Attendance at this year's Society of Automotive Engineers World Congress in Detroit was disappointing. For the first time since 1993, fewer than 40,000 people attended the world's largest gathering of automotive engineers.

This year's crowd of 37,233 was off a full 14% from the 2001 attendance of 43,301, which reflected a 12% drop from the prior year (49,249). The event had 1,000 exhibitors, down from 1,193 in 2001. Can SAE 2003 sustain another 12% drop in attendance and remain a viable event?

Clearly, SAE leadership wants to reverse the trend. “I expect that we won't lose any more attendance next year,” says Dave Amati, SAE Professional Meetings Group Director. “If we can get a couple Tier 1 suppliers to come back in some manner, they will help draw a lot of customer base as well.”

But Amati sees a silver lining in the dark cloud hanging over the event. “We changed the audience profile back to what the Tier 1s say they need,” he says. “We had to increase OEM attendance and deliver more engineers who are looking to specify product. We have done that.”

In other words, fewer people are coming to SAE, but it's the right people. OEM attendance at the Congress has waned for several years, prompting the biggest Tier 1s to pull their booths over the past two years.

A more detailed analysis of SAE attendance is in the works, but Amati says he's convinced the Big Three sent more engineers to the '02 show — and the well-attended technical sessions — than in past years.

Ford Motor Co. traditionally sends the most people to SAE, and that attendance may have been bolstered by Ford's role as host for this year's Congress. Ford sent out four internal communications encouraging engineers to visit the Congress. It didn't hurt that SAE granted OEM engineers free admission to the exhibition for the second year in a row.

Because of this improved OEM attendance, Amati says he is “optimistic” about his discussions to win back some of the Tier 1 suppliers. “We're getting some really good feedback from the leadership in those companies,” he says. Some 72% of visitors to the Congress did not work for exhibiting companies, and Amati says most of those visitors work for auto makers and Tier 1 suppliers.

But SAE isn't offering cut-rate admission to Tier 1s. Floor space sold for $23 per square foot (0.09 sq.m) the past few years and will remain the same for the '03 Congress. Amati considers it a bargain compared to the rates paid for some computer industry shows.

Co-locating in the lower level of Cobo Center was SAE's telematics conference, jointly sponsored with the Consumer Electronics Assn., dubbed Digital Car, which Amati considers such a success that SAE wants more integration of telematics in future Congresses (see story, p. 34).

Read on for the news gathered by Ward's editors at SAE this year.