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Motor Bella is ‘our way to keep’ Detroit auto show going — but for how long?

January 12, 2020

The Detroit News

Breana Noble, Kalea Hall, Jordyn Grzelewski

A week-long outdoor event displaying the latest in mobility at Pontiac’s M1 Concourse will replace the 2021 North American International Auto Show, thanks to a pandemic that has increased popularity of virtual events but could hasten the end of the show as it has existed.

Detroit auto show organizers pushed to reinvent the annual January event in the face of declining attendance by consumers, international media and automakers who increasingly have opted to use non-auto show venues for vehicle debuts. But because of the pandemic, there has yet to be a show in June that would attract guests during a more pleasant time of year to TCF Center downtown.

Monday’s cancellation of the 2021 Detroit auto show extends a hiatus for a onetime annual mainstay, fueling fears it won’t ever return.
In a move of caution, the auto show’s leaders confirmed Monday they have replaced the planned 2021 show with an outdoor “Motor Bella,” scheduled for Sept. 21-26 in Pontiac in hopes the full international auto show will return in the future.

“We never could have anticipated the kind of challenges the country and our citizens and communities have dealt with, so it would be really hard to predict where we’re going to be in two to three years,” said Doug North, the auto show’s chairman and president of North Brothers Ford in Westland. “We’re always hopeful and optimistic. This ‘bridge’ event, Motor Bella, is our way of trying to keep our show going.”

Still, could the Detroit auto show as this town and its bellwether industry have known it for the past 30 years be gone for good — and with it, the $430 million it pumped into the region’s coffers, the marquee usage of TCF Center, the boost to hotel occupancy rates and local restaurants during some of the coldest weeks of a Great Lakes winter?

“I’m worried that Americans, from the entire Midwest and people from other countries who used to fly to Detroit because it was an industry stalwart and a must-attend event, are now going to have calendars without Detroit on it for the first time in maybe 50 years,” said Patrick Anderson, CEO of the East Lansing-based Anderson Economic Group consulting firm.

“The loss of the Detroit auto show for two or three years is definitely going to increase the visibility of the Frankfurt show, the Los Angeles show, the Tokyo show. I’d like to see Detroit be the center of the industry worldwide, but this is a blow to that position.”

Even before the pandemic canceled auto shows around the world, automakers increasingly had opted to use alternative venues to debut vehicles. In the past year, most reveals have occurred virtually as prime-time ad slots or on YouTube and other social media channels — often at a fraction of the cost, industry executives have told The Detroit News, of auto show press conferences.

European manufacturers except for Volkswagen AG skipped the Detroit show altogether in January 2019, the last show before rescheduling and the pandemic. That event drew 774,179 ticketed visitors with an economic boost to the regional economy equivalent of hosting two Super Bowls. Still, the attendance was down about 35,000 guests from 2018, though that may have been partly due to a major snowstorm.

“While very difficult for the hospitality community,” Claude Molinari, president and CEO of the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau, said, “it was a necessary move in order to mitigate losses as opposed to incurring expenses to set up the 2021 show, only to have it canceled later by necessity. This move was prudent and will preserve the future of the show.”

It’s more bad news for downtown restaurants forced to close their dining rooms amid the pandemic: “The auto show is near and dear to our hearts — and our bottom line,” said Bjorn Lagerfeldt, general manager of the London Chop House that traditionally has seen a 20% boost in business from private events held during the two-week show in the past. “With the crown jewel moving again, it’s just another evolution of being in the Detroit downtown restaurant game.”

The city of Detroit, however, is not ready to count the show a loss for 2021, said mayoral spokesman John Roach. Mayor Mike Duggan is “having conversations now with a range of auto industry and business leaders to evaluate the possible options,” he said, declining to elaborate.

Meanwhile, it isn’t clear which automakers will attend the Motor Bella, which is expected to include vehicle debuts to the media, show-goers and automotive enthusiasts. Multiple brands, however, will be represented, North said.

The M1 Concourse in Pontiac sits on 87 acres with private garages and a track. M1 CEO Jordan Zlotoff had been talking to leaders of the Detroit Automobile Dealership Association that organizes the auto show about potential partnerships.

“They saw our facility as a unique venue where we could host the event outdoors,” Zlotoff said. “Not only that but bring a dynamic element to it.”

Plans call for 1.6 million square feet of dynamic vehicle and technology display space, including terrain for showcasing off-roading capabilities. M1 Concourse also offers a 1.5-mile hot track on the grounds for demonstrations. A few days after the Motor Bella, the concourse also will hold the 2021 Festival of Speed scheduled for Sept. 30 to Oct. 3.

Tracks where consumers could try out, for example, the new Kia Telluride in 2019 were indicative of the evolution of auto shows, said Bill Golling, the chairman of the 2019 show and owner of several dealerships in Metro Detroit.

The Motor Bella might be a good opportunity for show organizers to evaluate the response to certain activities for how to plan the next auto show, said Karl Brauer, executive publisher at auto research website CarExpert.com.

“I genuinely believe auto show people are going to be surprised,” he said. “I think there’ll be some pent-up demand to go see cars in person and touch them and walk around them and experience them. That’s all going to be desirable when we’re allowed to do that again.”

Moving the show to June to hold outdoor activities was an attempt to further encourage that experiential approach, said Tammy Carnrike, chief operating officer of the Detroit Regional Chamber.

“It’s more than a trend,” she said. “It’s a requirement that consumers are looking for. Auto shows are changing. It was a tough decision, but they kept an eye to make sure we are moving toward an innovative and experiential show in the future.”

General Motors Co. is evaluating whether to participate in the Motor Bella: “Our partnership with the Detroit Auto Dealers Association runs deep and we, first of all, applaud their effort to keep everybody safe and so in that regard … full support,” said Terry Rhadigan, GM’s executive director of communications operations. “As far as Motor Bella, we’re gonna take a good look at it. We don’t know yet just because it’s a new concept. But we will absolutely take a good look at it and make a decision after that.”

Ford Motor Co. Chief Communications Officer Mark Truby said in a statement: “We’re eager to learn more details about the DADA’s plans for the 2021 auto showcase at M1 and look forward to the return of the North American International Auto Show to TCF in 2022.”

Jim Seavitt, owner of the Village Ford dealership in Dearborn, is hopeful the event aimed at engaging its audience will encourage participation from automakers and fellow dealers.

“It’s a lot less money for the promoters and it’ll be a lot less money for the OEMs, as well as the niche players, the Ferraris of the world and Jaguar and people that weren’t attending the auto show,” he said. “Motor Bella will attract those Italian and British and German (brands) that were walking away from auto shows.”

Dates for the 2021 Motor Bella are:

  • Press Preview, Tuesday, Sept. 21
  • AutoMobili-D, Tuesday, Sept. 21 through a half-day Thursday, Sept. 23
  • Industry Preview, Wednesday, Sept. 22 and a half-day Thursday, Sept. 23
  • Public Show, Thursday, Sept. 23 through Sunday, Sept. 26
  • A charity initiative will also be part of the six-day Motor Bella.

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