Auto show makes "fierce competitors from 9 to 5 good friends afterward" No question that in mid- January, Detroit is the place to be if you're an automobile enthusiast. The North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) is the most prestigious auto show in the country and one of the best in the world.

Thank the Detroit Automobile Dealers Association for that.

It was at the Detroit show where Infiniti and Lexus premiered. It was there where Volkswagen unveiled both the new Beetle concept and the production version of the car. Hundreds of other vehicles - concept and production - first caught the public eye in Detroit. This year there will be between 50 and 60 introductions at the big show.

But what is unique about Detroit's international auto show is that it is staged by the auto dealers of metropolitan Detroit. The big auto shows in Frankfurt, Tokyo and Paris are run by manufacturer associations.

When the Detroit Auto Dealers Association (DADA) was created in 1907, it was solely to stage an auto show. DADA's current 250 member dealers get more from their association today, but a primary function still is to put on the Motor City's annual show.

Between 1907 and 1990, the Detroit Auto Show was a regional endeavor. Its only advantage was proximity to the Big Three automakers. In 1991, that all changed.

"A group of dealers, mainly Gordon Stewart, Ken Meade, David Fischer and some other Detroit leadership had an idea that maybe we could do the same type of thing as Frankfurt and Tokyo," recalls Rod Alberts, DADA's executive director. "They didn't know at the time the pent-up need for an event like that."

Thinking about it and executing it are two separate issues, however. Enter Infiniti and Lexus, which decided to make their world introductions at the first NAIAS. The newly minted auto show was off and running.

"It kicked off a series of years of geometric growth that was truly unexpected," says Mr. Alberts. "And in the last 10 years, we've saturated everything from the media days to the supplier days, and our public attendance is up 60% from what we had 10 years ago."

One indication of how big the Detroit auto show has become is media attencredit card debt after Christmas and it really jumpstarts the car sales for the new year. I know in my stores, we see a huge increase in traffic right after the show. I think there's a direct benefit to when we have the show and business falls into place right after that."

The dealers involved in Detroit's auto show have given an eight-year commitment to participate. It begins with committee memberships, then association offices and culminates with co-chairmanship of the auto show. The commitment includes monthly meetings throughout the year and weekly, hours-long meetings in the months leading up to the event.

"If it wasn't for the staff that Mark has at his dealerships and the people I have at mine, we couldn't do this," says Michael P. Savoie, the show's other co-chairman who runs Mike Savoie Chevrolet in Troy, MI. "We have good people and they're covering for us. If they didn't want us to do this, we wouldn't be here."

He adds, "We've had some people who started on the committee and when they saw the commitment, they had to withdraw. It does take some time. It's giving something back to your industry. This is an opportunity to get involved and see what's going on. I've met a lot of great people. Generally, we sort of get line-group focused. This has given me an opportunity to meet a lot of non-Chevrolet dealers. It's been great. There are some great people out there."

Mr. Snethkamp mentions the example of his relationship with Harold Kuhn, a neighboring Lincoln Mercury retailer.

"Harold Kuhn's dealership is a mile away from mine," says Mr. Snethkamp. "Until I sat on this committee, we never had a chance to sit down and talk to each other. We never saw the need to talk to each other. Now, we're fierce competitors from 9 to 5, but good friends afterward. I think that's unique."

Mr. Alberts noticed an esprit de corps develop among these competitive dealers who join forces to put on the auto show.

"There's a really strong unity between the dealers once they get together and travel together," Mr. Alberts says. "We have a lot more dealer involvement than the average auto show around the country."

Working on the auto show is a win-win for the dealers and the event.

"You see the dealers change over the years," explains Mr. Alberts. "At first, they're not public speaking and interviewing. But by the end of the eighth year, there's doing so well that I wish I could keep them around. It's good for them individually and the auto show. It pays off both ways."