No. 1001
June 19, 2019

About The UjianNasional

Peter M. DeLorenzo has been immersed in all things automotive since childhood. Privileged to be an up-close-and-personal witness to the glory days of the U.S. auto industry, DeLorenzo combines that historical legacy with his own 22-year career in automotive marketing and advertising to bring unmatched industry perspectives to the Internet with, which was founded on June 1, 1999. DeLorenzo is known for his incendiary commentaries and laser-accurate analysis of the automobile business, as well as racing and the business of motorsports. Author. Commentator. Influencer. The Consigliere. Minister of the High-Octane Truth. DeLorenzo is considered to be one of the most influential voices commenting on the business today.

DeLorenzo's latest book is Witch Hunt (Octane Press  ). It is available on Amazon in both hardcover and Kindle formats, as well as on iBookstore. DeLorenzo is also the author of The United States of Toyota.

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By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. Yes, I can hear well-intentioned people all across this city choking on their cornflakes right about now. How could I? How could I knock the one event that – allegedly – defines this city? How could I have the temerity to suggest that the one big event in this town every year has somehow lost its focus and lost its way and no longer serves its purpose?

It’s easy, actually, because the Detroit Auto Show has been on a downward spiral for years now, and to pretend otherwise is exactly the particularly pungent form of head-in-sand thinking that has brought us to this point. And this goes far beyond renaming the show, although the hoary “North American International Auto Show” moniker has been a joke for at least five years, if not more. No, this goes to the very core of what’s wrong with what once was a must-see auto show. 

Way back when, the Detroit Auto Show started out as a strictly regional show created by the local dealer associations to generate buyer interest in January and February, the two worst sales months of the year. And it plodded along just fine in that role. The pivot came about when industry leaders grew tired of seeing the big shows – Frankfurt, Paris, Geneva – garner all of the headlines and all of the attention. This was the Motor City, damn it, and we deserved to have an elevated stature for our auto show befitting the Motor Capital of the World, or so the thinking went at the time. Thus the new name with heavy emphasis on the word “international” made its debut in 1989 and it was good, at least for a while, anyway.

In fact, it was as if the NAIAS moniker was enough for everybody involved, that now that the once local car show had gone international, it had earned its rightful place on the annual auto show calendar, and it would just rumble along unencumbered and unthreatened by challenges and challengers, no matter where they came from. But this business – big surprise – is constantly changing and boiling, which is why I have semi-affectionately named it the “swirling maelstrom.” And the Detroit Auto Show clearly hasn’t changed with it.

The first discordant notes came with the timing of the Los Angeles Auto Show, and for years balancing the L.A. and Detroit shows, which bumped against each other on the calendar, was a real problem. But then the L.A. show was moved to November so that crisis was averted, at least temporarily. Then new headwinds laid waste to the Detroit show. First of all, the emergence of the Consumer Electronics Show as a place where automobile companies wanted to see and be seen caught everyone associated with the Detroit show completely off guard. Yes, it corresponded with the digitizing of the known world and the automobile’s important role in all of that but all of a sudden the CES, which came just a week before the Detroit Auto Show, was completely stealing the Detroit show’s thunder.

But there was another emerging factor that proved to be equally as damaging to the Detroit Auto Show, if not more so, and that is the fact that automobile companies began skipping the Detroit show altogether. The reasons given were costs – putting on a major auto show display is extravagantly expensive – and marketing, as in what were the most important markets for certain manufacturers, and did the Detroit Auto Show really work with what they were trying to do? And clearly the answer to those questions didn’t work in the Detroit show’s favor. 

As an example of this let’s take Porsche, for instance. Porsche’s largest sales market globally is the state of California, no other market is even close in fact (although China is gaining steam). The other important market for Porsche is the northeast, especially in terms of the media attention generated at the New York International Auto Show. So Porsche made a business decision based on the most important sales markets here in the U.S., and Detroit (and Michigan) just didn’t make the cut. 

