Detroit, the granddaddy of all North American auto shows, the self-proclaimed most important auto show, is about to shift its annual time slot from the dead of winter to late spring. Motown’s crappy weather plus competition from CES made it necessary.
That’s according to reports in the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News. The North American International Auto Show (NAIAS), as Detroit is called, will run as scheduled Jan. 14-27, 2018, then in 2020 shift to a June date. It’s expected there would be more outdoor events than in the past. (Actually, it’d be hard for there to be fewer.)
Better times: a Ford introduction at the adjoining Joe Louis Arena. The main occupant, the Detroit Red Wings, left last year for an arena near the Tigers’ ballpark.
The shift is long overdue. While the show has international in its title, it was first and foremost a celebration of Michigan’s traditional Big Three automakers, dating to 1899 for the first show and 1907 for the first annual show. And it was about the finished vehicles more than about the underlying technologies that were making cars of the 21st century so much different and better.
The Los Angeles Auto Show, which also dates to 1907, was also held in January — sometimes closely overlapping Detroit, and also falling into the same show dates of the then-Consumer Electronics Show (now just CES). Someone had to move, and LA chose to jump to November just after or before Thanksgiving, where it had thrived. This year it’s Nov. 30-Dec. 9, 2018.
Media still turn out in numbers for major events. Here, the January 2018 intro of the 2019 Chevrolet Silverado.
What Went Wrong in Detroit
“Cobo” is Native American word meaning “snows during press days.” (January 2018)
Having attending many of the big three auto shows since 2000, plus the mid-majors — LA, Detroit and New York along with Chicago and Washington — I’ve seen a half-dozen missteps that has Detroit in the situation it’s now facing:
- Show dates based on availability. Detroit’s convention hall, Cobo Center, is freely available in January, as well as December, allowing for a leisurely move-in over several weeks.
- Show dates based on the slow sales season. Dealers love the winter months for auto shows so they can jumpstart sales. As far as dealers are concerned, the press days are irrelevant to selling cars, other than the stories generated on the (usually) two press days.
- January in Detroit scares media and analysts. The idea of being stranded for several days in Detroit in January (also Chicago in February) with not much to do weighs heavily on the minds of 4,000-plus writers and analysts.
- CES and LA stole the tech and design aspects. The last five-plus years, the most major introductions that involved new car technology were in Las Vegas at CES. And that’s most of what makes cars different these days. Meanwhile, LA got its share of tech announcements and became the go-to show for green car announcements and demos. LA rebranded the press-and-trade days as Automobility LA, including ride-and-drives. Detroit countered with Automobili-D (get it) and stuck the exhibits down in the basement.
- Casinos. Some Detroit partisans say Las Vegas and Detroit are on equal footing because cities offer gaming. Seriously.
2003 attendees between events.
European automakers pull the plug. Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, and Volvo are among the major automakers that will not be at the 2019 show. They had some of the splashiest exhibits and nicest free luncheon buffets for analysts and media. Porsche in fact has pulled out twice in the past decade. Michigan has one of the lowest penetration rates for cars sold by internationally flagged automakers. Only VW remains at the show, and it has a significant Michigan presence.
- Michiganders only care about Ford, GM and Ram/FCA. The show is two days of press previews, a day of charity galas, and then 10 days for the buying public. At Detroit, the buying decisions are invariably made in advance. Meaning: If you’re from a family with a member or relative working at Ford, you go to the show to see which Ford or Lincoln product gets your friends-and-family discount; it’s not going to a GM product or a Fiat Chrysler Ram product.
- Bad insight from the local media. When your business is primarily the US automakers and their nearby HQs and factories, that’s what you write about. It affects the News, Free Press, the excellent Detroit-based Automotive News weekly, and electronic media. They write a lot about what’s hot from the local automakers, less about what ails them and the show. A decade ago, at a time when CES was gathering steam and the LA show perked up its November time slot, an editorial in the local papers said the Detroit show needs a better venue or else NAIAS is likely to lose the mantle of America’s most important show to…Chicago. The Chicago Auto Show, Feb. 9-18 in 2019, bills itself as the “Nation’s Largest Auto Show” and in fact has the largest, nicest venue in McCormick Place, but it has only a handful of major new intros.
Camera crew awaits a less snowy backdrop before filming in 2003.
The Detroit Show in 2020
Even Tesla exhibited in Detroit at one time. Here, the Roadster in 2009.
Reports have the 2020 show going outdoors as well, “establishing the cornerstone of an outdoor automotive celebration around Cobo Center and other downtown landmarks,” according the Detroit News.
There’s talk of an outdoor festival modeled after the Goodwood Festival of Speed, a July event in the UK dating to 1983 that includes automotive competitions as well the chance to see and drive new cars.
The Detroit Auto Dealers Association — DADA, not the automakers, puts on the show — has a deadline of July 24 to decide if it will go ahead with the move.
Other major international shows include Geneva in February, New York in late March and April, Frankfurt in September (alternating years), and LA in November.