DETROIT -- When the auto industry experiences a downturn, so does the Detroit auto show.
That fact was particularly unkind in January, when struggling automakers opted out of the show to conserve their marketing budgets. Attendance fell, too, down to 650,000 from more than 800,000 as recently as 2004.
The 2010 show, Jan. 11-24 at Cobo Center, won't be as grand as some of its predecessors.
Yet organizers are optimistic about a turnaround, expecting a 10 percent rebound in exhibitors from the 2009 show, said Doug Fox, chairman of the event known as the North American International Auto Show. Fifty-four companies have signed up for exhibits so far, up from 50 in 2009, Fox said.
With business travel down sharply and the region's hotels about 50 percent full on average, it couldn't come at a better time, said Michael O'Callaghan, COO of the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Though some of last January's no-shows, including Suzuki and Porsche, aren't coming back, organizers now know what to expect. They are still courting Mitsubishi and Land Rover, Fox said, while Nissan recently signed up to have a small exhibit.
The cancellations for the 2009 show caught them by surprise, said Fox, president of Ann Arbor Automotive and a member of the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, which organizes the 103-year-old auto show. The collapsing economy and news of carmakers fleeing Detroit's auto show made it seem as if “the sky was caving in,” Fox said.
That may have contributed to the lower-than-average turnout, he said, predicting an increase in public attendance this January.
“I'd be very surprised if it were not up,” he said.
The exhibits themselves won't be as extravagant as in years past, but there is a spotlight planned on green technology and the future of the industry. The Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority, which assumed responsibility for Cobo Center earlier this year has begun a $300 million renovation.
The authority has spent more than $3 million so far on projects that include electrical upgrades and repairs to the leaky roof, according to a statement.
Organizers also expect a boost from a larger delegation of U.S. government officials, including a possible visit from a bipartisan congressional delegation during the auto show's industry preview.
Their presence could translate into more media attention and high-profile announcements by carmakers receiving federal funding, Fox said.
“You're going to see significant presentations on the business side from our hometown manufacturers,” Fox said.
The auto show traditionally has hosted officials from the U.S. Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, but twice as many federal employees have sought credentials for the 2010 show, Fox said. Organizers have created a special credential for the 500 expected to attend.
Fox said increased interest among high-level officials presumably reflects a desire to check on the U.S. government's investment in the auto industry, which exceeded $80 billion over the past year.
“It's certainly increased the interest level from the top executives,” he said. “Many people are looking at Detroit as the epicenter of this global recession, so a lot of eyes will be on Detroit on Jan. 11 and for the next 15 days.”
Considering the political importance of the auto industry, Fox said he wouldn't be surprised if President Barack Obama appeared. But presidential visits are typically kept quiet ahead of time, so organizers likely wouldn't know until closer to the auto show, he said.
The increased presence of government officials could offset the continued drop in press attendance. Though more than 6,000 journalists have typically attended each year, organizers expect 5,500 in January -- the same as last year.
Organizers estimate January's auto show will have an economic impact of about $350 million on the region -- down from $500 million in previous years, but still a much-needed boost for businesses that depend on the throngs of visitors every January.
Downtown hotels were blindsided last year by late cancellations, including for blocks of rooms reserved by companies that pulled out of the auto show, said Judy Dufour, director of sales and marketing at the Detroit Marriott Renaissance Center.
Dufour said January was the first time since the hotel became a Marriott in 1998 that occupancy didn't reach 100 percent during the auto show. Occupancy was about 60 percent or 70 percent, she said.
Brenda Veit, a travel consultant employed by the auto show, said requests for accommodations from out-of-towners started slowly this year, though reservations picked up toward the end of November.
“Normally, by now I have talked to a lot more people,” she said. “This year, it's taking them longer to decide who's committed. They're saying, ‘We're coming, we just don't know how many people we're going to send.' When you take the economy into consideration, that's a given.”
Though the Marriott expects to reach full capacity at the start of the auto show this year, it won't get the same revenue because rooms that used to cost about $400 per night are now going for about $250, Dufour said.
Dustin Walsh contributed to this story