A Profile in Courage: Detroit’s Iconic Auto Show

It would have been so easy for the Detroit Auto Dealers Assn. to say of the North American International Auto Show that it owns, “We’re the big dogs here, you meet our terms.”

But they didn’t. Instead, last month they announced major changes to what is arguably the best known car show in the world

  • The show will move its dates from late January, when it has been held for decades, to June.
  • It will expand beyond the confines of Cobo Center to a number of venues, both inside and outside, throughout Detroit.
  • The show will now include a number of interactive and immersive activities intended to engage the public, moving away from a traditional show where attendees simply walk around and look at cars.
  • It will reduce costs to exhibitors by eliminating overtime labor charges during a move-in that now stretches from November through January and by simplifying exhibit builds.

Some organizers of the country’s handful of most iconic events occasionally look up and ask themselves, “How could we ever turn this ship around?”

The Detroit Auto Show has done it and there are four important lessons any event organizer – big or small – can learn from their experience.

First, do what the industry you serve wants, not what makes you the most money.

It’s no secret that the auto industry is in transition with consumer demands changing faster than it can keep up with and economic realities bearing down on it: Just days after the announcement of changes to the event, all the Big 3 Detroit carmakers issued statements pointing out their financial forecasts for the year would be worse than previously indicated.

The exhibitors are more than happy to stop spending millions of dollars on ultra-customized booths that they then shoehorn into a relatively small Cobo Center, and only Cobo Center.

Second, the car show acknowledges that the industry’s marketing calendar has changed and nobody waits for the late January event to introduce their newest models. There is nothing sacrosanct about late January in Detroit.

Third, they recognize there have been drastic and swift changes in how companies – all companies – communicate with their consumers and they now need to be part of the solution, not the problem.

Finally, they don’t fall for their own hype. Iconic as it may have been for so many years, the Detroit Auto Show is there to serve the automotive industry, not the other way around.

The SIA Snow Show’s Real Problem?

or-imageThe three acquisitions that Emerald Expositions made in the space of a month and a half captured the tradeshow industry’s attention. However, another move by Emerald during the same period that provoked less comment may tell us more about the future of the industry than a few additions to its portfolio do.

A couple of weeks ago, Emerald announced it would be shifting the dates of its two Outdoor Retailer Markets AND adding a third Winter Expo in January 2019. So, eventually, there will be three Outdoor Retailer markets, in January, June and November of each year.

Emerald officials said they surveyed the industry and this is exactly what it wants.

SnowSports Industries America, which typically runs the SIA Snow Show every January in Denver? Apparently, Emerald didn’t include its leaders in the survey, because it isn’t exactly what they want.

SIA President Nick Sargent said, “We feel that this will result in unnecessary stress and economic duress on the suppliers and retailers — not only for SIA members, but across all winter outdoor stakeholders.”

At first glance, it seems like a gutsy move to launch what would be a fourth outdoor sports-related show in what appears to be a relatively small marketplace. How many of these annual events do suppliers and retailers really need?

Or could it be that the for-profit organizer believes it has a better sense of what the industry wants than the trade association that purports to represent it? Could the real motive be to take advantage of a weak association and supplant SIA’s show?

If so, and if Emerald is successful, it will not be the first or last time a nimble for-profit has had its ear closer to the ground than the traditional association show.

Associations are in a bind today. With membership dwindling, along with dues revenue, they are forced to rely more and more on their events to generate income. However, membership-driven associations remain sufficiently resistant to change and innovation, putting their event organizers in a bind: Deliver more dollars, but don’t spend more money doing it…and don’t make anybody mad!

Look across the association landscape and you’ll see those who are making exciting moves with their event portfolios – the Natl. Assn. of Broadcasters and the Consumer Technology Assn., to single out two – are acting entrepreneurially. Those that aren’t are having their lunch eaten by the old-fashioned kinds of entrepreneurs, those in the for-profit sector.

Michael Hart is a business consultant and writer who focuses on the events industry. He can be reached at michaelhart@michaelgenehart.com. Hart will moderate a webinar Nov. 30 for association executives entitled, “4 Easy Ways to Generate Non-Dues Revenue.”

Why Association Show Organizers Are So Frustrated

cropped-OTC-image.pngI spoke this week to the organizer of one association show who knows why his show is declining in revenue, attendance and significance to its industry. He knows why a for-profit upstart could come in and steal whatever enthusiasm is left in his industry for an event – and there’s nothing he can do about it.

Many association managers today find themselves stuck between the proverbial stone and a hard place. They recognize the realities of the events industry today. They know that overall association membership is declining because its relevance to members is dwindling.

They understand their faithful audiences have many more ways to connect with potential partners and learn what they need to know to do their jobs better. They also understand how more nimble players can swoop in and launch a competing “pop-up,” worrying little about legacy issues and more about profits.

That’s their stone. Their hard place is a board of directors that doesn’t get it, the board that’s a legacy itself and doesn’t understand why attendance at the show and revenue are declining – when, from their point of view, nothing else has changed.

We all know how hard it can be to tell a boss he or she doesn’t know how much they don’t know.

Start this way: Ask your board to review its event goals. And don’t let them say, “That’s your problem.”

Is their primary goal to make money with the annual show? Is their No. 1 priority to get as many members there as possible? Do they want to use the annual event as a vehicle to deliver messages to a larger audience about the industry?

Is their best answer, “Because the bylaws say we have to have to”? (If it is their answer, you’re really in trouble.)

To a certain extent, it doesn’t matter what their answer is, as long as it gives you an opportunity to explain why you’re not accomplishing their goal now – and what you’ll have to change to do so.

Michael Hart is a business consultant and writer who focuses on the events industry. He can be reached at michaelhart@michaelgenehart.com.

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