and chrome seemed to be pulling in the crowds for the Industry Preview. As visitors poured in on Wednesday, the pall seemed to lift. Whether this year’s public show helps organizers meet their 800,000-visitor expectation is unclear. Wintry weather is expected to hit metro Detroit ahead of the start of the public show, possibly affecting attendance. But a day off for many on Monday for Martin Luther King Jr. Day could provide a boost.
Stephanie Brinley, senior analyst with IHS Markit, said this year’s vehicle unveilings — including those off-site — did highlight several important 2020 model year vehicles for their brands and segments, including the Ford Explorer, Kia Telluride and Toyota Supra, so the show has not been without news. She said that the industry has been churning out new technologies at a breakneck pace in recent years, and that perhaps, some of that simply needs to work its way through the development process.
“It doesn’t mean nothing’s happening,” Brinley said.
Even CES in Las Vegas earlier this month — the show that has been blamed fairly or unfairly to some degree for stealing Detroit’s thunder — appeared to have less technology news than in previous years, she said in an echo of comments by other show veterans.
Brinley said she’s not sure how a June auto show will look.
“Because we’re making changes, we’ll come up with challenges that haven’t been considered. … It might come off a bit clumsy just because they’re making change,” she said.
Brinley noted that what happens in 2020 will not be determined by what is seen at this year’s show. Brinley said the decision by several German automakers not to attend this year’s Detroit show had been made before last year’s show.
Whether brands such as BMW, Audi and Mercedes return to Detroit will have more to do with how the people behind those brands feel they can best tell the stories of their new products, she said.
“I think it’s going to be really difficult to figure out who’s going to be here next year,” Brinley said.
More driving, less sitting
Sam Abuelsamid, an analyst with Navigant Research, noticed a change this week.
“Certainly, during the media days, Monday and Tuesday, the number of media in attendance seemed to be way, way down,” Abuelsamid, said, noting that a lot of European journalists appeared to skip the show all together.
He suspects, though, that attendance during the public show days will be fine.
For Abuelsamid, what will be interesting to watch is whether the automakers who skipped this year choose to come back in 2020.
He noted that some companies took advantage of empty show floor space at Cobo this year. Kia, for example, built an “off-road” course to showcase the Telluride SUV, which was one of the highlights of the show.
That could provide a blueprint for 2020 and beyond, especially with new connections to outdoor locations. Auto show organizers in promoting their vision for 2020 have talked about 14 acres of auto-focused space from Cobo to Hart Plaza.
If that does not convince automakers to return, Abuelsamid said, it could mean the decline of the Detroit auto show as a major news event.
But it’s a problem not unique to Detroit or even to auto shows, he said.
“The problem with shows like auto shows is that we rely on relatively few large companies to come in and announce their products,” he said. “Those companies increasingly don’t want to share the limelight.”
High costs for carmakers
Paul Eisenstein, publisher of The Detroit Bureau, noted that a lot of manufacturers are rethinking their commitment to auto shows. Part of that is cost, he said, which can stretch into the millions for a 20- or 30-minute spotlight for a new vehicle.
Moving to June could help reduce some of the cost involved in setting up an auto show over the holidays, Eisenstein said, noting also the benefits of a seasonal shift.
“People who come here can only do so much in the middle of winter,” he said.
But Eisenstein, who noted that the most recent Paris auto show was a disappointment, will be watching to see whether brands such as Mercedes come back. Convincing the Germans, aside from Volkswagen, to return could require some effort, in part because of the market realities of Detroit and the Midwest, he said.
“It’s a Big Three market. People buy Detroit iron (here),” Eisenstein said, noting that the Germans ask why come to Detroit if they’re not going to sell product here.
Tom Walsh, a former business columnist for the Free Press, noted that the momentum for many of the traditional big auto shows appears to be down right now. In some cases, companies are taking the automotive press to scenic locations to unveil their vehicles.
Detroit has had a good, 30-year run as a big-time show, something that would have been hard to predict when it was a “nothing burger,” back before Lexus and Infiniti came to town and the Germans bought in, he said.
“This became a top world show. This one got more media than anyplace else. … The question is, is all media good media?” Walsh said. “Where it’s going to go from here, it’s hard for me to tell.”
The vision for 2020 is bold, Walsh said, but the organizers knew they had to do something. There’s always been grousing from international visitors about Detroit’s weather in January, but the impact of losing most of the German brands forced a change.
“Good for them for trying,” Walsh said, noting that the personalities behind the show had looked to a range of other events for possible alternatives.
Major festivals, such as South by Southwest in Texas or the Goodwood Festival of Speed in England, offer models for something different.
“Can we capture some of the good weather, really get some buzz … turn it into something that’s more than this static indoor (show)?” Walsh said of the thinking.
“Nobody else has tried to do it with an auto show.”