Who’s the fairest of them all?

A debate swirls about which city has the biggest and best auto show in North America, and even the world.

Some think it is Detroit’s North American International Auto Show. It has a Motor City location, generates worldwide buzz and tallies major unveilings over the years. Staged by the Detroit Automobile Dealers Assn., the annual event typically features the most worldwide production and concept vehicle debuts, 71 this year.

“Detroit is the most influential show in the world now,” says Jeremy Anwyl, vice chairman at Edmunds.com in Santa Monica, CA. He attends about 12 national and overseas shows a year, including the big ones in Europe and Asia.

Detroit was “the center of gravity of the auto industry” and in ways still is, Anwyl believes. “Detroit is a true international show. It gets more credentialed media (5,212 in 2013) than any other show,” he says. 

“It’s symbolic and shorthand for the industry, and it’s nice to have that urban grit Detroit provides.”

Nationwide, there are 106 auto shows, including smaller and regional venues. The big four in the U.S. are Detroit, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Washington is up-and-coming, industry watchers say, because of increased automotive policy and government regulations. The capital’s show and related conferences tap into those issues. The government bailout of General Motors and Chrysler in 2009 also shifted weight to the Washington auto show.

The 2013 New York International Auto Show at the sprawling Jacob K. Javits Center attracts the biggest public attendance. Going on right now, it is expected to draw more than 1 million visitors.

Unveilings during two days of press previews before the public part of the show opened center on luxury vehicles. But the show itself features about 1,000 vehicles of all shapes and sizes, notes Mark Schienberg, president of the Greater New York Automobile Dealers Assn., the organization that stages the event.

“You can’t pigeonhole New York,” he tells WardsAuto. “It’s a consumer show and it’s a trade show. With 60 worldwide introductions, it’s big business. With the world car of the year, automotive forums and Wall Street collaboration, it’s a hybrid event.” 

Auto makers and dealer organizations work hand-in-hand to stage auto shows such as New York’s.

“We really are a factory show, but dealers own it,” Schienberg says. That means auto makers supply most of the funding, but dealers handle marketing and organization.

Auto shows are seen as a good way to get consumers interested in buying a new car. In a New York dealer association consumer exit survey, as many as 48% of showgoers say they intend to buy a vehicle within a year. 

Many of them say they changed their minds about product choices after touring the show. That means the event is providing people with information and a chance to weigh options, Schienberg says.

“We see a lot of intenders at this show,” says Lou Giordano, owner of Croton Auto Park in Westchester, NY, and former GNYADA chairman.

“Good times are back again,” he says. “We’re happy to be employing people and profitable again. We’re ready for the spring market when sales pick up.”

A knock against the Detroit show had been its venue. The Cobo Center, the city’s convention facility, was showing some wear and tear, and seemed not quite big enough to accommodate an auto exhibition of Detroit’s scope.

But Cobo currently is undergoing a $300 million renovation and expansion project. “We’ve got a great jewel in the Detroit show and want to keep it here,” Rod Alberts, executive director of the Detroit Auto Dealers Assn., tells WardsAuto.

“It’s a huge economic impact on a global stage every year,” he says of the January event. “It’s one week long in the public eye, but it takes months and months to prepare.”

Alberts describes his dealer group as the show’s producer, with cars and auto makers as the stars. The show pumps about $365 million into metro Detroit’s economy, he says.

Half the Cobo expansion went into extra amenities and space, things people don’t necessarily think about but experience, Alberts says.

The auto show could use more space, “but it would be foolish to build too big and be empty much of the year,” he says. “Detroit needs 25 or so of these big exhibitions at Cobo. Then you’ve got yourself a real city.”

This year’s event attracted 795,416 attendees, nearly a record. “Attendance was the highest since 2004, when we were just over 800,000,” says spokesman Marc Harlow. “Among the North American shows, this is big, but not all of the shows release attendance figures, so it’s hard to make the call which is the biggest.”

Which show is the biggest depends on what’s measured, he notes. “The qualifiers have more to do with importance or impact on the industry.”

Chicago’s auto show lays claim to being the largest in size because it is held at the giant McCormick Place on the city’s south side. The event is staged by the Chicago Automobile Trade Assn., billed as the oldest and largest metropolitan new-car dealer trade organization in the U.S.

Dealer Jim Seavitt of Village Ford in Dearborn, MI, is the 2013 chairman of the Detroit auto show.

“The thing that makes the Detroit show unique is that it’s fully owned by dealers,” he says, noting that a show day is set aside exclusively for dealer invitees to roam the floor. “Our show is the show to attend.”

During the public days, many auto makers award hefty bonus-cash coupons to customers. That picks up sales in an otherwise slow month. Seavitt’s dealership, for example, sold 200 vehicles after the show, one of its best Januarys in years. About 35 sales were show-related, he says.

Alberts attends about 12 national and overseas shows a year. He just returned from South Korea and visits Shanghai this month. He spends much of his time checking out the competition.

“I don’t take anything lightly,” he says. “Like the Super Bowl, we take each year as a new year.”