Taking the Detroit auto show international has meant a big boost for Southeast Michigan's economy.
Rebranding the show as the North American International Auto Show in 1989 and attracting foreign news media has bolstered local businesses, said Rod Alberts, executive director of the Detroit Auto Dealers Association and the NAIAS.
The 2014 show is expected to create an economic impact of $380 million to $395 million, said David Sowerby, portfolio manager for the Bloomfield Hills, Mich., office of Loomis, Sayles & Co. and NAIAS' economic analyst.
Since 1989, the show has generated an estimated $9.7 billion to $10.1 billion in economic impact to the area, Sowerby said.
Sowerby calculates the impact figure in an equation that factors the health of the economy, travel budgets for families and companies, and industry indicators such as new-model launches, sales and capital spending.
"Going international meant we had to make sure we had the media," Alberts said.
"That upped the ante for companies that didn't sell that much product in the Detroit region. It really took away the concept of market penetration and made it more about media coverage."
Media coverage has grown from 200 regional reporters in the 1980s to an expected 5,500 from 65 countries in 2014.
Not only does that mean more business for local hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues, but the increase in coverage has led to increased investment in the show from automakers, suppliers and vendors, Alberts said.
Toyota and Nissan headlined the first NAIAS by launching their Lexus and Infiniti luxury brands. With the economy rolling throughout the 1990s, robust car sales propelled Detroit's auto show to new heights.
"The strong economy was the primer for upward growth in the 1990s," Alberts said. "The stars aligned a bit, and that's when [automakers] started coming in with big displays."
David Stubbs, CEO of exhibit maker H.B. Stubbs Cos. in the Detroit suburb of Auburn Hills, started working the show in 1989. He was the third-generation Stubbs in the family business.
Stubbs said the vehicle displays and exhibits of old were basic in architecture and design. With the attraction of global media and a growing show, the exhibits rose in both price and size.
Displays "are going higher and taking longer," Stubbs said. "Real money is being spent during press week, and everything is becoming much more sophisticated."
Alberts guessed that as much as $200 million would be spent on displays this year.
Stubbs said modern displays feature flowing curves to mimic the cars. But the main attraction that generates big spending is the "experience," he said.
"Now the technology is more focused on the consumer, to help their engagement -- what they take away from the show, and helping people understand the product as well as to experience the product," Stubbs said.
"Auto shows are a sales environment. It's one of the measurable influencers of preference, and what drives customers to the showrooms."
As many as 75 Stubbs employees worked on 2014 exhibits, including supplier ZF Friedrichshafen's booth.
Alberts said building the show's exhibits begins around Halloween, with hundreds of workers.
"The economic impact is a staggering benefit that happens over a two-month period," Alberts said. "Nobody in 1988 said, 'Let's build an international show so we have $390 million in economic impact.' But the byproduct of this show is a great opportunity that most cities aren't lucky enough to have."