The internal discussions that occur at suppliers this time of year must be remarkably similar, from the small, automotive upstarts to the multi-billion dollar Tier 1 systems integrator.

If a company left the Society of Automotive Engineers International Congress & Exposition with some promising business leads, then the annual review of the event is probably upbeat. Plans to return the following year are quickly set in motion.

For some companies, it's not so simple, as answers seem outnumbered by questions: Did enough automaker engineers and purchasing agents see our booth? Was our booth enticing enough without displaying technology our competitors shouldn't see? Should we look for a more focused trade show? What about more private showings for customers? Was it worth our time and money?

Factor in this year's embarrassing fire that kept the show shuttered for several hours on the last day and the justification becomes more difficult for some companies.

The fire destroyed shipping crates for dozens companies and damaged Cobo Center's loading dock. Fire officials had not determined the cause as of mid-March, but officials suggested arson because of other suspicious fires in the city at the time.

Many major companies already have exited SAE (Magna International, Johnson Controls Inc., UT Automotive), and this year's no-shows included LucasVarity plc and T&N plc. LucasVarity made its decision even before TRW Inc. announced plans to buy the company. T&N was bought by Federal-Mogul Corp., which has not been at SAE since 1990. Federal-Mogul's lighting division, which used to be part of the acquired Cooper Automotive, participated in the show, but the company is deciding whether all or part of Federal-Mogul will participate next year.

The next supplier to back out of SAE could be one of the largest exhibitors at SAE, Dana Corp.

A chief engineer at Dana says the company has been debating whether to scale back its presence at SAE or whether to participate at all. It costs Dana about $2 million to build and staff its SAE booth with 50 employees. "We're trying to determine whether to come back," he says.

Dana, like other major suppliers, already communicates often with its OEM customers, so the need to make a big splash at SAE may be superfluous. "If we're not here, we're not sure what we'd lose," he says.Then again, companies don't like to be conspicuous by their absence for fear that it may send an inaccurate message about the company's competitiveness.

Dana left SAE several years ago and returned when OEM customers started asking, 'Why aren't you coming here?'" the engineer says.

Some big players have left SAE because of consolidations. Germany's Kolbenschmidt AG and Pierburg AG had separate booths at SAE. Now they're one company sharing one booth. LucasVarity won't need a booth anymore when it's part of TRW. UT Automotive won't have to consider the question anymore as part of Lear Corp., which exhibits at SAE.

The consolidations and departures have opened up the event to a broader mix of Tier 2 and 3 suppliers. But that's not to say small companies dominate the show.

Delphi Automotive Systems used this year's event to flex its muscles following its successful public stock offering. With the company preparing to separate from parent General Motors Corp., Delphi showed some innovative technologies, including its sensor-driven Advanced Thermal Management HVAC system and the "dry" brake corner module.

Several suppliers rave about this year's event. Diane Actman, marketing services manager for BASF, calls it "the best SAE that we've participated in."Booth traffic for BASF was strong, and the fact that some visitors had nothing to do with automotive was good for a company in so many product lines. "Other industries come to see what's new in automotive, and then they apply those ideas to their industry as well," Ms. Actman says.

Despite this year's fire, SAE says 46,309 people visited the expo, an increase of 200 people over '98. Event organizer Dave Amati of SAE credits greater availability of VIP passes, which exhibitors sent to their customers and made it easier for people to get in free.

Mr. Amati says, and many exhibitors agree, that this year's event was void of the labor difficulties that often complicate construction of exhibits. There were fewer complaints about damaged crates and about union workers at Cobo coasting until overtime kicks in the weekend before the show opens.

After witnessing labor difficulties during the North American International Auto Show in January, SAE began working more closely with the unions and established a good working relationship, Mr. Amati says.

He understands the frustration of some exhibitors at SAE and says the organization is constantly trying to improve the show. Although large suppliers can arrange private showings for OEMs, Mr. Amati says smaller companies still need a show like SAE.

If suppliers are uncertain about whether to participate in SAE '00, they shouldn't stew too long. Most of the show floor will be gobbled up by May.