Monday Musings: Moving to June Won't Guarantee Success for NAIAS

By Author: Harvey Briggs, Date: Jan 28, 2019
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How do you measure the success of an auto show? That depends on the objective. Most have just one, to help dealers in their area sell cars. If you’re an International Auto Show sanctioned by the Organisation Internationale des Constructeurs d’Automobiles like the one that just concluded in Detroit, your other objective is to make news, and not just on the local stations and papers. The North American International Auto Show has to be the source of news that matters to car buyers, industry analysts, and enthusiasts around the world, something it hasn’t done very well of late.

It’s really hard to make international news when most of the largest and most important European automakers don’t show up. As I mentioned in my recap of NAIAS 2019, a lot of heavy hitters took a pass this year. Aston Martin, Audi, Bentley, BMW, Bugatti, Ferrari, Jaguar, Lamborghini, Land Rover, Maserati, Mazda, McLaren, Mercedes-Benz, MINI, Porsche, Tesla, and Volvo all decided it wasn’t worth the million-plus dollar investment to rent the floor space, build a booth, ship their cars, fly in their executives, and host media and VIPs in Detroit. The first reason relates to the primary objective of any auto show – selling cars.

Detroit is an “A Plan” market. A significant plurality of the area’s car buyers and their families make their living either directly or indirectly from a domestic manufacturer (GM, Ford, FCA) and have access to significant discounts on their home brands. As a result, Detroit is a relatively small market for the aforementioned brands.

As for making news, Detroit and NAIAS is also a really tough sale. While Detroit may be the Motor City, it’s not really a major media market and certainly not one that attracts eyeballs from Europe, South America, Asia, and the Middle East on a regular basis. New York and L.A. aside from being better markets for imported and premium brands, are global media centers. Competition also comes from stand-alone events manufacturers host at different times of the year so they don’t have to compete with the noise made by others at the show. This has cut the number of new product launches at Detroit from a high of 78 new vehicle and concept introductions in 2006 to just 15 this year.

Even though the show is a shadow of its former self, it’s still important. As Jim Trainor, Director of Communications for Hyundai North America said at this year’s show, “Bottom line, this event, and this great city will always be important to Hyundai, our local dealers, our employees at our Ann Arbor Tech Center – and to me.”

The goal of those running the North American International Auto Show shouldn’t be to save the show. It should be to make it matter more than ever. If I were running things, in addition to moving to June, here’s what I’d do.

First, I’d drop the NAIAS designation and go back to being the Detroit Auto Show. As a retail show, it does pretty well. Even with fewer brands on the floor, attendance was up over last year and that’s the first measure of any show, the gate.

Second, changing the name will allow the Detroit Auto Show to focus on the things that make it different and special. More than just the birthplace of the mass-produced automobile, Detroit is also home to some of the most important technological innovations going on in the business today. In addition to Ford, GM, and FCA, OEMs including Toyota, Hyundai, Mahindra, Daimler, Honda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru, Rivian, and Volkswagen have R&D facilities in the area doing leading edge work on everything from electrification to autonomy. It’s also home to a plethora of Tier 1 suppliers. Anyone can rent space in a big expo center and put cars on the floor, but only Detroit has the concentration infrastructure to showcase the industry at its best.

The Detroit Auto Show should be the centerpiece to a month-long celebration of the past, present, and future of the automobile and transportation. I’d work like hell to move other signature automotive events around to create a line up of activities that would equal or exceed those at Goodwood and Monterey.

Start the month with the Detroit Grand Prix on Belle Isle featuring Indy cars and sports cars. The media days for the auto show can can fall the Tuesday and Wednesday after the race. While the show is open, modify the Belle Isle track to offer driving schools and experiences. Host a NASCAR race at MIS on the second weekend of the month. The third weekend can feature vintage racing at Waterford Hills and the Concours d’Elegance of America. The final weekend, just before the 4th of July can be the new time slot for the Woodward Dream Cruise. Throughout the month offer factory tours, road rallies, special museum exhibits, workshops, technology demonstrations, and other events sponsored by the manufacturers and related businesses. Host a nightly concert series at Hart Plaza. Screen the greatest automotive themed and racing films at the Fox Theater. Get Mecum in for a muscle car auction. The idea is to create lineup of events so broad and compelling it will become a destination for auto enthusiasts and economic engine for tourism in the state of Michigan.

There’s so much more that can be done at this time of year of which the Detroit Auto Show must be an integral part. It won’t happen overnight. It won’t be easy to get all the schedules to align. But this approach will allow Detroit to wear the mantle of The Motor City in a way it hasn’t in generations. I hope the folks at DADA, Visit Michigan, the Detroit Regional Chamber, the manufacturers, and other businesses realize the opportunity they have before them and that next June my old hometown becomes the center of the automotive world again.

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Harvey Briggs

Harvey Briggs is the Founder, Editor, and Publisher of Rides & Drives. He has also written for Car and Driver, Winding Road, and the luxury lifestyle blog, Pursuitist.com. His passions run from fast cars, small planes, boats and motorcycles to music, travel, and sports. When he's not on the road testing the latest cars, he been known to turn up on stage playing rock and blues guitar at clubs around his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. Follow Harvey's adventures on Instagram and Twitter @harvey_drives and find him on Facebook. Though keeping up could be a problem. As Harvey says, "If I don't slow down, time can't catch me."

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