The North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit has been a launching pad for automakers to announce new vehicles and product innovations for more than three decades. But recently, the influential auto industry event, known for kicking off the global show circuit every January, has seen a slowdown in engagement.
In 2019, the show had 30 new car reveals, compared to 69 in 2018. Last year’s show also saw a 5% decrease in attendance, with 774,179 ticketed attendees compared to 809,161 in 2018. Attendance numbers were also down for credentialed media, with 4,568 journalists covering the show in 2019 compared to 5,078 the previous year.
In an effort to bounce back from the attendee and exhibitor slump, organizers are reimagining the trade show for 2020 with significant programming changes. Most notably, the 32nd annual event will take place in June for the first time.
The show’s move from winter to summer means it no longer has to compete with CES, which is a go-to event for automakers to demo future mobility efforts. The move will also allow exhibitors to use outdoor spaces adjacent to its home venue of the TCF Center.
NAIAS normally holds six shows in one, but as part of the 2020 revamp, organizers this week announced a seventh event titled Motor Bella, a street festival that will highlight exotic cars from the United Kingdom and Italy as well as food from both regions. The inaugural festival will be produced in partnership with the Consulate of Italy in Detroit and British Consulate General in Chicago, with support from sponsors including PNC Bank.
“When we began to reenvision NAIAS, our goal was to expand the show into the city, provide more ways for the community to interact with the brands, and really showcase the global car culture throughout Detroit,” said Rod Alberts, the show’s executive director, in a statement. “Motor Bella will take place in one of the most dynamic and growing areas of the city and will give showgoers an opportunity to engage with Italian and British luxury and sports car brands.”
The festival, which serves a kickoff to the show on June 5, is slated to take over Broadway Street near the Detroit Opera House, and will showcase more than 100 cars from 12 brands including Ferrari, Rolls-Royce, Alfa Romeo and Maserati. The four-day event will lead into (and share a footprint with) the show’s annual press preview and the 14th edition of The Gallery, the show’s invite-only luxury car showcase.
Once Motor Bella concludes on June 8, many of the cars on display will be moved to the TCF Center to be shown through the show’s conclusion on June 20. Returning events include future mobility showcase AutoMobili-D, an industry preview, a charity ball and an eight-day public show.
“Motor Bella is an exciting and significant new event that is only possible this year because of our decision to move the show from January to June,” said Doug North, chairman of the 2020 NAIAS, noting that the show is “changing and adapting to meet the needs of our industry partners.”
As NAIAS attempts to reinvent itself, auto shows as a whole are struggling to remain relevant in a shrinking industry. Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi have dropped out of the New York Auto Show in April (Audi also won’t show at NAIAS). According to The Wall Street Journal, in 2018 the auto industry accounted for 20% of the slowdown in gross domestic product and 30% of the decline in global trade.
Craig Erlich, evp of client success for agency George P. Johnson—which produces experiences for brands including Acura, Nissan and Honda—said the show’s move to summer gives auto brands new opportunities to engage consumers.
Erlich, who’s based in Detroit, said more brands might opt for outdoor drifting events and experiences that put customers in the passenger or driver’s seat.
“Brands will need to build experiences around customers to help them understand the vehicles in ways that they can’t under bright lights and a platform,” Erlich said. “As it converts to an outdoor show, it’s going to have a personality less like an auto show and more like SXSW with automotive underpinnings.”
Justin Hyde, vice president and senior editor for Edelman who’s covered the U.S. auto industry for more than two decades, called NAIAS’ switch to summer a bold move, but predicted the event will maintain its importance on the auto industry calendar. Hyde noted that new activations like Motor Bella are always welcome. “In general, the more that you can emphasize the live aspect of an auto show, the more likely you are to get customers off their phones,” he said.
Hyde also said that auto shows like NAIAS need to consider new formats to keep media attending, too. “Just like manufacturers want to see ROI, media wants to see ROI as well,” he said. “It’s more important than ever to be creative and think of media as the end user: what kind of experience they’re having, and how you can help them reach their audience with content and messages that resonate.”
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