Detroit's Plan C in COVID auto show shuffle


The auto show shuffle continues, and Detroit may have just drawn an inside straight.

As you probably heard last week, the North American International Auto Show for 2021 is moving to September. The show — a January staple that had been eclipsed by CES in Las Vegas — reinvented itself for 2020 as a June event that would kick off the summer with neat-o demonstrations and a citywide (or downtownwide) festival of hands-on excitement and entertainment worthy of the Motor City.

But the pandemic pushed that plan back a year, and then Los Angeles decided to move its 2021 event — held around Thanksgiving in recent years — to May. That crowded the calendar, especially coming so soon after New York’s planned show in April.

So the NAIAS, a production of the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, shifted gears. The nifty tech displays — and, presumably, the planned German Haus biergarten — will be rolled out in September. Next year and henceforth.

There had been a debate earlier about which month to choose. Where others saw the opportunity for the public show to catch the start of summer vacations, Father’s Day activities and incentives for recent graduates, I saw a month of calendar conflicts and the opportunity to achieve total irrelevance.

What changed? For one thing, Tony Cervone retired as General Motors’ senior vice president of global communications. My understanding is that he had been a forceful voice for the June date, and that may have been a factor. As NAIAS Chairman Doug North told the Detroit Free Press‘ Mark Phelan: “The move met universal approval.”

But there was more than a change of who was in the room. September, as you may remember, was traditionally the start of the school-yearlike auto show season — and it started in Europe. The alternating Paris and Frankfurt expos, once sprawling and vibrant, have suddenly withered to little more than regional gatherings for local brands. Frankfurt isn’t even in Frankfurt anymore, as the IAA relocates to Munich for 2021.

And then there was LA’s rude move to jump the line. Fine. Do they really think they’re going to be able to hold an auto show in May? Many GM workers won’t even be going to their offices by then.

September is dicey, too. But if one or more of the four vaccines already in Phase 3 trials can go into production early next year, large-group gatherings might be possible by the third quarter.

But it’s hardly guaranteed. As our Tokyo correspondent Naoto Okamura reported last week, Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda, who also happens to lead the Tokyo Motor Show, already is starting to think about contingency plans for that event, scheduled for October 2021.

By the time NAIAS hosts its opening event next September, it will have been 971 days since the last Detroit show ended.

While the coronavirus disrupted the auto show calendar, the nature and purpose of shows already was evolving as brands struggled to excite enthusiasts and connect with consumers without blowing their marketing budgets.

Can NAIAS become the South by Southwest of the Midwest? Maybe not.

But kicking off the auto show season in Detroit when there’s almost no chance of a blizzard and the Lions aren’t already eliminated from playoff consideration can only improve the odds.

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