North American International Auto Show Revs up to Wow!

The Gallery, a display of ultra-luxury vehicles, is a pre-show offering at the MGM Grand in Detroit.
The Ford GT concept was a hit with crowds at last year’s North American International Auto Show. Phot courtesy Detroit Automobile Dealers Assn.
The Ford GT concept was a hit with crowds at last year’s North American International Auto Show. Photo courtesy Detroit Automobile Dealers Assn.

It’s one of the largest and most prestigious car shows in the world.

Now entering its 28th year, the 2016 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) is set to return to Cobo Center in mid-January. Last year, the auto show attracted 808,775 people during its run, which included the Industry Preview days, the Charity Preview party and the public show.

The NAIAS is actually five events in one. The auto show will lead off this year with “The Gallery,” an exposition of ultra-luxury automobiles, followed by Press Preview days, the Industry Preview, and Friday evening’s Charity Preview. The show opens to the public Saturday, Jan. 16, running through Sunday, Jan. 24.

“We are one of the top shows in the world and have to blaze new trails all the time,” says Rod Alberts, president of the Detroit Automobile Dealers Association, which hosts the show.

“In fact, we were voted as the largest trade show in the country. Here we are a public auto show, but we have many dimensions to what we do.”

Last year, the auto show attracted more than 5,000 journalists – about a quarter of them representing international media from some 60 countries. The balance hail from 40 states plus local Detroit area media. For many the visit was limited to the two days and their 40 press conferences and 55 concept and production vehicle introductions.

“The North American International Auto Show is critically important to the region and the state of Michigan,” adds Larry Alexander, president and CEO of the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau. “It is the largest group that we have during the month of January, which is important to the success of not only Cobo, but our hotel community.”

Other groups that benefit from the auto show traffic are bars and restaurants, plus private meeting venues that host parties.

“From a tourism standpoint, the members of the press who come not only talk about the new car introductions, but also what they see and learn and hear here in Detroit,” Alexander continues. “Getting the Cobo renovations done was vital to the future because it allowed us to bring in more exhibitors to do more innovative and creative things.”

Five events in one
The exact number of vehicle introductions for the 2016 show has yet to be revealed, though typically the Detroit show has 40 to 50 unveilings each year. But several major changes will greet visitors this time, including the fully renovated Cobo Center.

The 2016 NAIAS – which Alberts refers to as a kind of Mardi Gras – will kick off differently, with a parade of classic cars returning to Detroit on Thursday, Jan. 7. Then comes “The Gallery” on Jan. 9 at the MGM Grand Detroit that offers guests an intimate look at ultra-luxury cars.

Press Preview days are Jan. 11-12, which will have more than 750 vehicles and interactive displays. The Industry Preview, Jan. 13-14, is a trade show drawing some 35,000 automotive engineers, designers, analysts, students and executives from more than 2,000 companies.

The black-tie Charity Preview party on Jan. 15 has become one of the nation’s most high-profile charity fundraisers. The 2015 party had about 13,350 participants and brought in $5.3 million, while during the past decade it has garnered $45 million for charities.

“Back in 2000, we had sold out for nine years in a row and had a waitlist of 5,000 people for the charity preview,” Alberts says. “But we are in a better place now because everybody stepped up and got behind us after we hit bottom in 2008.”

The public show, which runs Jan. 16-24, is the main event of the North American International Auto Show. It draws the public in to see everything from tried-and-true family cars to concept vehicles, muscle cars, trucks, SUVs and electric vehicles.

Rod Alberts heads the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, which owns the NAIAS.
Rod Alberts heads the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, which owns the NAIAS.

“My sense is that this will be another big year for the auto show,” says Alexander of the visitors and convention bureau. “Our auto industry here is strong and getting stronger.”

The drive home
Car shows are all about selling new vehicles, but the 2016 NAIAS will feature three classic cars – a 1966 Ford Mustang, 1957 Chevrolet Nomad and a 1961 Chrysler 300G – that will take a 2,400-mile road trip from the West Coast to Detroit, arriving just before the auto show’s press days.

The idea for the road rally originated when Alberts was sitting in Churchill’s Cigar Bar in Birmingham, Mich., and talking with his friend, David Maderia, CEO of the LeMay Museum in Tacoma, Wash. Suddenly Alberts said, “We’re all about concept cars and production cars and that type of thing, but what if we had something like the old movie ‘Gumball Rally,’ where you get together and drive across country?”

