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When it comes to auto shows, Detroit rules

By Mark Phelan, Detroit Free Press –

CHICAGO — The auto show in the Windy City has surrendered, but that doesn’t mean Detroit can relax.

After competing fiercely for decades to host flashy, high-profile vehicle unveilings and news events, Chicago has tacitly accepted that it’s a regional show, overshadowed by the global media spotlight on Detroit’s North American International Auto Show.

It’s at least partly a side-effect of the competition that grew swiftly and forever changed the auto industry in the 1980s between Japanese and American/European ultra-luxury brands.

While the Chicago show draws far more shoppers, NAIAS’ status as an officially sanctioned international auto show attracts thousands of journalists, engineers, financial analysts and executives from around the world.

“An automaker must be at both shows, for totally different reasons,” said Jeremy Barnes of Mazda USA. “Chicago draws more than a million people, and they’re all potential buyers. NAIAS gets seven or eight hundred thousand … but it’s one of the global shows, and you must have a presence. You must be seen to be a player on that stage, even though you’ll sell more cars elsewhere.”

The Detroit-based show’s contribution to Michigan’s economy has been estimated at up to $400 million, more each year than Super Bowl XL brought in 2006. That’s a recent development, and it’s thanks to the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, which runs the NAIAS.

Chicago’s show ruled for decades.

Detroit’s automakers scoffed in the 1980s when the Detroit Auto Dealers Association asked its hometown companies to introduce important new vehicles at home.

European and Asian shows were then the venues for releasing news. But no North American show filled that role, said Jim Seavitt, president of Village Ford in Dearborn, Mich., and chairman of the 2013 NAIAS.

The DADA officials saw an opening. And they did something that Chicago never did: They got accreditation from the governing body of international auto shows. They changed the name from Detroit Auto Show to NAIAS and asked the Detroit Three to help raise the profile of the event.

Still, they got bubkes.

Seavitt remembers that a Ford bigwig told the dealers, No, that Chicago was more important because of media coverage and greater exposure in general. The dealers got the same response from GM and Chrysler, so they looked further afield and hit the jackpot in Japan in the late 1980s.

Toyota and Nissan were about to launch their new Lexus and Infiniti luxury brands. They wanted a big, international stage.

They chose the 1989 North American International Auto Show and made history. The Detroit 3 wouldn’t be embarrassed in their backyard. They anted up their own major vehicle introductions.

European luxury brands wouldn’t cede the luxury spotlight to the Japanese upstarts. They joined the party, and what had been a sleepy local auto show became a global news event.

Since then, DADA has campaigned ceaselessly to convince the world’s automakers that Detroit provides the best stage for their vehicles, technology and news.

Other auto shows around the world would love to steal NAIAS’ limelight for the international attention, visitors and money a top-shelf auto show brings.

“We go to six or seven auto shows around the world every year,” said DADA executive director Rod Alberts. “We sit down with every manufacturer on their turf and ask how we can make the show better.”

This year, Detroit benefited from a triple conjunction of newsmaking events: NAIAS media days, a Society of Automotive Analysts conference, and the Automotive News World Congress. All three drew journalists, analysts and executives from around the world.

NAIAS industry days, where engineers pay a stiff premium to evaluate the competition up close and without the crowds of public days, brought in another 22,788 from 28 countries. Meanwhile, Chicago will draw its usual million-plus this year.

“First and foremost, we’re about selling cars,” said Dave Sloan, president and general manager of the Chicago show.

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