Recapping the Motor Bella Madness

The North American International Auto Show, aka Detroit Auto Show, can’t catch a break.

Organizers decided to move the show to summer and the outdoors for 2020, and boom, COVID comes along and cancels it. They rebrand, move it to late summer and outdoors — at a different site — and boom, Mother Nature decides to assert herself with a day and a half of deluge. So much water fell from the sky that the second day was canceled.

Not that I had to worry about it — I skedaddled late Tuesday, before the rain really fell hard, because our coverage would be focused on Tuesday morning and I had no real reason to hang around. But I still can’t help but feel for the cursed organizers.

I was cursing those same organizers Tuesday morning because the parking situation was terribly disorganized — I arrived at 8:30 but wasn’t able to get into the media center until 9:15, and I will spare you the rest of the details — and because the media center at the M1 Concourse private racing facility was laughably short of seats. But you don’t care about my first-world problems, you care about the cars.

And boy, was that aspect weird.

Tim Healey/TTAC

There was little in the way of news, and that’s an issue. Not just for Motor Bella but for all shows. Ford introduced the 2022 Expedition, and Toyota the 2022 Tundra, and those were the highlights, though other news was tied to the show. Oh, and Ford said the Bronco Raptor is a go.

No, the show was mostly about test drives and rides — attendees (not all of whom were media, other industry types were milling about) could drive certain vehicles on small test tracks, or go for rides in vehicles like the Ford Lightning or Mustang Mach-E.

I begged off as I’ve driven almost everything that one could drive or ride in, save the Lightning. Mostly I just took pics and wrote and edited our posts. And thought about how weird the vibe was.

I guess I am used to it by now — COVID has made everything weird. The 2021 Chicago Auto Show which I attended just over two months ago (though it feels like it’s been two years) was weird, too, thanks to ongoing construction. The world is in a time of strangeness, and our little world of auto shows is no exception.

Tim Healey/TTAC

What I wonder, though, is if Motor Bella was worth it. Not for us — I am sure our corporate masters will get enough out of it to justify the cost of my attendance — but for the OEMs. As I’ve written before, auto shows aren’t for the media. They’re for consumers — we just get a day or two of our own first, in part because what we write might influence the purchasing behavior of the consumers who attend.

To that end, it’s too early to tell — the public days haven’t started yet. But for automakers hoping to move the media needle, I am not sure if Motor Bella worked. And grumbles about parking and media-center setup aside, I am not sure that the organizers can do anything about that.

They can’t control the weather, they can’t control COVID, and they only have so much control over what the OEMs choose to do. Some OEMs are sitting out auto shows together, a trend that started pre-pandemic, because they aren’t convinced the ROI is worth it. Some are only attending shows in markets where they sell a lot of cars — a PR rep for a luxury brand told me several years ago that some luxury makes only go to Chicago and/or New York and/or L.A. because those cities do well for them.

Even the OEMs that continue to have a strong presence at auto shows pick their spots when it comes to breaking news. Product cadence and launch timing matter, and are perhaps the most important factor. Other reasons factor in, too.

Tim Healey/TTAC

That’s a long way of saying that while it will be a week or so before we know if Motor Bella was worth the while for automakers and consumers, not to mention the show organizers, the media days (well, day, really, thanks to the storms) were a reminder of something I’ve noticed over the past half-decade. Auto-show media days may not be dying — I think they’ll always exist, as long as physical auto shows and journalists’ desire for free booze do — but for a variety of reasons, they might not be as important as they were as recently as 2008, which is the first time I ever covered one. Or even as recently as, say, 2015.

I know I’ve covered this territory before. Because it goes beyond Motor Bella. As for Motor Bella itself, well, it was weird, though the vibe was undoubtedly affected by gloomy skies that preceded a deluge.

I don’t regret going. Part of this job is playing with cars, and it’s the best part. But for Motor Bella, and for all auto shows, the post-pandemic future might require deeper change than a move outdoors and/or to the suburbs.

The biggest change would be a return to actual news on media day. Including true surprises, instead of unveils that half the media expected because we received the embargoed materials a week before. Give the media a reason NOT to whine about how they could’ve covered it from home, and give the consumers a reason to go beyond it being an annual tradition.

It would also be cool if the pie-in-the-sky concept cars of the past returned in larger numbers, but given the cost of building them, I don’t foresee that happening anytime soon.

Tim Healey/TTAC

Changing dates and venues, moving things outdoors — it’s one thing to do so because a global pandemic forces your hand. But once we’re past COVID, and someday we will be, the auto show of the future will make more impact, both among the press and the consumers who (hopefully) read our content, by actually centering around the product. And doing so in a natural, organic way that surprises.

Make in-person attendance a must again, and the venue won’t matter. Even when the skies open up.

Maybe that’s how the next North American International Auto Show (or Chicago, or…) can make its own luck.

[Images © 2021 Tim Healey/TTAC]

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