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NOTE: This blog post has been updated to reflect the actual number of NACTOY semifinalist vehicles that were on the convention floor during the show.

The Detroit Auto Show is evolving into something new. But if we’re being honest, exactly what the show is going to look like next year or in the future remains unclear even after the traditional first week of the show that included media day, industry days and Charity Preview.

Everyone in the industry knew going into the show that it would be much different than the show that stood at the top of the auto show mountain with more media, more news and more top executives on the show floor than any other automotive show on the planet.

But times have changed. In today’s era, automakers have pulled new product reveals out of major auto shows because they’ve learned they can spend less money for a reveal that takes place when and where they want, and they can own the news cycle for a day without competing with two dozen or more other automakers.

This is a reality that every major auto show faces – whether it’s New York, or L.A., or Geneva or Tokyo. But that doesn’t reduce the region’s collective anxiety about the future of an event that many of us use as a platform to promote our clients or even to simply reconnect with media and industry partners.

So, what happened at this year’s show? What worked and what didn’t? And where are things going from here? Here are our key takeaways:

The duck was everywhere!

Everybody wanted a picture of, or with, the 61-foot duck. The “World’s Largest Rubber Duck” quickly became the duck seen around the world. Journalists and pretty much everyone else took photos of the duck and posted them on social media.

But what was it really about? Some of the most seasoned, knowledgeable automotive journalists didn’t know. When I told one reporter the duck was tied to a social media movement involving Jeep owners who have taken to “ducking” other Jeep owners (#duckduckjeep) by placing ducks on fellow Jeep owner’s vehicles, his response was:

“Wow, that’s an insider’s insider story.”

Suppliers and startups stepped up their game

As automakers bowed out several tier one suppliers (along with other companies) saw an opportunity to step into the void. Global auto suppliers Hyundai Mobis and Magna, as well as recharging station company Autel Energy and startup EV automaker Harbinger Motors, had displays on the show floor and held press conferences during media day.

Is this a harbinger of things to come? Two veteran automotive journalists we spoke to think it could be:

“I would love to see the show…evolve into a North American / Frankfurt where the suppliers and the OEMs are in lockstep in the same facility. The suppliers are really driving technology in electrification and self-driving technology and really should be here,” said Lindsay Brooke, editor in chief of Automotive Engineering Magazine.

“It’s a little bit in this in-between time – this transitional period – there are still a lot of journalists showing up at events and there aren’t a lot of automakers. So, we might have as many stories about suppliers as we do about auto brands in our next issue,” said Jamie Butters, executive editor of Automotive News.

If you want to hear more from Lindsay and Jamie – as well as Free Press Auto Critic Mark Phelan and S&P Mobility Principal Automotive Analyst Stephanie Brinley – listen to Franco’s recent podcast episode that provides a recap of the Detroit Auto Show.

Biden’s chaotic visit

Any time a president comes to Detroit to visit the auto show it puts the industry, the city and the state into the national spotlight. A presidential visit, almost by definition, benefits the show.

Or does it? Biden came to Detroit to tout his administration’s efforts to support the auto industry. In his speech from the show floor, Biden announced $900 million in grants for electric vehicle chargers across 35 states, including Michigan, the first round of $7.5 billion in funding appropriated through the bipartisan infrastructure law.

But there were big downsides. Biden’s visit forced media off the show floor for more than three hours during a show that was already a disappointment for many out-of-town journalists who were sequestered in the media room. Communication about when media could go back onto the show floor was both confusing and nearly non-existent.

While everyone – including journalists – understands the president’s need for security, the lack of communication about the timing, duration and ground rules during the president’s visit caused palpable frustration in the media room.

What we liked

  • Carlos Tavares in the house: We were thrilled to see Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares at the Jeep Press conference and hosting “roundtable” discussions with media, upholding a tradition started by former CEO Sergio Marchionne. Anytime a global CEO spends significant time at the show, especially one who works out of Europe, it’s a win for Detroit and U.S. auto media.
  • The Lincoln stand: Lincoln’s display was stunning. It included two concept vehicles that point toward the luxury brand’s future vision of mobility.
  • The Buick Wildcat: While Lincoln outdid Buick overall, the Wildcat is an equally stunning vision of the future. This is a work of art.
  • Ford Mustang reveal: When Ford wants to throw down, Ford throws down. Ford ended media day with an event in Hart Plaza where it revealed the 2024 Ford Mustang at the “Stampede.” This was an event designed to please journalists and enthusiasts alike. You can watch a replay of that event here.
  • NACTOY – the North American Car, Truck and Utility Vehicle of the Year Awards occupied the show floor for the first time with a display of 16 or more of the 26 semifinalist vehicles. This is a great place to see this year’s most anticipated cars, trucks and SUVs and helped to blunt the absence of several automotive brands.

“It’s a consumer show now”

The conventional wisdom is the Detroit Auto Show remains fun, engaging and relevant for consumers seeking an entertaining day in Detroit. For families with kids, the public show offered rides at Camp Jeep and Bronco Mountain and dinosaurs wandering the aisles, along with music and monster trucks at Hart Plaza.

The challenge is the public portion of the show competed with the return of tailgating, college football and Lion’s games, as well as all the activities that come with kids going back to school.

At its peak, public show attendance of the North American International Auto Show exceeded 800,000. While nobody expects anything close to that this year, the total tally for public attendance will become the new measuring stick of success for the Detroit Auto Show.

All of us at Franco are hoping Rod Alberts, executive director of the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, and his staff, are successful with the public show this year and we’ll be looking forward to next year’s show.

Brent Snavely is vice president of media relations at Franco. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.