Some Domestic Brands Ignoring NAIAS Press Days

Detroit’s automakers, the companies that helped make their hometown show a truly international event that can’t be missed, seemingly have given up on it, at least the press days.

January 14, 2019

5 Min Read
NAIAS 2013 crowd
Press days crowded during 2013 NAIAS.Tom Murphy

DETROIT – The 2019 North American International Auto Show kicks off this weekend, with the MGM Grand hotel and casino hosting the invitation-only glitterfest known as the Gallery, for Bentley, Rolls-Royce, Ferrari and other ultra-luxury brands that have turned up their noses at the Cobo Center show floor in recent years.

Today, automakers are hosting dinners, receptions and a few press conferences. The dedicated press days of Monday and Tuesday remain in play, followed by industry days (Wednesday and Thursday) and Friday’s high-society charity preview and nine days of public viewing.

Not long ago, press days at NAIAS were a big deal, requiring a marathoner’s stamina to staff press conferences, unveilings, roundtable interviews, breakfasts, lunches, dinners and receptions from 7 a.m. until nearly midnight. The schedule was so packed that in 2011, Porsche was forced to hold its press conference at 6:30 a.m. Monday.

Oh, how times have changed.

Porsche hasn’t been on the Cobo show floor for a number of years, along with other European brands. There’s so little happening by way of product news this week that many seasoned auto writers who would dutifully travel from around the world to slog through Michigan’s bitter winter are staying home.

More troubling, Detroit’s automakers, the companies that helped make their hometown show a truly international event that can’t be missed, seemingly have given up on it, at least the press days.

There are no press conferences scheduled for Lincoln or any other Fiat Chrysler brand other than Ram.

Ford has a press conference, but the Dearborn automaker also flew in journalists from around the country last week to debut the all-new Explorer at Ford Field, then sent them home, before NAIAS could begin.

Not long ago, automakers, particularly the Europeans, flew dozens of journalists to Detroit for NAIAS. This year, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi – three German brands that gave NAIAS a truly global flair – aren’t even on the show floor.

Perhaps the biggest mystery is General Motors, whose world headquarters is a short walk from Cobo.

Chevrolet, Cadillac, GMC and Buick have prime space on the floor, but not a single GM brand is holding a press conference this coming week. Cadillac hosted an off-site party at the Garden Theater to unveil the XT6 3-row CUV.

Meanwhile, Toyota, Volkswagen, Nissan, Kia, Infiniti, Hyundai, Subaru, Lexus and Chinese brand GAC will have press conferences on Monday – all of them done by 2 p.m. Fewer coverage options mean all these foreign brands have a better chance of getting media attention than they did previously.

Or, a cynic might say, the Detroit brands are largely avoiding the press days, hoping fewer journalists will come to NAIAS, resulting in less coverage for other brands. Is it possible the hometown brands are undermining their own auto show?

In talking with automakers, it comes down to cost.

Inside sources say an automaker can spend more than $1 million to hold a 25-minute press conference inside Cobo during NAIAS, due to exorbitant rates for sound and video production, lighting, drayage, special effects, food, drink and union labor to set up chairs, lay carpet and build ramps for drive-on vehicle unveilings. That’s hard to swallow for a company like General Motors in downsizing mode.

The cost threshold is even higher at the Javits Center, sources say, home to the New York auto show.

Terry Rhadigan, executive director of communications at General Motors, says the automaker remains proud of the Detroit show, but that product unveilings in private settings are a lot less expensive and still generate good media traffic.

“We can go and create an atmosphere on Sunday night at the Garden Theater for less money and for what we think is an equal or better return on our investment,” Rhadigan told Wards last week.

He says GM is not trying to undermine the Detroit show, but that auto shows are not an ideal way to engage the media. He refers to last fall’s Los Angeles show, where GM had no press conference or product news.

GM also was a no-show this year (and last) at CES in Las Vegas, where Mercedes, BMW and Nissan were among automakers unveiling important products. It’s partly because CES has become a can’t-miss event for automakers wanting to connect with a high-tech audience that the next NAIAS will be held in June 2020. NAIAS gave up trying to compete with CES.

Rhadigan isn’t so sure CES is such a great venue for the auto industry to make product news. “In some cases, you could argue CES is so big it’s a bit of an echo chamber,” he says.

While this year’s NAIAS – the final Detroit auto show in January – is a bit of a communications black hole for GM, Rhadigan says the automaker is excited about June 2020, when warm weather will make Detroit a lot more inviting for journalists, consumers and world travelers.

He refers to the opportunity to potentially host a classic car show at Campus Martius, outdoor concerts and perhaps have water taxi rides from Cobo to Belle Isle, where visitors could drive performance cars or get rides in autonomous vehicles on the Grand Prix race track. Maybe Ford would host events at the train depot being renovated in Corktown.

“We want what you want, which is a show that is an absolute must-attend, that those that have decided to forego it have no choice but to come back, a show that showcases how incredible our city’s resurgence has been and hopefully will continue to be,” Rhadigan says.

He promises full involvement for GM at the 2020 show. “We will be a major player as will our Detroit competitors with making 2020 everything it can be,” he says.

In the meantime, those of us in the media hoping for the last January auto show in Detroit to go out with a bang will have to settle instead for a whimper.

Honda_20Odyssey_20NAIAS_202017_0.jpg

All-new Honda Odyssey on display during press days at NAIAS 2017.

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