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Steven Cole Smith: For auto industry, all roads lead to Orlando
For a couple of weeks, Central Florida will become the center of the automotive universe — for two very different reasons.
Speed Weeks at Daytona International Speedway, starting with the Rolex 24 Hours endurance race this Saturday , through the Daytona 500 on Feb. 14, will draw top executives from the automotive world. Yes, the NASCAR portion includes only Ford, Chevrolet, Toyota and Dodge, but the 24 Hour endurance race and its preliminaries will bring representatives from all over the world, as that series has competitors from almost every manufacturer, from Ferrari to BMW to Subaru to Porsche.
The other draw occurs Feb. 13-15 in Orlando, when the National Automobile Dealers Association annual convention is here. And it should be a fascinating event, given the turmoil in the automotive industry.
Example: General Motors recently announced that it will severely curtail its participation. Why? Depends on whom you believe. GM says it's because of budgetary reasons, and that only a handful of its executives will attend. Really? The AirTran flights I booked to go to the North American International Auto Show earlier this month were $35 each way.
Others suggest it is because GM is miffed at the NADA's role in spearheading federal legislation that requires binding arbitration before the company can dump the 1,300 or so dealers that got their walking papers last year.
Automotive News reports that 168 dealers have already filed for arbitration, with more expected. GM denies any hard feelings against the NADA, but the fact that the company will not have a display, or attend most of the dealer meetings, seems severe and ill-advised. Granted, these are not happy times for GM – between this show and last year's convention in New Orleans, it has effectively killed off Pontiac, Saturn, Saab and likely Hummer, so it isn't as though they wouldn't face some hostile dealers.
Still, at the NADA the show must go on, and it appears it will be as much of a huge support group for surviving dealers as it will be a chance to for liaisons with manufacturers. The organization is going to extreme lengths to attract dealers, by extending the registration deadline to next Wednesday, and providing an "NADA Stimulus Package," which will give each dealer and manager that attends $200 vouchers that can be redeemed for goods and services from any convention exhibitor.
"We're really excited about coming to Orlando," said Stephen Pitt, NADA's executive in charge of the convention. "Registration is ahead of last year, and we may see 15,000 attendees."
Pitt said the scheduling of the convention on the same weekend as the Daytona 500 is causing no problems with housing – "There are plenty of rooms available in Orlando," he said – and he thinks that the race may actually be a draw for some motorsports-minded dealers.
"It's been a tough year for everyone," said John McEleney, chairman of the NADA. "Now it's time to focus on the future. We've got a strong lineup of expert speakers and outstanding workshops. We already have 440 exhibitors and more are signing up every day."
The more than 100 workshops range from "Advance Online Thinking" to "Update on Federal Regulatory Developments Impacting Automobile Dealerships." Speakers include energy magnate T. Boone Pickens, and Mike Jackson, chairman of the Fort Lauderdale-based AutoNation, the country's largest new-car dealer network, with 266 stores. Jackson has taken a controversial stand in favor of a tax that would maintain gasoline at $4 a gallon, making it easier for manufacturers to plan products and dealers to plan inventories. Expect that idea to get a solid airing at the convention.
"This is easily the most important event of the year for dealers and manufacturers," Pitt said. "especially in these economic times. This is really unprecedented – we've never been through a period like this – and this is the sort of event where problems can be solved."
Sentinel Automotive Editor Steven Cole Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 407-420-5699.