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Automakers go all out at show

Exhibitors prove they’re not afraid to spend big bucks

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DETROIT — Lean times may be causing carmakers to cut costs, reduce staff and reconsider plans for new products, but the checkbook's open for their displays at the auto shows.

The season's first show, in Los Angeles, is under way and media preview days begin Sunday for the biggest, the North American International Auto Show. As the displays indicate, austerity still takes a back seat when the issue is catching public attention.

General Motors Corp.'s exhibit in Detroit, for example, is a kind of show within a show: It covers 180,000 square feet and has offices, two elevators and a sound stage.

Chuck Fortinberry, president of the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, which sponsors the Detroit exhibition, put the cost of displays at about $300 million — "not including cars and carpets."

While U.S. and foreign vehicle sales figures reported Thursday showed 2001 was the second best year in history, when earnings numbers are released later this month, they're expected to show depressed earnings because of the high costs of incentives such as zero-percent financing.

So some people involved in the show had expected more cost-consciousness.

"I was surprised to see so many new displays, with the economy the way it is," said Dominic Silvio, president and CEO of Exhibit Works, a leading exhibit display supplier.

Still, if image is important — and it really is — then spending on displays makes sense, he said. "Detroit is THE show because it gets the international press in, and you want to impress them."

It's Detroit's 14th year of offering an international show, and it has evolved way beyond the concept of sliding a few cars onto patches of carpet, slapping up a logo and laying out some stacks of brochures.

The automakers each are spending upward of $15 million to $20 million, installing features that include theaters, hospitality areas, executive offices and elevators, Silvio said.

Some of the latest trends include large video screens and video games to give the kids whose parents dragged them along something to do, said Silvio.

Exhibit Works, headquartered in Livonia, Mich., built the multilevel Ford Motor Co. exhibit that debuted four years ago to oohs and ahhs because of its size and escalator. It's been refurbished each year since then.

Silvio says four years is the average life of a display, although no decision has been made yet on whether the Ford layout will be replaced.

Japanese automakers traditionally erected much more modest displays, but the competitive pressure has caused them to get in the game.

"You walk the floor and the Asians are all big-time players now," said Fortinberry.

Including costs associated with the show's construction and dismantling, Comerica Bank chief economist David Littmann predicts a record $509.1 million boost to the Detroit area, surpassing last year by almost $10 million.

Security at Cobo Center will be tighter than ever in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, organizers say.

Private security personnel have been increased 30 percent and will be working more closely with local and federal law enforcement agencies. All media and members of the public will be subject to search before being allowed to enter the show floor or other special events associated with the show.

The show is open to the public from Jan. 12 through Jan. 21 at the city's Cobo Center. A traditional black-tie charity preview is Jan. 11 and costs $350 per person. Last year, about 17,500 people attended, raising more than $6.1 million for 11 Detroit-area children's charities.