Image: 2007 Detroit car show
John Brecher  /  msnbc.com file
Ford introducing vehicles at the 2007 North American International Auto Show.
Image: Paul A. Eisenstein, msnbc.com contributor
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/11/2010 3:02:14 PM ET 2010-01-11T20:02:14

There won’t be much room to move when the doors open at Detroit’s Cobo Hall next week for the 2010 North American International Auto Show. With more than 50 automakers from around the world displaying their wares, the annual event is expected to draw perhaps 600,000 paying visitors to the convention center along the Detroit River.

Regular showgoers will see some significant changes in what was traditionally a passive event, with cars mounted on revolving stands for visitors on the floor to ooh and aah over.

The challenge is to entertain and inform a new generation of Internet-savvy buyers while at the same time giving “more bang for the buck” to an industry battered by a deep global recession, says Rod Alberts, director of the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, which organizes the NAIAS.

Some put it more bluntly: The era of the auto show may have come and gone. And if recent events are any indication, a growing number of automakers are buying into that argument.

As always, the Detroit auto show will open with an assortment of media previews, which will be covered by as many as 5,000 journalists from around the world. But this year’s press event will last two days instead of the normal three, and it will bring far fewer of the headline-making debuts that have made the Detroit event one of the world's most important auto shows over the past two decades.

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Things began to change in 2009 with the launch of the EcoXperience, which gave the public a chance to actually drive a number of hybrids and other advanced powertrain vehicles over a short course.

This year, the NAIAS will not only repeat the EcoXperience but add Electric Avenue, a 25,000-square-foot corner of Cobo devoted to battery-based vehicles. Alberts’ team got Japan's Nissan to return to the show with a small display highlighting the maker’s new Leaf battery-electric vehicle. A number of other makers will set up displays in the area, most of them too small to normally afford a space at a major car show.

Chrysler notably has decided not to hold a press preview, a sharp break with tradition. The maker’s typically over-the-top events — dropping a Ram pickup from the Cobo ceiling, one year, then smashing a Jeep through the hall’s plate glass windows — helped establish the NAIAS as a must-see show for the media and public and a must-attend show for industry executives.

But starting last year, a number of well-known manufacturers, including Infiniti, Mitsubishi and Ferrari, decided to skip the press previews and eliminate their costly stands, too.

Detroit isn’t alone in feeling the impact. Bentley, which normally uses the Los Angeles Auto Show to connect with Tinseltown’s glitterati, was one of numerous no-shows at that event. Spokesman Dave Reuter explained that the company wanted to find “a better use of our resources.”

The news conferences were light at last year’s Chicago Auto Show and aren’t expected to grow much this coming February. And the once-powerful Tokyo Motor Show in October degraded into little more than a regional event after most foreign makers pulled out.

Major manufacturers such as Ford have been known to invest as much as $50 million in their auto show displays. At last autumn’s Frankfurt Motor Show, BMW erected an indoor track so potential customers could see its latest models in motion.

But like Bentley, recession-wracked manufacturers are rethinking their priorities, and looking for alternatives. Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn authorized his marketing team to limit the Japanese maker's appearances to a mere handful of shows. The maker’s display at last year's Chicago show survived only because dealers picked up the tab.

“It’s a very different world. Everyone has to live within a budget. I don’t think we’ll see any cattle drives for awhile,” says Detroit show Chairman Doug Fox, referring to another Chrysler event used to promote the launch of the latest Dodge Ram pickup.

Sponsors such as the Detroit Auto Dealers Association trot out numbers suggesting visitors are motivated to buy vehicles after attending a car show. But not everyone agrees. “Auto shows don’t sell cars,” contends Mike Jackson, the outspoken CEO of the nation’s largest automotive retail group, Florida-based AutoNation.

Jackson doesn’t expect the widely watched Detroit show to go away, though. For one thing, such marquee shows draw media representatives in in huge numbers. But even there, things are changing.

In years past, reporters had to wait until the veil was lifted to see a new product. These days, most manufacturers stage “background” briefings, giving reporters an advance look at what’s planned for the various shows. So by the time of the actual “reveal,” many already have written their stories and are just waiting for the agreed-upon embargoes to lift.

The Internet, meanwhile, has become a competitor to the shows. Data from the research firm J.D. Power and Associates suggest more than four out of five car shoppers do research online. Alberts, of the Detroit dealers group, argues that events like the NAIAS still give potential buyers the chance to kick tires, and lots of them, all in one location.

By the time Henry Ford rolled out his first Model T, the auto show already was a fact of life for the car industry. Today there are fewer than a dozen truly global events, like Detroit’s, but hundreds of smaller shows held in convention centers, sports arenas and even shopping malls.

Whether they can survive is uncertain. To do so, says Alberts, they will have to reflect changing times. “The auto show business,” he says, “is no different from any other, and there’s a bit of reinventing to be done.”

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