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‘Maybe this is the future’: Detroit auto show leaders reimagine event that draws 800,000

MLive
Sept. 23, 2021
Taylor DesOrmeau

Electric vehicles are on the rise. Self-driving vehicles might not be far behind.

Automakers are investing heavily in both paradigm changes – or they risk becoming obsolete once the new technology becomes the norm.

It’s not so different for auto shows.

The North American International Auto Show in Detroit is one of the most famous industry exhibitions in the world, drawing more than 800,000 people most years during the 16-day event. Its economic impact on the area is roughly $450 million per year, industry leaders estimate.

“In 2005, when Detroit hosted the Super Bowl and the auto show, it was like the equivalent of hosting two Super Bowls,” said Claude Molinari, president and CEO of Visit Detroit, the city’s travel bureau. “That’s what it means to the region.”

Attendance dipped into the 600,000s during the recession, but topped 800,000 every year from 2014 through 2018. The crowd thinned in 2019 to 774,179.

Detroit’s auto show was canceled in 2020 due to COVID-19 – but changes were already on the horizon, with plans to move parts of the event outdoors, and to hold it in June, rather than the dead of winter.

Organizers opted for more dramatic changes in 2021. This year’s event was scaled down under the name “Motor Bella” and is being held this week, Sept. 21-26, outdoors at the M1 Concourse in Pontiac, rather than the traditional location in downtown Detroit.

With unique driving and ride-along experiences being offered, organizers hope to draw 150,000 to the six-day Motor Bella event, said Rod Alberts, executive director of the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, which puts on the show.

Auto shows worldwide are rethinking their purpose as manufacturers get more comfortable unveiling new vehicles virtually – and concept cars wane in popularity.

“I don’t think attendees have lost their appetite for auto shows,” Molinari said. “But I do think the OEMs may have lost their enthusiasm for some of the large displays where they’re trying to outdo their competition and put all that money into an event with an arbitrary date.”

Stationary displays thrived in the pre-internet era. They don’t offer as much when auto enthusiasts can watch vehicle unveilings from their phone.

To survive, auto shows have to pivot to a new draw – or risk becoming little more than a dealership showroom.

The answer could be offering “experiences,” Alberts said.

“The inside (portion of the auto show) is nice. You can look around and you can sit in a car,” said Tammy Carnrike, COO of the Detroit Regional Chamber. “But for a lot of folks, being able to actually experience the vehicle and what it can do is a really extra opportunity.”

Consumers like interaction. And manufacturers can use activations to showcase new technology – like electric and self-driving cars – to help people to buy in.

“This is a time where (auto technology) is changing so quickly – how do you make people comfortable with it?” Alberts said. “That’s what we want to help out with.”

Vision for the 2022 show

Organizers are planning the 2022 Detroit auto show for September, Alberts said.

The traditional January date won’t work, since DADA wants an outdoor component. The June idea wasn’t popular, Molinari said, since many conventions already book up the summer in Detroit.

Expect a hybrid of the 2019 show with the 2021 Motor Bella show.

“Being outdoors opens new opportunities,” Alberts said. “You can get imaginative.”

This year’s show has more than a dozen “activations,” with various free ride-along opportunities – like flying over jumps in a Ram truck or plunging through mud and climbing hills in a Ford Bronco. Some manufacturers also allow test driving new models on Woodward Avenue, which runs parallel to the property.

Visitors can ride along in luxury cars like Lamborghinis and McLarens, too, at the M1 Concourse racetrack.

“You’re going to hear cars going around the track. You’ve got all the sights, sounds, smells and just the feel of the product. The energy level is going to be huge,” Alberts said before the event. “Maybe this is the future … (for) where we’re headed.”

There are benefits to the inside component of the show. Some manufacturers still prefer the traditional method of showing off their products, DADA organizers said.

Indoor displays also avoid weather problems.

Organizers are in talks with Detroit’s TCF Center to bring the event back downtown in 2022. But they’re also considering having experiences at the M1 Concourse in Pontiac, too. Or possibly closing some downtown Detroit streets to set up the activations there and in Hart Plaza, Alberts said.

Future auto shows could feel more like festivals, multiple industry leaders said.

“It’s really an intersection of auto shows as we know it, cultural events – like a South by Southwest – and also a technology event – like a Consumer Electronics Show,” said Glenn Stevens Jr., executive director of MICHauto, the statewide mobility industry association.

The success of Motor Bella will play a big role in how the 2022 show looks. Organizers are even considering hosting it on two separate weekends, Alberts said, with one weekend indoors at the TCF Center and the other at the M1 Concourse.

Also in question – what will the event be called? That’s still to be determined, Alberts said, noting the show was renamed “Motor Bella” for 2021 to give it a different feel.

The first iteration of the show was in 1907, and was called the Detroit Auto Show. It was renamed the North American International Auto Show in 1989, as it embraced foreign auto manufacturers.

A flourishing auto show drives tourism dollars for the Detroit area. It helps manufacturers engage with potential customers. And it gives Michiganders an additional entertainment option.

But it also generates pride for Detroit and cements its claim as the epicenter of the auto industry, city business leaders said.

NAIAS typically draws 5,000 credentialed press members and 35,000 industry experts from dozens of countries.

“They walk away with a new view of Detroit,” Carnrike said. “It’s a way to show the world what we really have here in Detroit. And that helps our employers to recruit talent, to find new opportunities for customers, etc. because their name just gets out there.”

Detroit business leaders want to show off the city’s transformation from the past decade. The Detroit auto show helps change the narrative.

“There’s a perception change,” Molinari said. “It’s not a 180 (degree) perception change – but it’s like a 150. And getting closer.”

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