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Auto Show Investment is Key to Driving Motor City to New Heights

July 8, 2024

Photo credit: Kimberly P. Mitchell, Detroit Free Press

Detroit Free Press
July 6, 2024
Carol Cain

I love cars. I love the auto industry and I love the Detroit Auto Show. I can’t deny it.

It’s who we are. Which is why I’ve been applauding as I’ve  watched the Detroit Auto Dealers Association work to try and keep the show vibrant and relevant. And it’s been a challenge.

We’re at an inflection point with this event as decisions are being made by the Detroit Three — Ford, GM and Stellantis — about how rigorous their involvement with the Detroit event will be. Those decisions will ultimately set the tone for what comes next.

“Returning to our January roots, the Detroit Auto Show will celebrate our identity as the global epicenter of auto innovation,” said Sam Klemet, co-executive director of DADA who joined the organization in May. DADA represents 275 dealers across metro Detroit that put on the event. “We are the hometown stage for the Big Three to showcase their latest technology, concepts, and people while also highlighting Detroit’s legacy of automotive excellence.”

The Detroit Three need show up in a bigger way for this show to continue after January, otherwise we should just pack up the tent and acquiesce to the world that we are not who we say we are. Not to mention what winding down the show would mean to downtown businesses, the state, our calling card as the auto capital, and frankly — to those companies.

A driving force for the region

Auto shows  are changing as manufacturers  have modified marketing plans and how they roll out new vehicles. It’s about survival and getting the most bang for their marketing buck.  I have my MBA from U-M’s Ross School of Business and understand things like ROI (Return on Investment).

But the Detroit event is in a different league because of the  proximity of GM, Ford and Stellantis as the show’s energy and experience for attendees are driven primarily by the awe-inspiring displays of these companies that call metro Detroit home.

The show has come a long way from its start 100 years ago as a  stage provider for dealers to sell a few vehicles during January. The show is  moving back to mid-January 2025 and with it a chance to recalibrate.

The show’s mission is still tied to moving inventory but has morphed, too, into something unique as it has given the Motor City and state an image boost and another feather in the cap for the town that put the world on wheels.

“The Detroit Auto Show is a cultural and business institution in our city and state’s history and is also vital for our future,” said Glenn Stevens Jr., executive director of MichAuto and vice president of Automotive and Mobility Initiatives for the Detroit Regional Chamber. “It has always been a place and time where leaders, engineers and innovators have come together to view and discuss products and cutting-edge technologies. It is where families and students can see the vehicles that drive our economy, and what people drive every day. It is a part of who we are in Michigan.”

The impact of the show is undeniable.

Where else can you command attention for 11 days as you roll out the welcome mat to showcase your products while surrounded by new development coming to life around the downtown area? The show brought in about $100 million in economic impact in 2022, and David Sowerby, managing director at Ancora, has conducted economic impact studies on the event in its heyday not long ago when it was between $300 million and $400 million.

Where else can you raise millions of dollars for children’s charities in one night at a gala preview? (Since 1990, it has raised $120 million for children’s charities, according to DADA.)

Where else can you shine a light on the massive change underway in mobility and technology and auto design as influencers are showcased and global leaders come to Detroit to take it all in?

Where else is the focus so intense on young talent and entrepreneurs tied to mobility so pronounced?

Yes, the show is setting the stage for the Motor City not only today but tomorrow. Detroit’s been on a roll, starting with the 2024 NFL draft in April, the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix, the Ford Fireworks and the Rocket Mortgage PGA. The vibe and energy is real. I heard about it from Emily Gail —  the community champion behind the still popular “Say Nice Things About Detroit” movement launched 40 years ago. She told me last week, as she’s coming home after living in Hawaii 30 years, to be part of the resurgence.

On Wednesday of this past week, the Sterling Group and Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority announced a new JW Marriott will be built near Huntington Place. The 600-room hotel will help draw showgoers from across the globe and make the experience even more convenient.

The Detroit Three are looking at their 2025 marketing plans right now and deciding things like auto shows and where to spend their dollars.

If they commit to something of substance this January — such as unveiling a vehicle people will talk about or put resources into their displays — it will reverberate.

And for the bean counters reading this column, the numbers don’t always tell the whole story.  It sometimes comes down to heart. And commitment. And not letting something that has defined Detroit and its key industry fall by the wayside.

At the end of the day, the manufacturers will decide what to do with their vehicle debuts and marketing dollars. Stepping up and making the January show a part of their game plan in a significant way would not only be good for them, but the region and state. It would pay dividends for years to come.

To not take advantage of this uniquely Detroit opportunity — one geared up with a bow tie and ready to go in January — would be shooting ourselves in the collective economic foot.

Helping a hero

The DADA community is pulling together as it raises money for the family of Bradley J. Reckling, 30, an Oakland County sheriff’s deputy who was shot and killed in the line of duty June 22 trying to retrieve a stolen vehicle.

Reckling, a married father of three young children — ages 5, 4 and 1, with a fourth on the  way — was ambushed as he approached the vehicle.

“For decades, Detroit-area auto dealers and law enforcement across the state have stood united, working tirelessly to protect our community,” said Todd Szott, DADA president. “Officer Reckling was more than a hero; he was a beloved husband and father. His unwavering commitment to safeguarding our community came at the ultimate price, and for that, we are profoundly grateful.”

DADA is asking its 275 members to donate to the family, with 100% of  donations going directly to his widow, Jacqueline Reckling, and their children, “ensuring they receive the support they need during this unimaginable time.”

Szott said DADA and tricounty law enforcement departments “remain resolute in our mission to curb the surge of auto thefts, which too often escalate into even more violent crimes.”