More than 800,000 people are expected to attend the North American International Auto Show in Detroit this year. But how many of them travel beyond the walls of the convention center?
Soumya Dev made it just outside Cobo Center, where the auto show takes place, to smoke a cigarette. He works on social media for Ford in Bangkok. This is his first time in Detroit. “I haven’t seen much of the city. So far it’s been from the hotel to Cobo Center every day and back to the hotel,” said Dev.
For most of the professionals visiting Detroit the trip isn’t a vacation. It's work. But this Thailand resident said he’ll finally get a little time to explore Detroit after he spends the afternoon checking out auto show exhibits.
“I want to go downtown, and definitely go to Slows," said Dev.
Slows is a nearby barbecue joint that’s been featured in the international press. But locals know it’s not the only restaurant in town. And that’s why more than a dozen people have been hired to be Detroit “ambassadors” at the auto show. Jennifer Ruud is one of them.
“People will say ‘Well, what do you suggest?’ and I say, ‘Well, what are you interested in?’ because there’s so much to choose from,” said Ruud. She’s standing in the lobby area with an iPad in hand. “So, we’re basically helping individuals find their way around Cobo and if they’re interested in going to any place outside of Cobo for dinner or entertainment or anything, we’re kind of helping guide them in that way.”
Ruud estimates she answers around 100 questions a day — including everything from, “Where’s a good place to get a drink?” to, “Can I take an Uber to Canada?” which is just on the other side of the Detroit River. If attendees have a question about the cars inside Cobo Center, she can connect them to industry experts using her iPad.
Ruud and the other ambassadors are being supplied by the Detroit Experience Factory, a local organization that runs a welcome center and employs knowledgeable Detroiters to take people on excursions. There are a couple of tours planned during the show but here at Cobo Center, their staffers are basically just standing around answering questions. So, what’s the big deal?
Jeanette Pierce is the Detroit Experience Factory’s executive director. She says what they’re doing inside Cobo matters because it is a first step to meaningful engagement.
"Some people want to have a deeper conversation, right?” said Pierce. “They might start with, ‘Where can I go for this?’ and then you start talking with them, then they leave with a better understanding of what’s happening in Detroit.”
Michelle Ortali is perusing souvenirs at the Detroit Shoppe inside the convention center. She works with a company in Brazil called Miksom.She’s paused at a display of t-shirts “I’m shopping [for] a t-shirt for my uncle. Because he loves cars, Detroit,” said Ortali.
She decides on a navy blue tee with a logo that’s made to look old. In white and red cracked lettering the shirt reads, “Motor City Detroit, established 1701.”
For Ortali, who hasn’t had time to explore the city, this generic message might be the only thing she’ll take home about Detroit. The hope is that, as the ambassador program continues, more industry professionals will be able to bring home their own personal report from an actual experience with the city.
That is, of course, assuming they have the time.