The Transformation of the North American International Auto Show

Even before COVID this was going to be different. Now it will be really different

When the 2019 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) closed its doors at what was then still known as “Cobo Center,” Rod Alberts, executive director of the Detroit Auto Dealers Association (DADA), the organization that puts on NAIAS, and his team had a idea for what they would do the following year, something that would be significantly different from the cars-on-carpet approach that had long been characteristic of not only the Detroit Show, but auto shows in general.

For one thing, the date would change to June, which is certainly a much more climatically hospitable time of year.

For another, rather than just staging an event at an expo center, the expo center would be an element of something that would take advantage of a wider footprint in downtown Detroit.

Rod Alberts (Image: DADA)

It wouldn’t just be a matter of people looking at vehicles, but having the opportunity to experience them—including autonomous vehicles.

While a map of NAIAS was historically one with the boundaries being formed by the walls of a single building, the new map was one that stretched far beyond Jefferson and Washington Blvd.

But then there was COVID.

On March 28, 2020, NAIAS put out a statement that included a statement from Rod Alberts: “With the more than 100 convention centers and facilities around the country being considered to potentially serve as temporary hospitals, it became clear to us that TCF Center”—the rebranded Cobo Center—”would be an inevitable option to serve as a care facility to satisfy our community’s urgent health needs. 

“One of the hallmarks of NAIAS since the very beginning has been our commitment to being socially responsible. Our thoughts continue to be with those whose lives have been impacted by this devastating virus.  And we support the city and state’s mission to help preserve life in the face of this challenging situation.”

The 2020 NAIAS was canceled.

So Alberts and his team flipped the pages of the calendar to June 2020.

January 11, 2021, with COVID-19 getting worse than it had been in March 2020, Rod Alberts and his colleagues canceled the 2021 NAIAS.

But they announce a new event, one that will be held September 21-26, not at TCF Center and its environs, but at the M1 Concourse in Pontiac, Michigan, which is 87 acres dedicated to motorsports, including a 1.5-mile track.

While the reimagined NAIAS that was going to be held in Detroit would have offered some rides, the nature of those rides would have been nothing like what Alberts says is going to happen at what is named “Motor Bella.”

He’s talking fast.

And not only does the M1 allow fast, there is also an off-road facility, so he’s talking dirty, too.

Fast cars, rock-crawlers and a whole bunch of new sheet metal in a whole different venue.

Alberts talks all about Motor Bella on this edition of “Autoline After Hours” with “Autoline’s” John McElroy, Detroit Free Press car critic Mark Phelan, and me.

Alberts, who has probably been to more auto shows in venues around the world than most people have been to auto shows in their home towns, says that the team at NAIAS is completely aware of the what expectations are among especially younger audiences, so they’re going to be staging the Motor Bella event to appeal to not only this younger demographic, but to car enthusiasts of all types.

But while Motor Bella will be an alternative—given that it is outdoors, it can accommodate a COVID environment that, one hopes—will be less onerous—Alberts says the they’ll be back downtown, too.

If you have any interest in the transformation of auto shows, this is something you need to watch.

You can see it here.

Post-Auto Show

The North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) is sponsored by the Detroit Auto Dealers Association (DADA). Which makes a whole lot of sense. Dealers want to sell vehicles, and what better venue than an expo hall full of shiny sheet metal and a wide array of interactive displays that can draw people in to spend hours looking at things ranging from the bread-and-butter to the exotic, from the gotta-have to the if-only.

NAIAS has historically been held during January, as the timing provided a variety of benefits. For one thing, it was always the first major auto show of the year. That was beneficial to the OEMs who wanted to get their newest of the new—and even what could be coming in the years to come—in front of the public, sooner rather than later.

There isn’t exactly a whole lot going on in Detroit in January, which is when winter really starts in earnest, so this meant that those consumers who were looking for something to do had it.

But then there were some issues that arose, one of which was a huge one: CES. The event that was previously known as the “Consumer Electronics Show.” Two key words there: Consumer. Electronics.

Auto OEMs are interested in consumers, of course, and, more importantly, they have been, especially as Tesla became something more than a quirky company sticking computer batteries into a Lotus Elise chassis, trying to position themselves as electronics, or tech, companies.

CES was happening adjacent to NAIAS. OEMs (and suppliers, which has not been a huge part of NAIAS, but one that was growing) started doing introductions at the massive show in Las Vegas (where, let’s admit, the weather tends to be friendlier than Detroit in January). Journalists were going out to Las Vegas. OEM execs from places like Germany had to weigh where they’d travel to (see previous parenthetical remark).

So NAIAS made a move. It decided to skip its show in January 2020 with plans to hold a SXSW-like experience in downtown Detroit in June 2020.

But then there was March 2020 and the beginning of the seriousness that is COVID-19.

The reimagined event was canceled.

And yesterday, Rod Alberts, executive director of both DADA and NAIAS, stated, “While auto shows remain an important platform to promote new mobility innovations and to help people make major vehicle purchase decisions, the traditional auto show model is changing.”

Not changing a little bit. A lot. Which has to be a tough thing for an outfit that has gotten so proficient over the years putting on tradtional auto shows.

Alberts announced an event that will be held in Pontiac, Michigan, September 21-26, 2021, named “Motor Bella.” It will be held not at a traditional expo center but at the M1 Concourse, which features car condos, a 1.5-mile track and is having a restaurant and event space built.

Tellingly, it is built on property that was once covered by the General Motors Pontiac West Assembly Plant. Things change. Factories give way to race tracks. Auto shows give way to something else.

While NAIAS is a show, Motor Bella will be more of an event, one that will take advantage of the grounds of the M1. There will be a concentration on the outside, not the confines of a building. People will not just look. They will also do. It will be active, not passive.

Credit to Alberts and his associates for recognizing “the traditional auto show is changing.”

More credit to them for doing something about it.–gsv