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Auto writer Mark Phelan picks his favorites from the 2019 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Detroit Free Press

The competition among leading auto shows has always been tough but civilized, a 100-year tradition that ended this month when the Los Angeles auto show added a major headache to the Detroit and New York shows’ long-announced plans to sit out 2020 and resume business as usual in 2021 — assuming the COVID-19 crisis is resolved enough for large groups to gather, of course.

The L.A. show’s organizers had been almost alone among large public events in declining to reschedule sooner. They insisted the 2020 show would still take place this November long after all other major auto shows recognized the reality of COVID-19. The other leading shows in New York and Detroit simply scrapped the 2020 new car season and announced dates in March and June 2021, respectively.

The L.A. show just threw a wrench in the works by finally dropping the November date and instead plopping the show down in May — right between the New York and Detroit shows.

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Vehicles are shown on the floor of the AutoMobility LA Auto Show on Nov. 21, 2019, in Los Angeles. (Photo: Damian Dovarganes, Associated Press)

The New York and Detroit start dates are about 11 weeks apart, within the window major shows have traditionally sought. Automakers invest millions getting displays, presentations, new vehicles and staff to the big shows. It takes time and money to move all that from one venue to another. The NYC-Detroit timetable passed muster with automakers. Packing up a show in New York City, crossing the country to L.A., then coming back to Detroit in the Great Lakes is another matter

“We’ll probably have to make some trade-offs”

“This is not ideal,” a senior executive at a major automaker said. “Those are the most important auto shows by far. It’d be challenging to do them all right in such a narrow window. We’ll probably have to make some trade-offs.”

Automakers traditionally appreciated having major shows dispersed through the calendar to provide windows for vehicle debuts from fall through spring or early summer, depending on when they go on sale or are ready to be displayed.

L.A.’s surprise move to May 19-31 disrupted that, raising questions for the other shows, automakers and auto dealers around the country.

Even if COVID-19 is controlled by next spring, “automaker resources will remain very tight,” Cox Automotive senior analyst Michelle Krebs said. “Automakers will have to be very selective about what auto shows they choose to participate in and how big they will play. There’s also the logistical challenge of moving vehicles, staff and displays — crisscrossing the country — from one show to another.”

At this point, nobody but the L.A. show’s organizers seems pleased with the move. Unlike other major auto shows, L.A. is privately owned. Other auto shows around the country are put on by local dealer associations, who see the events as part of their marketing strategy rather than a profit center. Local dealer groups also work closely with automakers to attract news-making executives, new vehicles and features.

Hundreds of millions of dollars at stake

 “It’s an absurd decision. A declaration of war on the other shows,” said Paul Eisenstein, journalist, publisher of automotive website The Detroit Bureau and a veteran of news coverage at auto shows around the world.

The L.A. show issued a brief statement about the move and declined to answer questions.

Auto shows are big business, for the cities that host them, auto dealers and automakers. They draw visitors to cities, excite customers and provide automakers with a platform to build excitement for new models. The 2019 North American International Auto Show in Detroit pumped $430 million into southeast Michigan’s economy, according to estimates by the Detroit Auto Dealers Association.

If NAIAS 2020 had taken place in June, Ford planned to build an off-road course on Detroit’s riverfront to demonstrate the capability of its upcoming Bronco off-roader during the show.

The open-air display would have been accompanied by a theatrical unveiling of the eagerly awaited SUV, attracting countless attendees and generating news coverage around the world. Mounting an event like that takes millions of dollars, months of planning and scores of workers.

“New vehicles debut throughout the year,” NAIAS Executive Director Rod Alberts said. “The logic for shows is to spread out so manufacturers can introduce vehicles when they’re ready for debut or about to go on sale.”

L.A.’s decision to abandon the fall window it had to itself is perplexing. Several industry sources speculate the show may need to book revenue by next spring, instead of waiting until November 2021. L.A. organizers even suggested they might want to hold another show in November 2021. At least one automaker rejected that out of hand.

“We had to reiterate to them twice that we weren’t doing L.A shows in May and November,” a senior source at an automaker said. “We budget one time for L.A. a year. Just one.”

L.A. show move could boomerang

L.A.’s move to May looks greedy and could ultimately be self-defeating. The L.A. show is trying to big-foot the Detroit and New York shows, but it’s not clear they’re the ones with size 15s.

New York is the hub of a huge vehicle market, and center for media companies. Detroit is a hub of the global auto industry, and the NAIAS reliably generates much more press coverage than L.A. Several automakers have expressed a desire to make Detroit’s first summer show a success.

Sandwiched between the other two on the calendar, and logistically inconvenient and expensive on the far side of the continent, the rescheduled L.A. show could find itself on the outside looking in.

Regardless, nobody but the L.A. show’s organizers seems to think the move is a net positive for automakers, auto shows, the journalists who cover them or shoppers who enjoy seeing the latest vehicles.

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