No empire lasts forever. When the 2019 Detroit auto show ended Sunday, it was also the end for the show’s preferred January dates — preferred by organizers, if not by media and auto companies coming from outside Michigan — with an average high temperature 32 degrees. Starting next year, Detroit’s North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) reimagines itself as a warm-weather show in June, with events outdoors as well as inside. This ends a decades-long January run for NAIAS since 1989 and before that as the non-international Detroit Auto Show.
What happened? Detroit’s and Michigan’s influence on the global auto industry remains immense and at the same time waning. Detroit and Los Angeles had adjacent weeks in January. LA blinked and moved to November in 2006 and prospered, while Detroit slumped so much it’s moving, too. That leaves January with only one mid-major show — the Washington (DC) Auto Show, which for 2019 only got shifted to April.
What’s Happening to the Detroit Show?
The Detroit Auto Show dates to 1899 and is the world’s second oldest auto show, a year younger than the Paris show, with a regional (US) focus until the 1950s. It became the North American International Auto Show in 1989, putting Motown on equal footing with Frankfurt, Geneva, Paris and New York. European, Asian and US automakers ran press conferences. There was a charity event for dealers and Detroit’s elite between media and public days.
Over the last decade, it dawned on the Europeans that how no matter how big an exhibition space they leased, they weren’t going to sell many cars. The majority of the show days are for the public, and in Detroit, they show up with Ford, GM, or Chrysler (now FCA) family discount programs in mind. Those with a Ford A-Plan discounts are going to buying Ford or Lincoln products, not GM, Subaru, or Volkswagen. The million-square-foot space of Cobo Hall gives Michiganders a warm place to kick tires, not to kick over Ford for Chevy, or vice versa, let alone for Nissan.
Michigan has a low market penetration with Audi, BMW, Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz, and the like. For example, for a population of 10 million, the state has just 10 Mercedes dealers. All but one of the of the other 15 most populous states have more Mercedes dealers per million population. Michigan has something of a bias against cars that aren’t built in the US, and even something of a worker bias against cars built outside the Rust Belt. It wasn’t long ago that a Michigan factory posted a sign that foreign cars weren’t welcome in the factory parking lot, and to please park across the street. Problem is, it’s hard to tell what’s a foreign car now. America’s largest exporter of cars is BMW, some 300,000 a year now, from South Carolina.
Over time, some media coverage has shifted toward looking at the technology components – self-driving, driver safety assists, infotainment – and for that CES quickly became the more important January show. All this made Detroit a show that focuses heavily on celebrating the traditional Big Three (Ford, GM, and Chrysler) products. LA is gone from January, but CES has attracted virtually every Tier 1 (the biggest) automotive supplier, plus more than a half-dozen automakers who are effectively marketing directly to the 200,000 people who attend CES. Detroit’s basement Automobili-D tech showcase didn’t have the excitement of CES. When LA created a segment of its show devoted to EVs, self-driving, and tech in general called Automobility LA, Detroit responded with Automobili-D, but it wasn’t quite the same. Detroit hosts the annual North American Car and Truck of the Year awards, but NACTOY is now looking for a new venue.
Automakers also liked that there was so little happening before NAIAS at the Cobo Hall exhibit center in downtown Detroit and they had a leisurely 2-4 weeks to set up. This year, it took weeks to set up the show, and barely a day for NAIAS to be done. Press days at most shows used to be three days, or perhaps two. Detroit had two official press days, Jan. 14-15, but every automotive vehicle introduction was done by early afternoon Monday. Wrote one Detroit-based editor: “[NAIAS] was winding down by lunchtime on the first day … this show needs a reboot.”
Reality Distortion Field: Hometown Media Roots for Home Team
The hometown media gives a lot of coverage to the home team. No surprise. That includes Automotive News, one of the best business newsweeklies around, despite occasional offbeat musings on the editorial page. Earlier in the month, an op-ed column (image above) said German execs weren’t coming to Detroit for fear of being busted:
This year, sadly, German auto companies have decided en masse not to participate in the show. Some German executives may simple be afraid to show up given the diesel emissions scandal, which has led executives to being jailed in the United States and Germany. Being an automobile executive executive is often a dangerous position.
There’s more. When Porsche opted out of the 2017 Detroit show, AutoWeek (home office, Detroit) headlined the story, “Apparently the Motor City Isn’t Good Enough for Porsche Anymore.” A decade ago, where there was some discussion of expanding Cobo Hall, site of NAIAS, a Detroit paper editorialized that unless Cobo grew bigger and newer, it risked losing the mantle of North America’s most important auto show to … Chicago. The Windy City’s McCormick Center is the best (biggest, nicest) venue in North America for the public days of the auto show, but the most important auto shows now are Los Angeles, New York, and CES. California has become the capital of the world for car culture, style, design, tech development, and more car company US headquarters than any other state.
Michigan remains an automotive powerhouse. When GM, Ford, and then-Chrysler were shedding workers a decade ago, every other automaker rushed in to snap them up and establish RD centers in Michigan, or vastly expand the ones they already had. Michigan auto factories turn out cars that match the quality of factories elsewhere in the world, for the most part. But never has the US auto industry been less Michigan-centric.
How Much Do Automakers Want to Spend on Shows?
Automakers continually rethink where they spend their marketing dollars: print, TV, radio, online, magazines, newspapers, experiential marketing (receptions or ride-and-drive events at a football stadium parking lot), press intros, sponsor-paid bloggers, sponsoring film festivals, or underwriting auto show booth space.
While the Detroit show was underway this year, Chevrolet had a large stand in Cobo Hall. Chevy also funded a second cover on the Jan. 28 issue of Sports Illustrated. A page in a magazine, even a second cover, is chump change compared with the $5 million for every 30 seconds of advertising broadcast during Super Bowl 53 (LIII). During the game this Sunday, there’ll be at least one commercial each from Audi (for the e-tron crossover), Hyundai (for the Palisade SUV), Kia (“The Great Unknowns Scholarship”), Mercedes-Benz (not yet known), and Toyota (for the RAV4 crossover).
What is an auto show good for? The shows are essentially dealer events (except the press days), and the Detroit show aimed to turn owners intro buyers at the time of year they’re least likely to buy. Buyers benefit because Cobo Hall is a warm place to see cars, and more importantly, there’s less pressure than in a dealership. Between car shows, experiential events run by automakers, and automaker websites and product review/configuration sites, much of the money automakers invest helps buyers put off the thing they like least: setting foot in a dealership.
Come 2020, the US auto show season will look like this: CES and Washington in January, Chicago in February, New York (NYIAS) in March (always the week before Easter), Detroit in June, the trade-only Speciality Equipment Manufacturers Association (SEMA), the mid-major Miami show, and LA in November. Internationally, there’s Geneva in March, Beijing in April (even years), Frankfurt in September (odd years), and Paris in October (even years). In the US, Detroit and New York are considered international shows (and get to use that term), although LA is effectively an international show.
- Best Cars of the 2019 Detroit Auto Show
- The Best Car Tech of CES 2019
- ExtremeTech’s Best Cars and Car Tech for 2019