That's the word for the day as America's auto dealers convene in this hobbled city: Catastrophic.
Maybe you won't hear that exact word. But you'll certainly see it written in everyone's eyes. In red ink.
After pinning on your NADA badge, you will get the familiar handshakes of old friends, the fond pats on the back. And for polite reasons, you might not get the question immediately. But it's coming: "OK, how bad is it where you are? ... How bad is your experience?"
What they're really asking you is "Please tell me I'm not in this thing alone." It's like hurricane survivors embracing as they look at each other's ruined houses.
Gary Dilts, head of international operations for J.D. Power and Associates, has been telling dealers in meetings here for the past two days already: "It's not you guys. It's the market."
Automakers lost $70 billion in net revenues in North America last year, he estimates. Six million potential U.S. buyers are now locked in negative equity positions and can't buy anything. Average dealership profits have tanked. Incentive spending is soaring, yet for the first time since anybody began paying attention in 1980, the higher it rises, the lower vehicle sales plunge. The federal government has reduced commercial lending to almost 0 percent, but it's not showing up in the market.
"This is a hard tidal wave to outrun," Dilts says. "How can anybody be expected to make money in this environment?"
J.D. Power is sort of the auto industry's kindly family physician. A few big dealers unburdened their hearts to the company's executives during a private luncheon Thursday at the Astor Crowne Plaza Hotel.
The market has gone from "challenging" to "ugly," they said. Many dealers don't have the cash to stay afloat. Thousands of dealerships will disappear. Moms and Pops and their undercapitalized stores will simply close.
In short, they said, it's catastrophic.
Lindsay Chappell is the mid-south bureau chief for Automotive News