In the midst of the industry's largest engineering trade show, what automotive suppliers crave is some privacy.
Society of Automotive Engineers, motivated in part by the departure of several large suppliers from the exhibit hall this year, is using some of the vacated space for private showrooms. The space is dubbed Area 51, in reference to the U.S. military's secretive base in Nevada.
The growing popularity of private technology shows, coupled with the high cost of exhibition space, caused some high-profile auto suppliers to pull out or reduce their involvement in the show. Companies such as Delphi Automotive Systems Corp. and Visteon Corp. gave up their large exhibits in favor of spending their marketing dollars on private shows and individual customer presentations where proprietary technology can be shared more freely.
'Early on, when we (learned) that one of the first two or three companies decided not to participate, we decided to take the concept to create an opportunity rather than resell the space,' said David Amati, SAE director of professional meetings and activities.
SAE carved out a chunk of the show floor - the former Yazaki Corp. exhibit space - where a limited number of exhibitors can stage private displays or any event of their choosing. The secure space is available on a first-come, first-served basis at no additional cost to exhibitors.
Area 51 will contain four so-called technology preview salons, each about 600 square feet in size. Each Area 51 room is booked by the day, and exhibitors can customize the space and guest list.
As of mid-February, 14 of the 16 slots available were booked by companies ranging from big automotive suppliers to tiny companies with just a small presence in North America. Siemens Automotive Corp. reserved three days, while Delphi took two days.
Delphi joins in
Delphi, the world's largest automotive parts maker, garnered significant attention for giving up its main SAE exhibit space. The company, however, still qualifies for an Area 51 booth by virtue of its participation in the SAE Strategic Alliance Technology Pavilion for products or technologies that address driver distraction.
Delphi intends to use its Area 51 space as a small conference area to give customers a more in-depth look at its mobile communications technology on display in the technology pavilion.
'We want to have the ability to take people into a deeper level of understanding of our plans without being next to our competitors while doing so,' Delphi spokesman Steve Gaut said.
Delphi will share the 2,400-square-foot technology pavilion space with Motorola Corp. and Ford Motor Co. but will have the Area 51 salon to itself. The added private space, however, doesn't erase the concerns some suppliers expressed when reducing their involvement in SAE's show.
'You need to be able to show your most advanced technology in the context of your customer vehicle, so this really doesn't solve the issue of showing your customer that your advanced technology fits their platforms and solves the problems they want to solve in the marketplace,' Gaut said.
Building the brand
Private tech shows and specialized customer presentations still will be the most cost-effective way to make proprietary pitches to automakers, he said.
Another Area 51 participant, D2T America Inc., is the small North American branch of a French engineering and software company.
In D2T's second year at the annual SAE event, the company doubled the size of its exhibit, moved upstairs to the main show floor and snapped up the chance for a day in one of the Area 51 salons. 'The intriguing part is, it gave us the opportunity to introduce some of our new products,' said Richard Lane, D2T America president. The company will make presentations on four new technologies March 7. The introduction of Area 51 saved D2T some money, as the company originally tried to rent a room for those seminars.
Indeed, the new feature offers a lot of value for SAE's small exhibitors that normally can't afford to spend a lot of money on private tech shows, Lane said. Still, suppliers may prefer the private-show route for sensitive material directed at individual customers.
SAE officials continue to explore ways to provide such an experience in future years. Incoming SAE President Neil Schilke has formed a task force to explore how to accommodate suppliers as their roles in engineering vehicles change. Top supplier representatives are involved in that group.
Said Schilke: 'We need to be responsive to those dynamics, and we're trying to do that.'