The North American International Auto Show is returning to January, reversing an effort to build attendance by moving the annual event to a summer schedule. Like other auto shows in the U.S. and Europe, the Detroit Auto Show has suffered from declining interest by both the public and the automakers who once saw it as a must-attend event.
Abandoning its hopes of reviving flagging interest with a switch to a warm summer schedule, the North American International Auto Show is returning to its traditional timeframe in frigid January.
Confirming weeks of rumors, organizers said the next show will be delayed until January 10, 2025. But, speaking on background, several industry officials said they question whether the move will make much of a difference in both public attendance and the involvement by manufacturers.
“Our primary goal is to create the most impactful event we can and after discussions with numerous constituencies, we believe a January date absolutely makes the most sense. In a constantly changing global automotive landscape, this update reflects our efforts to continue to reimagine the Detroit Auto Show with keeping an eye on our traditional focus – getting people excited about cars,” said Rod Alberts, the executive director of the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, which organizes the show.
The Detroit Auto Show has been around for more than a century, but it only gained real traction in 1989 when it was renamed the North American International Auto Show. Manufacturers responded warmly and, at its peak, virtually every brand name would set up an exhibit at what was then known as the Cobo Hall convention center along the Detroit River. At its peak in the 1990s, as many as 70 new vehicles were previewed during a three-day media gathering, while as many as 800,000 potential buyers streamed show the Cobo gates.
But NAIAS, as its widely known, has been losing traction over the last decade. Luxury imports, such as Rolls-Royce, Bentley and then Mercedes-Benz, began to pull out. And even mainstream imports, such as Subaru and Mazda, have been no-shows of late. This past year saw only six product previews, most of them minor.
Warm months, cold shoulder
Alberts first disclosed plans to shift to a mid-year schedule in 2019, hoping that more consumers would be willing to come down and enjoy the warm weather. In turn, organizers tried to pitch manufacturers on the idea of using the space surrounding what is now known as the Huntington Place Convention Center.
But the plan seemed ill-fated from the start. COVID short-circuited plans for a show during the summer of 2020. In 2021, organizers temporarily moved the event to a race track more than 20 miles to the north. Rainy weather wreaked havoc on the single press day and didn’t help when the show later opened to the public.
NAIAS returned to Detroit’s convention center in September 2022 but gained little traction, still more brands pulling out. This past year, only Ford took advantage of the facility’s outside space, launching its next-generation Mustang in the adjoining Hart Plaza, and Huntington Place had cavernous empty spaces. Ahead of the 2022 show, organizers suggested they’d be happy to see even 500,000 paying visitors. They notably failed to release attendance numbers.
NAIAS isn’t alone
Cost has long been an issue in Detroit, a splashy debut often costing a manufacturer $5 million or more to stage. Even setting up the most basic stand came in at over $1 million.
“It just isn’t worth it considering how many cars we sell in Detroit,” an official with a mainstream German automaker, asking not to be identified by name, told Headlight.News this week. That sentiment was echoed by other import brands – and even by some officials with Detroit’s Big Three automakers.
But Detroit is by no means the only show where automakers are rethinking the payback of participating in auto shows. Barely a dozen manufacturers displayed at the LA Auto Show this past November. And the upcoming Chicago Auto Show is expected to have far fewer exhibitors than in year’s past. The Frankfurt Motor Show was canceled after a weak 2019 and its unclear if the 2024 Geneva Motor Show will survive after coming back this March after being suspended since 2019. Earlier this month, Stellantis said it was pulling out of auto shows everywhere, following several other manufacturers.
In the wake of COVID, companies have found what many see as more cost-effective alternatives, such as one-brand traveling shows and livestream events, said Ed Kim, chief analyst with AutoPacific.
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New time, old nemesis
The decision to move NAIAS to the summer was seen by many as a showing of the white flag by the DADA organizers. One event that has seen a huge uptick in industry involvement is the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas – reflecting the rapidly increasing role that technology is playing in today’s vehicles.
Unless Detroit organizers further tweak the schedule the next auto show will run from January 10 through the 20th. But that will put it all but on top of CES 2025 which is scheduled to run January 7 to 10.
For his part, analyst Kim believes that NAIAS – like other auto shows — will continue to have their place in the industry. But those Headlight.News has spoken to see it as unlikely the move back to January will restore its former luster.