The Detroit show organizers downplayed the decision by Porsche (and the decisions by other auto manufacturers that decided to skip the show) and went along, business as usual, but the result is that for the last several years the show floor at Cobo Hall has been punctuated by black holes, spaces that were left empty by no-show auto manufacturers. Now, there has been attempt by show organizers to fill those spaces with supplier displays, but the bold-faced effect is that the Detroit Auto Show now looks and acts like a second-tier show.

And make no mistake, it is.

Yes, the show organizers have made an attempt at counteracting the CES by beating the drums for its “AUTOMOBILI-D” but who’s kidding whom here? Even though this region is one of the technical hotbeds of the world, the notion that the show organizers can flip a switch and make the Detroit Auto Show a player in the mobility discussion overnight is naïve and grossly optimistic. And competing with CES? It’s just not going to happen.

So, with that background, what can be done? Here are a few comments and recommendations:

1. First order of business is to change the official name of the show to the Detroit Auto Show. This should have happened five years ago but it needs to happen now. 

2. Next, the Detroit Auto Show needs to move from its traditional January date to June, immediately following the IndyCar weekend at Belle Isle. I am tired of hearing the media attendees at the press days complain about the weather. But I’m not tired of what they’re saying – because it’s dead accurate – I’m tired of hearing about it because it can be easily addressed with some calculated planning. And all of the naysayers who insist that it can’t be done are exactly the reason that the Detroit Auto Show is stuck in neutral. Everything associated with the Detroit show right now – the media attention, the charity preview, the positive affects on the economy – can take place in June when visitors will not only take away a much better impression of this city, they can see this city in a completely new light.

3. If Detroit Auto Show organizers don’t take the first two steps, there is no hope whatsoever of this show ascending to the top tier of auto shows again. Right now the top tier consists of Frankfurt/Paris (conducted on alternate years, still the most important two shows on the calendar), Los Angeles (because of the importance of the vast California market), Geneva (small, but high-quality reveals and intros) and New York (in the media center of the U.S.). CES isn’t an auto show but it has decimated the Detroit show because of its position on the calendar. Chicago is a retail show, a place where consumers actually look over the vehicles they’re thinking of buying. So, where does that leave Detroit? How about floundering and gasping for air? Detroit isn’t important enough to be considered an “international” show anymore; in fact it has taken a giant step backwards to being a regional show for U.S.-based automakers again. No one wants to hear this, but it’s the reality that has unfolded over the last half-dozen years and to pretend otherwise is to function with a level of delusion that is simply not healthy for anyone.

4. And then there’s the notion that auto shows in general have outlived their usefulness. This isn’t an illusion. It’s not just Detroit that has lost its luster and lost manufacturers, other major shows have experienced some of this too. Global manufacturers have grown tired of the costs associated with mounting a proper effort because those costs have multiplied exponentially over the last decade, and they’re realizing that there are more creative ways of getting their message out to consumers. (I still believe in auto shows as a place where people can actually see, feel and touch the vehicles in question, and you only have to spend a few hours at the public days of a show to be reminded of this. And I hope that never goes away.)

The 2018 version of the Detroit Auto Show was a lackluster exercise almost completely devoid of excitement. A lot of people attributed that to the fact that there were not enough concept cars from the manufacturers and that made for a dull show. There is some truth to that. People go to movies for the escapism and entertainment. Similarly, when people go to auto shows – even those people connected to the various car companies and suppliers here who are beyond jaded – they like to kick the tires of the vehicles they could buy or dream to buy of course, but they also like to see creativity and blue-sky stuff. That was decidedly lacking in Detroit and it hurt the show tremendously.

I realize this will be a highly unpopular column around these parts (gee, there’s something new –WG), because if we go by what those in the local media have reported the 2018 Detroit Auto Show was another grand slam home run and runaway success. But this kind of “homerism” by the media is just kicking the can down the road. 

I will assure you that if the Detroit show organizers continue on their merry way – which is to do more of exactly the same – the show will become exactly what it started out to be, a localized show for the people in the industry and the local dealers.

Maybe that would suit some just fine, but not me. It’s not befitting of the Motor Capital of the World and it’s not representative of the talent and creativity that lives and works here.

The Detroit Auto Show as we know it is dead, long live the new Detroit Auto Show. 

And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.