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It's time for a radical rethink of the Detroit auto show

Mar 31, 2018

The Detroit auto show isn’t dead.

It just feels that way.

The latest casualties are the princes of the German auto industry. First Mercedes-Benz won’t be attending next year’s auto show. Neither will its Bavarian brother, BMW.

Bets on how long until Audi follows, if only to prove parity with the other two? Sooner rather than later, unless that Volkswagen luxury brand sees opportunity staying with Detroit.

Howes says the decisions by German heavyweights Mercedes-Benz and BMW to bolt the Detroit auto show are an unmistakable sign: the annual rite at Cobo Center needs to find a new way forward.
Credit Daniel Howes / Detroit News

The exodus from Cobo Center’s floor is moving from a trickle to a flood. Porsche is gone. Jaguar and Land Rover, once part of Ford’s Blue Oval stable, are gone. Same for Volvo and Mazda. Mini doesn’t come around. Nor Maserati. Or Tesla, which can’t sell its cars in Michigan anyway, thanks to the state’s arcane dealer laws.

Officially, show organizers are taking this in stride.

Behind the scenes, not so much.

The Detroit Area Dealers, organizers of the show, are mulling a move of the show to October – in 2020. They’re considering a name change that would return “Detroit” to the official branding, overdue recognition that Motown’s mojo is back.

Other proposals are percolating. One idea popular at General Motors is moving the show to June and connecting it to the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix on Belle Isle. It’d be the Motor City on steroids – a perfect time of year to showcase downtown, the river snaking an international border, an annual reminder that this business still is all about cars and trucks, passion and heritage.

But times change.

The Europeans are bolting the show because it’s not necessary to them anymore.

It’s not necessary to spend the money to come in the dead of winter. Not when technology enables automakers to precisely target audiences. Not when they can grab more “mindshare” of influential media and analysts with separate events held at times and places of their choosing.

For as many years as I can remember, show organizers proudly touted the number of journalists who arrived here every January – always around 5,000. With the Germans back in their homeland, don’t bet on such a heavy turnout.

The time for a radical rethink of the auto show is already here. Automakers are voting with their proverbial feet. And they’re saying that Detroit and the would-be customers that typically attend are either a) not their customers or b) the ones that are theirs don’t come to auto shows anymore.

Does that mean the era of, quote, “international” auto shows has outlived its usefulness? That Detroit hotels and restaurants and caterers can’t count on the big slug of business come every January? It might. But you’ll find them all at the New York show this week. I checked.

That’s not necessarily happy news for a town growing accustomed to its reinvention: Detroit finally gets its act together, gets Cobo into shape, and the folks who made the show “The Show” filter away.

Heed the warning, Detroit. This town lost lots of years ignoring the signs of changing market. Don’t do it with the auto show, too.

Innovate – it’s the only way to prosper.

Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.