Mark Rechtin
Mark Rechtin
Toyota, Lexus, Scion, Honda, Acura Reporter

L.A. makeover: A plan to restore auto show's world-class star power

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LOS ANGELES -- A series of missed opportunities, frayed automaker relationships and inopportune scheduling have combined to put the reputation of the Los Angeles auto show near that of the typical regional dealer show, rather than in the pantheon of the world's great events in Frankfurt, Geneva, Paris, Tokyo and Detroit.

But Terri Toennies is out to change that. Hired to be the show's general manager after L.A. show owner Andy Fuzesi retired from his daily duties as GM, Toennies is already making changes to the show that she thinks will bring L.A. back into the top tier of auto shows.

Toennies has 30 years of mega-event planning experience, from running shows at the Syracuse War Memorial at Oncenter to overseeing corporate events for the House of Blues in Las Vegas.

"We're changing the status quo," Toennies said during a recent tour of the sprawling L.A. convention center. "L.A. has great recognition, with great opportunities."

It's no secret that L.A. had been run as a retail-consumer show. Although successful as an enterprise, the show drew complaints from automakers that their interests came second to generating 1 million turnstile counts every year. The show's timing also clashed with Detroit's show for many years, with L.A. losing out on many world premieres to the Motor City.

"We're listening to our OEM customers now," Toennies said.

One of the big changes is not having an automaker CEO kick off media days with a painfully scripted keynote speech. Instead, the show will feature a "Cars and Coffee" gathering, with a collection of classic cars from museums and celebrity collections.

A relocation of the press room to a larger space, plus more private hospitality suites for automakers and their vendors, will make more of the convention center's never-ending hallways.

On consumer days, the cavernous South Hall lobby will no longer be used for selling tickets. Instead it will be filled with more sheet metal, to give attendees a preview of what's inside the halls.

Although the show has long had a student design competition to create visions of cars of the future, that "Jetsons"-like display will be expanded with booths from automakers' Southern California design studios.

While no longer scheduled against Detroit, this year's scheduling fluke has the show overlapping with counterparts in Tokyo and Guangzhou, China. That will present a problem in luring the world's media.

Of course, having news to cover helps.

In past years, L.A. has become the dumping ground for second-tier vehicles and underwhelming green cars — stuff that wasn't important enough for the big-time shows. Despite many automakers' proclamations of the importance of the California market, the show was often thin gruel for journalists.

This year, however, Porsche has already announced that its Macan compact crossover will have its global debut in L.A. -- and not at the massive Frankfurt show two months before. That's a coup. Also, McLaren will have a factory presence -- something it didn't have at Detroit in January. But Alfa Romeo has decided to skip the 2013 show after initially agreeing to participate, show organizers say.

The day before the show's media days, organizers have created a Connected Car Expo for automakers, vendors, insurance executives and car dealers. In addition to speaker panels, the expo will include a "Shark Tank"-style session, where app developers will pitch their innovative ideas to venture capitalists and automakers.

"This is not just another telematics conference," Toennies quipped.

That gathering will segue into the J.D. Power/NADA Western Automotive Conference in the afternoon -- another session of industry heavyweights.

And once the auto show is over, the event isn't finished.

Although most show displays travel the auto show circuit in crates, certain pieces get one use and are then disposed of. Toennies is asking automakers to recycle their booths' carpeting and subflooring so that they can be donated to Habitat for Humanity.

Said Toennies: "We're hoping to build a couple houses with it."

Editor's note: Alfa Romeo intended to participate in the 2013 Los Angeles auto show but has now decided to skip the event. An earlier version of this blog indicated the Italian brand would take part in the show.

You can reach Mark Rechtin at mrechtin@crain.com. -- Follow Mark on Twitter

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