Call it an experiment that didn't work so well.

For years, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) had distributed "VIP passes" for free entry to exhibitors at the annual International Congress & Exposition in Detroit. Exhibitors passed along the passes to customers to draw them to the show in hopes of selling them on some new technology.

Traditionally, companies got the passes for free, but in 1998 SAE started charging $50 per pass after the first hundred, which adds up to thousands of dollars for a large company wanting hundreds more.

As a result, exhibitor companies purchased fewer passes, and many complained that it contributed to less traffic at the show. In addition, a $50 on-site registration fee was instituted for visitors to the '98 show.

After enduring an earful from disgruntled supplier executives, SAE has taken steps to make sure exhibitors have enough free VIP passes. SAE once again has distributed 100 free passes to exhibitors, and this year it has provided exhibitors with a template to print as many extra passes as they want, says SAE spokesman Dave Schwartz.

"We listen to our customers," he says.

The move will save SAE significant printing costs and should boost attendance. One supplier executive says his company printed four times as many passes this year as it usually received in the past. For the few who can't get a VIP pass, the on-site registration fee has been reduced to $40 from $50 last year.

Bob Oswald, president, chairman and CEO of Robert Bosch Corp. and this year's general chairman for the SAE event, is pleased that the policy was reversed. "Removing silly impediments hopefully will make a difference," he says.

Despite the perception of reduced foot traffic, SAE reports that attendance was up last year to 46,100, from 45,180 in 1997. Another significant issue, however, may have been responsible for the increase in attendance: the number of exhibiting companies was up to a record high of 1,400, from 836 in 1997.

Mr. Schwartz says the number of exhibitors at this year's event is expected to be around 1,100, mainly because exhibitors want more space. About 80 companies were on a waiting list as of early February in the event more space opens up at Cobo Center, he says.

With the availability of more passes, Mr. Oswald says he expects this year's event to be a big success. By the end of January, 14,000 attendees had already registered for the show, compared with 9,000 at the same time last year, he says.

One noteworthy aspect of this year's show is its sponsorship. German-owned Robert Bosch Corp. is the first company with a non-U.S. headquarters to host the SAE show, Mr. Oswald says. Ford Motor Co. hosted last year.

The 1999 show is the sixth consecutive sell-out and the venue includes 90% of the top 25 suppliers in the world. The stable includes 50 first-time exhibitor companies and is expected to draw more than 50,000 attendees to exhibitions and 230 technical sessions.

Among the highlights Mr. Oswald expects to be big draws are sessions on fuel cells, design and engineering for the environment and future powertrains.

Other noteworthy events, all at Cobo Center:

n Jacques Nasser, president and CEO of Ford Motor Co., will speak at the SAE annual banquet, which begins at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 4.

n The SAE '99 Blue Ribbon Panel will tackle the issue of "Value For Our World: The Innovation Challenge" 4 p.m. Monday, March 1.

n Johnnie Cordell Breed, chairman and CEO of Breed Technologies Inc., will speak Wednesday, March 3, at the engineering/management luncheon.

Ronald K. Leonard, 1998 SAE president, says SAE continues to increase its global presence. As an illustration, he says more than 2,000 non-North Americans sit on SAE technical committees.

Mr. Leonard says the No.1 issue globally among engineering members is environmental responsibilities.

"Wherever I go in the world, it's an issue," he says. "Yes, there's some regulatory reasons, but also there is human impetus. (The message is) 'We have to do something.' Not just 'We should do something.'"