Instead of a cross-country race, like in the movie, the classic cars from the LeMay Museum will be traveling to nine cities, heading eastward to arrive in Detroit on Jan. 7, in an event that’s dubbed “The Drive Home.”

“In one city they will have a New Year’s Eve celebration party,” Alberts says. “The cars are going to go through some challenging weather, as you can imagine, but they were made to drive in all kinds of conditions.

Department“When the cars come in we’ll have a Mardi Gras-like party in downtown Detroit Thursday night before press days,” he adds.

A number of car clubs across America are expected to participate in “The Drive Home” with an effort to attract the attention of both the national press and the media in the cities where the cars will stop. Social media will also be used to help build excitement for the auto show.

Cobo as a showcase
While the cars are the stars of the Detroit auto show, Cobo Center is a rejuvenated showcase after more than four years of renovations, including turning the old Cobo Arena into a vast ballroom with meeting rooms. Other work included the atrium with views to the Detroit River and expanded exhibit space.

The $279-million project also featured many infrastructure improvements – such as electrical upgrades, expanded shipping and receiving dock and roof fixes – that the public may not see, but which are intended to improve the show’s overall atmosphere.

The most recent finishing touch was the completion this past summer of the 120-by-30 foot video billboard on the front of Cobo that faces east to Jefferson Avenue, along with a new entrance with three lanes for dropping and picking up passengers. The innermost cab lane is also protected overhead by a glass canopy, offering shelter to show goers.

“Our biggest part of the project was the adaptive reuse of Cobo Arena, making the new atrium, ballroom and a food court,” says Thom Connors, general manager of Cobo Center. “Another little known part of the renovations is that we added a new media room with an onsite TV production studio and sound stage.”

During the summer, Cobo took center stage during the annual meeting of the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), essentially a trade show for some 5,000 event planners, the folks who book convention halls. Many of the ASAE attendees gave metro Detroit and Cobo glowing reviews, Connors notes.

For the future, Connors says those same people are “watching with interest” the Joe Louis Arena site “and how that will impact us and the auto show.”

As part of Detroit’s bankruptcy, one of the city’s creditors, Financial Guaranty Insurance, Co., received ownership of Joe Louis and its adjoining parking structure. The company announced that by 2020 it will redevelop the 8.6 acre site with a new hotel plus condominiums and retail shops.

Building an auto show
Every autumn, construction crews supervised by Convention & Show Services (CSS) go to work inside Cobo to build the automakers’ elaborate displays. In recent years, the construction of the auto show has usually started during the first week of November, but for the 2016 NAIAS, the crews were on site by Oct. 19.

Craftsmen like Aden Springsteen, seen sanding metal at the Honda display, began working on the Detroit show in October.
Craftsmen like Aden Springsteen, seen sanding metal at the Honda display, began working on the Detroit show in October.

“Some of the manufacturers were moved to different locations,” says Bobby Whiting, director of sales for CSS. “There’s going to be a lot of new builds this year so people want to come in early to make sure they are completed on time.”

The exact changes to the auto show’s floor plan won’t be revealed to the press or the public until much closer to show time. But one reason for the changes is that some of the previous displays have outlived their expected lifespan.

Although Whiting wouldn’t talk about preparations for the current auto show, some of the trends during the past 23 years include more “double deck” displays that include meeting rooms and offices, which means construction workers have to deal with steel supports and elaborate flooring.

“It’s not like a lot of local auto shows that just have carpet, a turntable, a couple cars, a kiosk and a model – or product specialists as they call them nowadays,” Whiting says. “We want to be the best auto show and we get the press; to do that, you’ve got to build an elaborate display for each manufacturer to attract those press members and the public.”

Carpet is still used at the NAIAS, but many displays may have oak flooring or glass. The displays represent the brand, so if an automaker is showing off a high-quality car, it wants a high-quality display.

“They want the buzz as the crowds leave here to be, ‘Wow, did you see that Buick set?’ or ‘Did you see the Ford Mustang set?’” Whiting noted. “You want it to be enjoyable and have that face-to-face marketing experience.”

The big push to complete the displays is right after Christmas, with only days left on the calendar before showtime. Also, this is the time when many of the auto companies finalize their plans about just what vehicles are going to appear on the show floor.

