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Auto show puts the ‘Detroit’ back into downtown event as plans for its return solidify

Crain’s Detroit Business
Kurt Nagl
July 15, 2022

Automakers including Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co., Stellantis NV and Toyota Motor Corp. will have a major presence at the auto show in Detroit this September, but not in the same way as shows past, according to organizers.

As the Sept. 14-25 event draws nearer, plans are solidifying for the North American International Detroit Auto Show. Note that “Detroit” was inserted into the name of the event for the first time since it took the “international” moniker in 1989. The Detroit show dates back more than a century but has been shelved since 2019 because of schedule changes and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We want to create something here, a hallmark event that we can build on in the future, that people will want to go to and celebrate what we’re all about here in Detroit,” Rod Alberts, executive director of the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, which produces the show, said Wednesday between meetings downtown where he was sizing up the new and expanded show footprint. “And we know that we can do it in such a way that all of downtown is going to be energized.”

There will be plenty of reasons for media and industry insiders to attend, including new vehicle debuts, Alberts said.

There will be an even bigger emphasis on general consumers, Alberts said, with experiences including Bronco Mountain, Camp Jeep, Ram Truck Territory, indoor rides in Maseratis, Lamborghinis and other luxury cars, and electric vehicle rides along the future downtown circuit of the Grand Prix.

While organizers have trickled out some details of the new indoor-outdoor “hybrid” show and accompanying Charity Preview, much has remained behind the curtain. Tickets went on sale Monday for the show and its charity event.

The traditional auto show part of the event will happen within Huntington Place as with past iterations, Alberts said.

Rather than “big, Taj Mahal” displays that attendees are used to, automakers are investing more in experiential activations, like Bronco Mountain — a rollercoaster-like metal and wood structure designed to flaunt the power of Ford’s popular SUV. The “mountain” premiered at Motor Bella and will be erected inside the downtown convention center.

Camp Jeep and Ram Truck Territory, two experiential test tracks that Stellantis has brought to auto shows around the country for years, will make their debuts in Detroit, competing with Bronco Mountain to woo attendees.

“We’ve never had the opportunity to have the space inside to do these things before,” said Jamie Noll, shows and events manager for Stellantis.

Also new this go-around will be an indoor track on which attendees can be driven around the showroom in luxury vehicles, Alberts said. Outside, attendees will have the chance to take a spin downtown as passengers inside new EVs.

“(Grand Prix Chairman) Bud Denker and his crew have laid out a great track for downtown, and we might as well just run the same course,” Alberts said. “It’s a chance to feel what that technology is all about.”

Alberts said the show has secured participation from 35 brands, with five major activations inside the showroom.

“There are reveals we hear that are coming. There will be debuts,” Alberts said, declining to offer specifics. “They really want to show it off here because this is the hometown for these manufacturers, plus we can make it a hallmark location for people to come to, not just from Southeast Michigan, but around the country.”

Stellantis indicated it would be conducting new vehicle reveals for Jeep and Chrysler and said it would have a vehicle display with products from Alfa Romeo, Chrysler, Dodge, Fiat, Jeep and Ram brands.

“We will have opportunities for showgoers to be taken for a ride in our Camp Jeep and Ram Truck Territory driving courses, and we are planning press conferences, for both Jeep and Chrysler,” spokesman Rick Deneau said in an email.

Ford is planning to sponsor the traditional AutoGlow event supporting The Children’s Center, according to a memo obtained by Crain’s. The event will be hosted at Ford Field in an “elegant outdoor space” with a gourmet dinner, open bar, entertainment and shuttles between Ford Field and Huntington Place.

“We’re excited the show is returning to Detroit and we look forward to sharing our plans closer to September,” Ford spokesman Mike Levine said in an email.

GM did not provide details for its auto show plans.

On the non-OEM side, the show is on track to have more than 100 sponsors and partners, with more expected to sign up in the coming weeks, said Tavi Fulkerson, founder of The Fulkerson Group, which has handled sponsor activity for the auto show since 1992.

This year’s show is not expected to bring the same number of journalists and auto writers as previous shows. The media preview has been condensed from two days in 2019 to one day, Sept. 14, shared by Industry Tech Day.

In 2019, there were 4,568 media members from 60 countries in to cover 44 vehicle reveals, including 31 world debuts, organizers said.

“I don’t see that reoccurring that same way anymore,” Alberts said. “If you get 1,000, 2,000 (media members), you’re going to cover 90 percent of the landscape anyway.”

The outdoor aspects of the show, aside from the Grand Prix circuit ride-along, have remained mostly under wraps, as have details on the Charity Preview, scheduled for Sept. 16.

The fundraising event will take place at Huntington Place with two yet-to-be-named musical acts and a third act in Hart Plaza, Alberts said.

In 2019, ticketed attendance totaled 774,179. Alberts said it’s too early to predict numbers this year, but believes 400,000 would be a solid turnout.

“There will be a heavy emphasis on the consumer side and the experience of the consumer,” Alberts said. “But because we are Detroit, I think it also presents an opportunity for others to gather and still conduct business here. I mean, why not come in and look at competitors’ products on the show floor?”

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