Keys Disease

Keys Disease
Battling Keys Disease at the Futura Yacht Club in Islamorada, Fla. three years ago.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

North American International Auto Show: Detroit in Winter! Are You Nuts?

It's been a few years since I last attended the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS). Most sane folks shorthand that to the Detroit Auto Show; most motoring journalists contract it even further to simply Detroit. As the press days of the show creep closer and one journalist asks another, "Are you doing Detroit?" It is a given that he isn't inquiring about summer vacation plans. Nope, it's the auto show; and it's not summer, but blustery January. Burrrr....Look, my hand is stuck to the taxi's trunk lid.

My last three-day sentence at the Detroit show was in 2004. Gloomy skies, temperatures in the single digits or low teens, gray slush-covered sidewalks and cold shuttle rides from the hotel to Cobo Hall are memories burned into my soul.

It wasn't all bad. Fortunately at the time I worked for a guy who rarely planned ahead. I was working for AMI Auto World magazine; it was a given that we were going to send a contingent to Detroit. There were no approvals needed from AMI's looney CEO that held up the planning. The only question: Who among the staff would make the trek from Boca Raton, Fla. to the jewel of Lake Michigan? My boss never rendered this decision until a week or two before the show.

As managing editor, it fell to me to see to it that all the travel arrangements were made. This was a task made easier because AMI had an in-house travel agency. Flights were booked with a 15 sec phone call to an office down the hall. Of course, we usually paid more because my boss procrastinated, but AMI was a company that wallowed in waste; who were we to rock the boat?

The real benefit to the late planning was that by the time I was given the go-ahead to book hotel rooms, all the "inexpensive" hotels were full. While our peers, who planned ahead, stayed in the Hilton, Marriott or Airport Quality Inn, we luxuriated in the Four Seasons. If you have to go to Detroit in January, the Four Seasons at least makes it bearable.

Sure, you might conclude that attending the Detroit show press days is exciting, but you would be wrong. Yes, it's a gathering of most of the movers and shakers in the auto industry; and yes, many new or redesigned models are unwrapped; and yes, all-new concepts are revealed; however, very little of this matters because the opportunities to get up close and personal with any of it are few. Getting credentialed and attending the show's press days are no guarantee that you are going to benefit in any way other than to say, "I was there."

Each year the show's administrators laud the huge turnout of "journalists" attending its media days. Somehow they believe this is a good thing. Historically around 5,000 or more so-called journalists are credentialed and show up for the media preview that used to last three days, but has been reduced to two. That's 5,000 plus people stampeding from one 10-min or so press conference to the next one located somewhere on the other side of Cobo Hall. A manufacturer planning for such a press conference -- most have one whether or not they have anything of substance to show or announce -- typically has 200 or 300 folding chairs set up in front of its stage for the media to use. The other 4,700 people stand behind the chairs. It's like being in the pit of a Lady Gaga concert.

If you are lucky you can hear the press conference because you stand damn little chance of actually seeing it. Whatever hand outs, press kits or giveaways are available are gone before half the journalists work their way to the front to try to get them.

At Auto World, we always tag-teamed the press conferences. Each of us was assigned specific manufacturers and we hopscotched to about every third conference. We usually even managed to secure a seat. Journalists on their own, trying to cover the entire show, were not so lucky. Today, I would be one of those poor schmucks.

I haven't been to the Detroit show since leaving Auto World in 2004. I don't miss it. If a manufacturer invited me, paying my expenses, I would probably go again. But spending my own money to go to Detroit in winter to attend an event with little benefit to my business just makes no sense to me.

I'm happy to do what most of you do: I'll follow this circus on the Internet.

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