The following is an editorial and does not represent the opinion of any of our clients – the views expressed are mine and mine alone. The Cleveland Auto Show has a new brother, the Detroit Auto Show. I can no longer call it the North American International Auto Show because a) it is no longer truly international and b) it really doesn’t even represent North America that well either. Does all that sound a bit harsh? I don’t think so. To understand my opinion you should at least understand my point of view, so please read on…….
First thing you have to know is that I eat, breath and live automobiles. They have been my passion since the age of 3, and 1991 when I moved to this automotive mecca was up to that point, a high point in my life. My happiness was short-lived as I soon realized that the industry was old-fashioned, provincial, and close-minded. The city and surrounding suburbs could have been called the capital of “we do it that way because we’ve always done it that way” and the anti-hero in the story of innovation. The shock was brutal.
But the one high point was always the auto show. A place where the big wigs came and espoused their vision of innovation and change with each and every new concept and vehicle introduction. There was ENERGY, from the over-the-top PR stunts, to the way everybody walked the show. I am too young to remember Motorama, but to me the same level of excitement existed. As my career path morphed from engineering to business development, the auto show was a honey pot of opportunity. At that time everyone displayed their products at the SAE Show, a trade show of epic proportions. Even though I was responsible for our company’s displays and strategy I hated it. The number one visitor to our booth was our competitors, followed closely by people looking for a job. The OEM customers were few and far between.
The auto show was different. People I could not get meetings with were there, wandering aimlessly around the show, and ripe for the pickings. I thought about how an auto supplier could make bank by being involved in the show, and contacted NADA to inquire about moving my budget from SAE to NAIAS. They were aghast and I was rebuffed so fast it would make your head spin – “we are an auto show and we have no need for suppliers” (I am paraphrasing of course as I no longer have the memory to recall it work for word). I told myself I understood. The primary function was to sell cars, so the dealers had to take priority. And because this show held one of the coveted and limited “International” monikers, it was also important to the OEMs. The suppliers needed to take a back seat and just enjoy the benefits.
My how times have changed. We can all look outside and admit that the industry is changing everywhere, and auto shows are under extreme pressure from OEM-specific and private events and introductions. But for some reason other shows seem to be weathering the change substantially better than Detroit. And to me the root cause is not this city and the people who live here – they are great. It is THE PEOPLE in charge. Back to that comment earlier about the small-minded, limited-vision people who seem to be in charge of things in Michigan. If this year’s show is any indication, the future of the show is glum. It will enjoy one year of a semi-resurgence and then continue its unavoidable decline into obscurity and new position as a regional auto show on par with Cleveland.
If you value your time, you will avoid the show this year. I spent the better part of a day walking around the show and I saw nothing of interest. Yes, the new Supra was there, along with the Shelby and new Ram HD – all highlights of any auto show, no matter where they might be introduced at. But that was pretty much it. The basement Automobili-D, which is touted as the future of the auto show, is no better than the annual SAE Trade Show. It is claimed the event is “sold out” but that phase is often used for concerts and sporting events and we all know what it means. And the looks on the faces of the people working the booths look similar to any trade show I attend – 80% wish they were somewhere else. Say what you want about the product specialists the major OEMs hire to work their booths – they are almost always cheery and act like they are living the life of Riley.
PS, that picture used during the intro to this editorial was on the MAIN FLOOR of the show on Industry Day right next to major OEM booths. The rest of it was full of used cars and racers and hot rods more attuned to a car lot on Woodward. I wanted to find someone important, shake them, and offer this advice. “You who are running the show – you have to consider that you are in the real estate business. Each square foot is valuable, and if you let people build subpar structures next to your best homeowners, or parts of it get overgrown with weeds and wither, it affects the value of each and every square foot of your property. You have let the chase for control and the almighty dollar cloud your judgement. Some residents are better to refuse and send elsewhere.” After the show I wondered with some friends – how hard would it have been for the show organizers to offer that space for a “Heritage Place” show where Ford, GM and Chrysler could display some of their best show cars from past shows out of their museums?
If this year is a regal disaster, next year remains to be seen. They are branding the new show as something akin to Goodwood. Sorry to break it to you all, Detroit already has something akin to Goodwood – it’s called the Woodward Cruise. The Detroit auto show will NEVER bring that level of passion with the current people pulling the strings. I have seen nothing so far that leads me to believe they fully understand the industry nor care about the very intricate and sophisticated way all the different parts work together to make the whole more than a sum of the parts. Don’t get me wrong, it cannot help but be a big improvement. The locals who attend the show as general public will enjoy the hell out of the changes they are making. 1 million people attending is not outside the realm of possibilities. And for the first year at least, the important decision makers who suppliers need to see will still be in attendance, mainly out of curiosity and wanting to see the changes. But as a supplier to the industry, the days of utilizing the show for networking and business prospecting are over, and will die a slow death. My walk around the show this week? Not one OEM customer seen, at all, all day. THAT has never happened before, at least since I attended my first in 1992. Kind of like that time I went to the Cleveland Auto Show.