Wes Westley, CEO of the company that runs Cobo Center and 240 venues worldwide, planned to visit Detroit in March to check out operations.
But last week he abruptly changed his travel schedule after he saw social media traffic “blowing up” with news and chatter from the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS).
“I had to get out there to see the action,” Westley, who heads Philadelphia-based SMG, said in a phone interview Friday, “so I came in for an overnight Wednesday and Thursday. I was blown away by the video boards, the cars, the excitement in the city and the industry. It’s really gratifying to see.”
That strong reaction and positive vibe overall from the Detroit show this past week positions 2015 as the most promising year for Detroit and its signature industry since at least the go-go 1990s.
The 2015 show’s economic impact on the region will top $400 million for the first time since 2008, economist David Sowerby said. Friday’s Charity Preview, with tickets at $400 apiece, raised more than $5 million, boosting the total donations for children’s charities to more than $100 million since the Detroit Auto Dealers Association began the black-tie gala in 1976.
Cobo’s $279-million makeover has opened up much more space for banquets and parties, both before and after the Charity Preview.
And despite the nonstop construction activities since the Cobo renovations began in 2010, convention bookings have nearly tripled, said Thom Connors, Cobo general manager and SMG regional vice president. The final stages of the renovation, including an east facade glass canopy, video screen above the main entrance and upgrades of meeting rooms and concourses, are slated for completion by June.
“In my 40-year career, I have never seen the amount of change that has happened in such a compressed period of time to improve the stature, marketability and appeal of a convention destination as has occurred in Detroit,” Connors said.
Highlights of a rebirth
What better way to kick off the rebirth of the much-maligned Motor City on the heels of its exit from Chapter 9 bankruptcy than with:
- Cobo Center looking better than it has in forever, welcoming 5,025 journalists from 60 nations.
- The auto industry rejuvenated and posting strong sales and profits as consumers enjoy plunging gasoline prices and low-interest loans.
- The auto show floor full of glamor, power and some surprises, such as Ford’s GT supercar and Chevrolet’s Bolt concept combining 200-mile range and affordable price point in a next-generation electric car.
- Industry innovation talk from Elon Musk of Tesla, Chris Urmson of Google Cars, plus CEOs Carlos Ghosn of Renault-Nissan, Sergio Marchionne of FCA, Dieter Zetsche of Daimler AG, Mary Barra of General Motors and Mark Fields of Ford about the rapid and radical changes about to rock our world in the very near future.
By any measure, it has been a robust week for Detroit.
Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel said the transformation of Cobo and downtown Detroit in recent years extends beyond the physical construction.
“People are more inviting; the staff here is more engaging,” Hackel said at Cobo last week. “And you can feel it especially around the downtown area.”
A few years ago with the industry in the doldrums, some major foreign car companies skipped the Detroit show or scaled back their presence. Not so anymore.
Zetsche, the Daimler CEO who ran Chrysler in Auburn Hills from 2000 to 2005, said last week that “if you are in the auto world, you must be in Detroit to start the new year.”
Urmson, Google’s head of self-driving cars, said the brainpower and experience of metro Detroit are essential elements of future car development. Google’s self-driving car team is based mainly in Silicon Valley, he said, but vehicle prototypes are being built in Livonia.
Detroit has been mass-producing vehicles for so long, many people take its know-how for granted.
“You forget just how complicated that is,” he said in a Free Press interview last week, “and how much engineering effort, thought and design it takes, how smart the people are that are able to pull this off … at scale, every day. I think anyone who looks at Silicon Valley as the only place that innovation happens is dead wrong.”
Some challenges ahead
To be sure, Detroit and its auto industry still face many challenges.
Mexico and the American South want auto jobs and plants, too, while Silicon Valley and other spots want a share of action in future automotive technology and mobility innovations.
UAW workers want a raise and changes in the two-tier wage structure, with 2015 a key contract bargaining year now that the auto industry bailouts are history.
That said, though, it’s all right to embrace the enthusiasm and excitement that put Detroit in the national spotlight for a frigid January week.
Last, with something for everyone at NAIAS as the public jams the show floor this week — powerful supercars from Ford and Acura, a Rebel Ram from FCA, an electric Bolt and a 640-horsepower CTS-V from Cadillac — one wonders what the ghost of Alfred Sloan might be thinking if he were floating around the 2015 show.
It was 90 years ago, in his 1924 annual report to GM shareholders, that the legendary CEO explained his famous market segment strategy of “a car for every purse and purpose.”
You think Alfred had Tesla, Google and 3D printed cars in his mind’s eye?