Houston is the fourth-largest city in the U.S., but its auto show has long lived in a shadow.
In 2020, the creator of that shadow — the North American International Auto Show in Detroit — is getting out of the way.
Detroit’s move from January to June leaves a major void in the heart of the annual auto show calendar that organizers in Houston, Chicago and other cities are hoping to use to their advantage. Some see the shift as an opportunity to attract more metal and headlines that are harder to come by in an era where automakers increasingly stage their own vehicle unveilings away from auto shows.
Detroit has long been a critical launching pad for new products early in the year. Now, automakers need a new plan for unveiling those vehicles because in many cases, the timing wouldn’t work if they simply waited until June.
“We know you’re going to need to move those vehicles somewhere and have plans for them. We would love for you to bring them to Houston,” said RoShelle Salinas, executive vice president of the Houston Automobile Dealers Association. “We’ve yet to hear if that’ll be taking place, but we’re very optimistic about it.”
The Texas contingent made a trek to the Big Apple for meetings with several manufacturers during the New York auto show last spring to pitch their late January event, which used to overlap with Detroit’s. Houston’s outreach continued with more automaker meetings during a summer conference.
The Chicago Auto Show draws more consumers and offers more floor space than Detroit, but it hasn’t hosted nearly as many high-profile reveals, in part because it happened right on Detroit’s heels each winter. The new schedule reduces logistical stress for automakers to set up shop in Chicago, said Dave Sloan, the show’s chairman, because Chicago’s move-in dates were often just a few days after Detroit’s move-out dates. Chicago’s 2020 media preview will be Feb. 6 and 7 before the show opens to the public Feb. 8.
The Chicago show has been aggressive over the years in asking for more news during its media previews while dealing with the fact that automakers are doing fewer vehicle reveals at shows. Sloan said Chicago’s approach to attracting more debuts hasn’t changed this year just because Detroit no longer will dominate the month leading up to it.
“We’ve got a great venue for them, and we are committed to keeping the volume turned up on whatever their message is,” Sloan told Automotive News. The Detroit show’s move “perhaps allows a bigger spotlight on the Chicago Auto Show, and, for that, we’re excited.”
The Chicago show has prided itself on being a strong consumer event in a city with 2.7 million residents. The 2019 show featured a craft beer day for attendees, and the 2020 show will host an indoor run sponsored by Honda as organizers attempt to bring in people who may not have experienced an auto show otherwise. The hourlong run’s 2.4-mile loop will cover the three main halls of the sprawling McCormick Place convention center and cut through the show floor.
Over the years, “automotive media has been so focused on the media previews of auto shows, and I kept reminding them every chance I could, ‘Hey, guys, the show doesn’t open until Saturday morning when we open it to the public,’ ” Sloan told Automotive News. “That’s when the real magic happens.”
Sloan said it’s too early to tell whether Chicago will be able to attract unveilings that might otherwise have occurred during a January show in Detroit. Officials with the New York auto show, which starts in late March or April, said vehicle debuts could end up being more spread out. The New York show had nearly 60 global and North American debuts in 2019.
Houston’s Salinas is optimistic on drawing more debuts. Ram selected the 2019 Houston show to unveil its heavy-duty Laramie Longhorn models infused with wood and leather in the cabins. Ram’s production schedule, Salinas said, won’t allow for another debut in 2020.
Houston officials have been making the rounds to pitch the show as an opportunity to reach a large, growing vehicle market during the lull between the Los Angeles show in November and the Chicago show in February. Houston has 2.3 million residents, and vehicle sales there rose 4.5 percent in 2018. It’s also a critical market for selling lucrative pickups.
But in the past, Houston’s overlap with Detroit caused it to miss out on certain products. Salinas said that if an automaker had only one prototype model, for example, it would go to Detroit.
“We’re raising our hand, saying, ‘We’re happy to host you here and partner with you here if you want to bring it to Texas next,’ ” Salinas said.
