11 PR/Marketing Takeaways from CAR MBS 2019

The 54th edition of the Center for Automotive Research’s Management Briefing Seminars held in Traverse City in early August fulfilled its mission: Engaging nearly 1,000 stakeholders representing automakers, suppliers, startups, media, government, and academia in frank discussions on the auto industry’s commitment to change, across the spectrum of technology, strategy, mobility, policy, and manufacturing issues.

Just as the auto industry is evolving and changing dramatically, so is CAR MBS. And those changes may impact the way PR and marketing professionals leverage their participation at this annual meeting of the automotive minds.

Here are 11 takeaways from CAR MBS 2019 to consider:

Shorter format seemed well-received. Compressing the event that at one time ran for 4-1/2 days (and more recently to 3-1/2 days) down to 2-1/2 days seemed to work well for most attendees. Session attendance was strong, and on the last half-day, which in the past often experienced sharp drops as many registrants left early to head back home, the conference room stayed full.

Networking abounds. One of the key reasons registrants offer for attending MBS is to take advantage of the many networking opportunities available throughout the conference, as relationships are extremely important in the auto industry. Being able to interact face-to-face informally and meet new contacts in a relaxing, pleasant setting by itself makes this conference worthwhile.

The content is shifting. It’s clear that MBS is not the same old same old. As the industry changes, Carla Bailo and her team at CAR are shifting the conference content to better align with the future. This year, there was more focus on topics such as smart cities and cybersecurity, and less on more topics such as manufacturing, quality and operations that were staples of the event in years past. The annual Powertrain Forum evolved this year into two strong sessions on vehicle electrification. And to cap off the event, a live-streamed panel moderated by Autoline host John McElroy and featuring Carla Bailo, CAR President & CEO; Bank of America Merrill Lynch auto analyst John Murphy; and Jada Smith, VP for supplier Aptiv; that summarized meeting highlights. (View panel here.)

More diversity of opinions. The list of presenters seemed to include many people from outside the auto industry – everything from start-ups, technology firms and government to Hollywood. Also this year, nearly one-third of all presenters were women, reflecting the growing role of female executives in the industry. The wide range of presenters provided broader perspective and new insights, encouraging attendees to think about the industry in new and different ways – which is key for a major conference like MBS.

Less automaker participation this year. There were no C-level automaker executives speaking, and perhaps because of that, seemingly fewer OEM representatives attending (about 5% of the industry audience were automaker employees). One factor could be that this is a UAW bargaining year, when automakers tend to lay low to avoid antagonizing union members. Another factor may be that MBS’s timing didn’t align with automakers’ planned timing for announcements of major initiatives this year. We would expect to see OEM participation bounce back to higher levels in 2020 and beyond.

More new people. As Silicon Valley and Detroit begin to work more closely together, there seemed to be an influx of more representatives from software and data companies, technology companies, strategy consultants, and regional business development agencies at this year’s MBS. This reflects the growing importance of technology; the trends toward electrification, automated driving and connected cars; disruption of the supply chain and the emergence of new supplier business models, and increasing competition to attract investments in new facilities and plants.

Fewer working journalists. As the ranks of journalists continues to shrink across the country, this trend was evident at MBS as well, with media registration down about 15% from 2018. Still, for those companies offering news at MBS, there were lots of interview and media opportunities, with some 50 interested journalists hustling to cover the event. These reporters represented most of the top trades, wires services and business media outlets … yet disappointingly, not the Detroit daily newspapers. And as reporters indicated that there was little breaking hard news at MBS this year, this provided suppliers more potential opportunities to connect their executives with reporters at MBS.

Calmer media center. Due to the lower number of working journalists, and the shift by PR people toward online media materials (rather than hard copy), the MBS media center was less cluttered, less noisy and less frantic than in recent history – allowing the working journalists a more productive working environment. And for the first time in many years, PR Newswire, long a mainstay service in the media center, was not present.

Interesting technology demonstrations. This year, several suppliers demonstrated their advanced technologies in exhibition areas around the conference, including Continental with its intelligent door concept, Veloldyne with its LIDAR/ADAS demonstration vehicle, and AEye with its own LiDAR demonstration. For suppliers wanting to expose their technology to thought leaders, this venue offers many opportunities for informal demonstrations and test drives.

Show dailies thrive. Both Automotive News and WardsAuto produced show daily newspapers at MBS again this year, and both were chock-full of MBS and supplier-related coverage. WardsAuto issues featured 20 pages each, while Automotive News issues ran 24 pages each, providing lots of potential media coverage opportunities for PR people who planned ahead.

Strong student participation. Building upon previous year totals, some 35 students attended MBS this year, interacting with industry veterans and giving attendees a glimpse of the employees in the industry’s future. Students came from Focus: HOPE, Central Michigan University, Kettering University, Lawrence Technical University, Macomb Community College, Michigan State University, University of Michigan, Michigan Technological University, Oakland University and Wayne State University. And for the younger students who accompanied their parents to MBS, Cooper Standard provided a two-hour STEM activity to help get students excited about science, technology, engineering and math-related careers.

Overall, participating in CAR MBS is well worth an automotive or mobility supplier’s consideration. CAR offers a wide and ever-growing range of sponsorship and visibility opportunities that can help companies introduce or differentiate themselves, demonstrate technologies, or share thought leadership.

As the automotive mobility industry changes with new entrants, the reorganization of the supply chain, and the trends toward electrification, automated driving, connected vehicles and ride-sharing, events like MBS, where ideas are exchanged freely and people can develop closer relationships, are more important than ever.

Next year’s event is slated for August 4-6, 2020. To learn more or to sign up for updates, visit

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