The Detroit auto show will change completely next year--here's why

It's a metro Detroit institution. Every January, the world's top automakers show off their flashiest new vehicles in the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) at Cobo Hall.

But next year, the show will be in June. It will expand outdoors beyond Cobo Hall, into Hart Plaza and beyond. And attendees are likely to start seeing more exhibitors show off more than just new car designs.

It's a massive change for the popular event, and one that reflects similarly massive changes in the city of Detroit, its mobility sector, and the automotive industry at large.

"I've been here 30 years, and January has always worked very well for us," says NAIAS executive director Rod Alberts. "But I always say if you're anywhere long enough, things are going to change and you have to make sure you change with it to make sure you're meeting the needs of the consumer and showgoers."

The biggest change affecting NAIAS is automakers' changing priorities. Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Porsche have pulled out of NAIAS, and other automakers have ended or reduced their participation in shows worldwide. That's thanks in large part to the host of new ways automakers have to reveal new product, particularly in the social media age.

"I think this isn't a trend that we're going to see an end to," says Carla Bailo, president and CEO of the Center for Automotive Research. "Many automakers now are holding their own private events. They get a lot more coverage that way and they can showcase their products better."

But Alberts and his team at NAIAS hardly see that as the end of their show, or the auto show model in general. Alberts says new shifts in the auto industry have helped him rethink how to better tailor NAIAS to both consumers' needs and the needs of the growing mobility industry. Two years ago NAIAS debuted AutoMobili-D, an expo featuring mobility technology startups. Alberts says he was initially concerned about having enough companies to fill the AutoMobili-D space. But this year the AutoMobili-D space is sold out, featuring over 150 companies.

"I had no idea how big that world was," Alberts says. "I knew it was big, but I had no idea how broad and deep it was."

He describes AutoMobili-D as one of the key "stepping stones" that led the NAIAS team to a new vision of the auto show. While the rapidly growing number of mobility companies in Detroit and beyond are seeking new ways to show off their work to consumers, automakers, and suppliers, consumers themselves are also seeking something different when they're buying a car.Michigan's concentration of OEMs, startups, mobility assets, and testing facilities is denser than anywhere else, says Glenn Stevens. Photo by Detroit Regional Chamber.

Alberts says modern car buyers are much less concerned with aesthetic design – long the focus of the lovingly lit, slowly rotating displays at NAIAS – and more focused on the experience of actually driving a new vehicle. Specifically, they're focused on technology: how does the vehicle interact with a smartphone? How does connected technology allow the vehicle to perceive the world around it? And, looking further down the road, how might autonomous technology work in practice?

"It's not just about a static show any more," Alberts says. "It's about engagement."

In terms of the 2020 auto show, that means introducing a host of what Alberts calls "activations" – opportunities for vendors to show off their products in action, and for attendees to experience them firsthand. That's why the auto show is moving onto the streets of Detroit in warm and sunny June, allowing automakers more opportunities to show their vehicles on the move (although Alberts notes that Cobo will house more activations indoors too).

Alberts says mobility vendors will also likely become more incorporated into the rest of the show as they continue to draw interest from consumers, automakers, and suppliers. Glenn Stevens, executive director of MICHauto and vice president of automotive and mobility initiatives at the Detroit Regional Chamber, says that's an ideal approach in terms of reflecting Detroit's growing mobility sphere.

"You won't find a concentration of OEMs and suppliers and infrastructure and testing for next-generation mobility and a growing startup community ... like we have it anywhere in the world," he says. "So this is an opportunity for us to showcase that ecosystem even more."

More broadly, organizers and auto industry insiders are seeing NAIAS' big shift as a way to showcase the rapidly changing city of Detroit itself. Alberts says he hopes to capture a "festival" feel along the lines of SXSW (South by Southwest), engaging attendees in the city's food and music scenes as well automotive offerings. And he says 2020 is just the first step, envisioning growing the show's outdoor footprint progressively over the next three to four years.

"We're kind of built for having a show in good weather and to create activations right in the heart of the city," he says. "It's a beautiful thing, but you have to actually play to your strengths, and that's what we're doing now."

Photos by Steve Koss, unless otherwise indicated.

A festival feel will allow for new ways to engage with vehicles, technologies, and mobility.

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