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CARS Planners Hoping for Rebirth of Event in Detroit

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Dan Risley has a very distinct visual to serve as an example of the recent failures of the Congress of Automotive Repair Service (CARS): Five sheepish repair professionals, alone on an otherwise empty show floor, as a respected industry consultant gave a management seminar to rows and rows of empty seats.

“It was clear we weren’t reaching people with what we were doing,” Risley, the Automotive Service Association (ASA) president and executive director, says of the scene at one of last fall’s 2013 CARS training sessions. “It was pretty clear we needed a whole new direction.”

Once a staple of mechanical repair’s annual trade show lineup, CARS had become an afterthought to the industry, and even to its own event. As the latter half of the NACE/CARS combo that made up what was previously referred to as Automotive Service and Repair Week (ASRW), CARS was often treated as the neglected stepchild to its more prominent sibling, the International Autobody Congress and Exposition (NACE), says ASA chairman-elect Donny Seyfer.

But the ASA wants to change that, as it works to pull the dual-show event back from the precipice of irrelevance. And that change, Risley hopes, starts on July 30 when the 2014 NACE/CARS Expo & Conference begins at the Cobo Center in Detroit.

Under a new leadership team, the ASA event has completely overhauled its approach, putting a stronger focus on developing a true community event for the mechanical and collision repair industries. This year’s show will feature a deeper and broader range of technical and management training, as well as a larger selection of exhibitors.

But the question remains: Will the industry respond?

“Absolutely every single detail of this year’s show is intentional and well thought out,” says Seyfer. “We’ve left nothing to chance. We’ve heard everything everyone has said about our past mistakes, and we’ve taken it all to heart.”

A Steep Decline

The last time the NACE/CARS Expo & Conference topped 20,000 attendees was in 2009, when it was held in conjunction with the SEMA Show in Las Vegas. The show hit an all-time low in 2013 when its return to Las Vegas brought less than 5,000 to the show.

Numbers provided by the Automotive Service Association. 2011 attendance is based on a reported 15 percent increase from 2010. No official numbers were released for 2013, but ASA president and executive director Dan Risley provided an estimate.

 

‘Back to Its Roots’

Seyfer grew up in his parent’s shop, Seyfer Automotive in Wheat Ridge, Colo., and he remembers coming to NACE/CARS year after year.

“The whole thing about CARS was that it was an event that all our guys in the shop could come and all go to training—both technical and management—and we’d get together with other people and network,” Seyfer says. “But [the show] got kind of distracted; we tried to be too many things to too many people and wound up being not much of anything to anybody.”

NACE/CARS used to regularly draw  15,000–20,000 attendees each year, Risley says. In 2013, less than 5,000 came—a fraction of which were on the mechanical side of things.

Instead of making tweaks to regrow the once proud show, the ASA opted for a slash-and-burn approach, completely overhauling NACE/CARS in hopes of a complete rebirth.

The ASA hired a new group to manage the show—Stone Fort Group—and dropped the ASRW brand, simply referring to the event by the NACE/CARS moniker. With Stone Fort’s help, the show has a more sophisticated and modern brand, evident in its new website (naceexpo.com).

The show moved from fall to summer to avoid butting heads with events like The SEMA Show and AAPEX. And it moved to Detroit, after having traditionally been held in Las Vegas. By moving to the Midwest, it allows for easier travel, Risley says: More than 5,000 shops are within a two-and-a-half-hour drive, and Detroit is just four hours by plane from either coast.

And, Seyfer says, that centralized location will help the show “get back to its roots.”

“It’s always been about top-notch training and networking,” he says. “We’re a national show, but we need to draw regionally to be successful. We need to provide what people want, in a convenient way for them to attend.”

Seyfer took the lead on planning this year’s training sessions. There will be a brand-new, two-day symposium geared just for “younger technicians to take the next step in their skill level.” There will be management training from some of the industry’s top leaders, and hours upon hours of technical courses. There will also be a six-hour telematics seminar on the Friday of the show and scheduled tours of OEM facilities and area museums.

The Cobo Center gives NACE/CARS 125,000 square feet of space, 30,000 of which will be dedicated to tool and equipment demos and training.

“They’re letting us do basically anything you can do on a car in that space,” Risley says. “You’re going to see grinding and cutting, and scan tools on running vehicles. These are things we couldn’t have done anywhere else.”

On Even Footing

The long-term goal, Risley says is to get NACE/CARS back to its 20,000-person heyday—and have CARS on an even footing with NACE.

While the show floor is split between the two, many of this year’s exhibitors overlap, he says. After only two vehicle manufacturers attended in 2013, nearly all—both domestic and foreign—have signed up for 2014 with larger spaces that include their parts brands as well.

At time of press, NACE/CARS had already booked 34,000 square feet of booth space to vendors and exhibitors, compared to just 24,000 total in 2013. Risley says that the final count is projected to be closer to 58,000 square feet for 2014. 

And Seyfer and Risley hope this translates to better attendance and a stronger outlook for the show’s future.

“If we don’t easily surpass 10,000 attendees it’ll be a real disappointment,” Risley says. “Some of those decisions caused the industry to pull apart, and everything we do moving forward will be with the goal of bringing it back together.” 

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