In 11 years the Detroit show has become one of the world’s leading auto shows, with a massive selection of new cars – more this year than ever before. But it has to be said that to those of us who visit shows as part of our job, Detroit can be a pain in the neck.
It’s not just that Detroit’s January weather is not much fun, for we are at the show to work, not to get a tan. No, it’s the way Detroit, having established itself as an important show, milks the situation shamelessly.
Its not surprising that the amount of money the show brings into the region has gone from $200,000 in 1989 to close on half a billion this year. With nearly 8000 press credentials issued a good proportion of that money must have come from the attending media types.
Every other international show – Paris, Geneva, Frankfurt, Tokyo – manages to get the press preview over in two days. When it started, Detroit managed with two and a half. Now it needs four, something that started in 1999, when Chrysler decided to preview its concept cars on Sunday. Since this is Detroit, by 2000 GM and Ford had joined in, so now Sunday is an unofficial official press day. If you’re flying in from Europe, that means you have to arrive on Saturday – adding a handy number of hotel room nights to that contribution to the local economy.
If the cars that the Big Three showed were interesting and newsworthy, the extra day would perhaps be worthwhile. This year’s Concept Sunday was a con job. Chrysler’s event, billed as the unveiling of the company’s concept cars, was instead a hokey launch of the Jeep Liberty – car that all journalists were aware of, and many in the vast audience had already driven.
Ford’s offering was the Forty-Nine, which was featured on the news pages of Road & Track and the cover of Automobile, both on sale at a newsstand near you as we saw it unveiled, and looked like something that could have appeared in Hot Rod forty years ago. After trudging to the last launch of the day, at GM, we at last saw metal versions of the concepts GM had previewed as detailed sketches last fall.
All in all it was a wasted day – unless you were, as a large proportion of the accredited press seemed to be – just there for the occasion. By massaging some form of media link that will get past the accreditation committee – not too difficult, it would seem – a vast array of part-time journalists and full-time car nuts are able to see the latest cars ahead of their friends, eat and drink at the industry’s expense, and collect valuable press kits.
eBay in mind
“Collect valuable press kits?” I hear you ask. Yes, valuable – and if you don’t believe me, check on eBay. [Ed note – at last check, one was already fetching $20.] This year’s top-value Detroit kit will be the one issued for the Thunderbird. A beautifully crafted box with a circular aperture in the lid gave a glimpse of a superb miniature T-Bird. Open the magnetic closure of the box, lift out the model on its circular frosted plinth, and you’ll find a Thunderbird-branded CD case with one segment filled by the CD-ROM carrying the images of the car. Underneath the CD case is a handsomely printed booklet giving the details of the car, a set of color transparencies, a two-sheet print-out of the pictures available on the CD, and a two-page press release.
To a professional journalist, that release was the only vital part of the kit. We knew what the Thunderbird would look like, we knew when it would go on sale – good heavens, if you had enough money, you could even have bought one from Nieman Marcus before Christmas. The only thing we didn’t know was the price the car would sell at – and that’s what was in the press release.
The only problem was that if you didn’t make it to the 8:00 a.m. Ford press conference, there was very little chance that you would be able to get hold of a copy of the press release. They had all gone because the press kit was one that the automobilia collectors would kill for – and in the feeding frenzy that took place when they started handing out the T-Bird kit it probably got close to that. There was a joke going round the press-room that Ford should have put a notice on the board saying that “journalists who missed out on a Thunderbird press kit this morning should be aware that they will be available on eBay at 2:00 p.m.”
Ford’s was the most collectible press kit of the 2001 show, but there were plenty of others that the car-nuts wanted to get their hands on, which meant that professional journalists who needed the information had to join in the feeding frenzy or miss out. Manufacturers would gain a lot of friends in the professional media and save a lot of money if they were to go back to press kits that comprised a few sheets of paper containing real information and some good photographs. But they probably won’t, and Detroit will continue to attract 8000 “media people.”
And I don’t think I’ll bother with Sunday next year.
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