Auto executives have also been known to make last minute decisions about flooring types or paneling color, requiring alterations to the displays.

Although it may take months to build the displays, once the auto show is done, crews tear everything down in about two weeks to make room for other major conventions such as Autorama, the Boat Show and the Society of Automotive Engineers Conference.

Most of the display properties will leave Detroit to head off to other auto shows around the country, such as Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. But the framework – steel supports and other elaborate decorations—are stored in the Detroit area.

Extensive renovations, both inside and out, will be evident at the Cobo Center, home of the North American International Auto Show.
Extensive renovations, both inside and out, will be evident at the Cobo Center, home of the North American International Auto Show.

Everything else? It gets thrown out, though anything that can be is recycled, Whiting added.

Besides the NAIAS, CSS handles about 75 percent of the business that comes through Cobo, but it is a national contractor, handling shows in other cities as well, including Hawaii, Georgia and Florida.

Each year, there are opportunities for local businesses to get in on the action of the North American International Auto Show.

Strategic partners
More than 130 companies are strategic partners with the North American International Auto Show. Some are official media sponsors, including, the Wall Street Journal, Metro Times, and

Other partners are tier one auto suppliers – the companies that directly provide parts and components to the automakers – but some include Verizon Wireless, IBM, consulting firms such as KPMB and others who want be involved with the show, notes Tavi Fulkerson, owner and founder of The Fulkerson Group, the auto show’s official agent for negotiating those deals.

“All these relationships are affiliations with the auto show that provide
a variety of things, including hospitality rooms and hosting an event on the second, third or fourth floors of Cobo,” Fulkerson says. Other partnerships can include exhibits or brand affiliation.

“Brand affiliation, hospitality and exhibits are the primary reasons why these companies want to affiliate with the auto show,” she adds. “The automakers are not sponsors; they are the stars and the reason why everyone wants to come.”

The sponsorship program for the auto show started in 1994 and Fulkerson has been leading that effort from the beginning. There are roughly 130 official sponsors for the NAIAS, but with a turnover of about 25 percent a year, there are opportunities for companies to buy signage or sponsor special events.

“Once we max out on hospitality and exhibitory, we go in those directions,” Fulkerson says. “For example, we have an official sponsor of the social media program.”

Most sponsors are multinational companies, some based in Michigan, but with operations around the world. Others are foreign companies.

The Gallery, a display of ultra-luxury vehicles, is a pre-show offering at the MGM Grand in Detroit.
The Gallery, a display of ultra-luxury vehicles, is a pre-show offering at the MGM Grand in Detroit.

One example is Michelin, the French tire company that is the longtime sponsor of the NAIAS media center. A new sponsor is POSCO, a South Korean steel manufacturer.

“We start with the current auto show (to get sponsors for next year) and we work year-round,” Fulkerson says. “My office makes sure that the sponsors get what they are paying for and that’s called fulfillment.”

The Fulkerson Group also represents four other major events, including the Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix, the Parade Company’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the Ford Freedom Fireworks and the Detroit Jazz Festival.

Business opportunities
In addition to becoming one of the few, official sponsors of the NAIAS, area businesses have many opportunities to get involved.

Some places may host or cater parties and other events that surround the auto show, with bus and cab services shuttling people around, but if someone has a new display idea, they could try contacting Whiting of Convention & Show Services (CSS). Though the contractor has a list of vendors and skilled trades workers that he’s worked with over the years, he noted that he is open to hear new ideas.

“Usually people start inquiring about the upcoming show during the summer, and I also have a huge list of vendors, but I’m not going to turn anyone away if they have a new or better idea,” Whiting says. “Changes in lighting are one good example; a lot of lighting has switched over to LEDs because it’s cheaper than the old style lighting.

“Maybe someone has a new trussing system or lighter, stronger trussing or more durable carpet and more durable flooring or something that’s lighter materials. I’m not really looking for anything, but I’m always interested if something pops up.”

The North American International Auto Show’s impact goes well beyond Detroit, impacting the rest of the region and the state of Michigan as a whole, adds Alexander of the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“The auto show is critical to build up the image of this region and what we have to offer from a manufacturing standpoint and from an engineering standpoint,” he says. “We are able to showcase the wealth of our knowledge and expertise; it is manufacturing and technology, jobs, the engineering base, the colleges and universities that are producing these engineers.

“So the auto show has a positive ripple effect on multiple industries across our state.”