The five-day Houston event had more than 80 vehicles available this year for test drives, which drew 800 to 1,000 rides per day. Jeep and Ram were among the brands that set up courses, and the show is in negotiations with Jaguar to do the same. Organizers are “definitely reaching out earlier than usual to remind them that Detroit is no longer overlapping our show, and there won’t be logistical issues,” Salinas told Automotive News.
The San Diego show, which opens New Year’s Day, also gets some breathing room, with Detroit no longer happening right afterward. But its organizers say they don’t need more vehicle debuts to be successful.
“With Detroit in June and Los Angeles in November, the San Diego show’s January dates fit in nicely for automakers to provide attendees and media with a very good show,” said Barry Toepke, director of marketing and operations for the New Car Dealers Association San Diego County.
It’s been business as usual for the team behind the New York International Auto Show. Mark Schienberg, president of the Greater New York Auto Dealers Association, wouldn’t describe the show as aggressively trying to line up more vehicle introductions because of Detroit’s move. Schienberg said it’s presenting automakers with data demonstrating the show’s influence.
For instance, Schienberg said 72 percent of New York auto show visitors purchase or lease a vehicle within the next 12 months. He added that 36 percent of attendees this year were in the 18-to-36 age bracket, and almost half of show visitors were women.
Schienberg is rooting for the Detroit show and hopes it rebounds under its new June format.
“Nothing has changed for us,” Schienberg told Automotive News. “It’s nice to get introductions, and that always makes it a lot of fun, but it’s really about the public and all the people that are coming through the doors.”
Detroit auto show officials say there’s been “tremendous interest” in the new June date. There are already 20 world debuts scheduled for next year, and every automaker present in 2019 has expressed interest in 2020 along with “many new partners,” Rod Alberts, executive director of the North American International Auto Show, said in an email.
Alberts said he isn’t concerned about losing debuts to other shows. To entice automakers, Detroit organizers are banking on the additional space for outdoor displays and activities around the city’s downtown.
“A new show format, new dates and new outdoor venues has energized the NAIAS team and has allowed us, automakers and all our partners to become more innovative,” Alberts said. “We are much busier than we would normally be eight months prior to the show.”
The number of debuts from year to year for all shows depends on product cadences. Hyundai is one brand that plans to make product news at the 2020 Detroit show.
There will be times when June is perfect for a vehicle reveal and others when it won’t work, said Jim Trainor, Hyundai Motor America’s communications director. Looking ahead, Trainor said brands may find opportunities at smaller shows in the future because of the schedule reshuffle.
Trainor said the new Detroit dates will be great from a consumer perspective. The adjacent Detroit River won’t be covered with ice, and there will be plenty of other events nearby.
“I think it’s a little less clear what the OEMs are going to do with their product launches. We want to incorporate the newness of the show and take advantage of things outside,” Trainor told Automotive News. “There are a lot of factors that go into it — weather, budget — so we’ve got a little work to do here before we’re totally comfortable with what our plan is going to be. But I’ve got a little time to make that happen.”
Steve Kinkade, head of public relations for the Honda brand, said Detroit’s move likely won’t impact Honda’s approach to regional shows, which he said are also important.
In Atlanta or San Diego, Kinkade said, Honda can dominate the share of voice by taking a vehicle to the local TV outlets for news segments ahead of a show and then holding a press conference during the event.
Regional shows “may gain some prominence as a result of Detroit moving to June,” Kinkade told Automotive News.
Kinkade said Honda will continue to be active in Detroit if the timing works.
But Kinkade said Honda isn’t limited to auto shows. In September, it unveiled a hybrid version of the CR-V crossover during a standalone event in Detroit where it was the center of attention.
General Motors, which advocated for Detroit’s move to June, isn’t ready to reveal its plans, but “we’re really excited about June 2020, for sure,” spokesman Terry Rhadigan said. He said the change lengthens the season for vehicle reveals, which typically revved up in late fall and died down in early spring.
“Before, it was a four-month window of time in which you had to show vehicles, if you elect to do them at auto shows,” Rhadigan told Automotive News. “By expanding the U.S. auto show season, I think that’ll be good for everybody.”