The auto industry got a glimpse of what could be the future for the Society of Automotive Engineers World Congress, and to a lot of observers, it didn't look so bad.

A more open floor plan due to the departure of several major Tier 1 suppliers made for easy navigating through the show floor. There were fewer distractions.

One could argue that the focus shifted back to engineering innovation in the technical sessions upstairs at Cobo Center because there were fewer reasons to walk the show floor. A few observers suggested attendance in some tech sessions was heavier than expected.

As for journalists, instead of covering a series of press conferences (several were canceled), they used SAE to report on trend stories and had time to learn about unfamiliar companies.

That's the “half-full” perspective on the 2001 Congress.

There was the normal grousing from some exhibitors that their booth visitors were more likely to be students than purchasing agents. A few big Tier 1 suppliers suggested that the departure of some of their competitors was just fine with them. Still, several others said losing the likes of Delphi Automotive Systems and Visteon Corp. took some of the sizzle out of the show and consequently hurt attendance.

And some journalists found the event of questionable news value because of the lack of major press conferences from departees TRW Inc., DuPont Automotive, Lear Corp. and ArvinMeritor Inc. One European journalist who has been attending the Congress for many years said this may be his last.

It's true that more than 20 major suppliers pulled their booths from this year's Congress, but their withdrawal may not be permanent. Several say they hope to come back as exhibitors, and most had engineers who presented technical papers.

And some of the departees found creative ways to still have a presence on the show floor, despite not having a major exhibit.

DuPont Automotive gave up its prime spot on the show floor, but DuPont still had a small booth for its Krytox Performance Lubricants.

Hayes Lemmerz International Inc. did not exhibit at the show, but it held a press conference through one of its partner companies, Epilogics Group, an exhibitor. Hayes, a wheel producer, talked about its new Kuhl Wheel concept, which uses offset spokes to produce a wheel that is 20% lighter than a conventional steel wheel. Hayes Lemmerz developed Kuhl Wheel under an exclusive license with Epilogics.

Delphi carried on almost as if it was an exhibitor.

It was one of several companies displaying technologies at a booth sponsored by the SAE Strategic Alliance Group, which is focused on driver-distraction issues. Separately, Delphi showed its Quadrasteer system on the “Smart Truck” concept displayed at the National Automotive Center military booth.

Delphi also held a media reception at a downtown Detroit hotel on Monday night and another media party in nearby Royal Oak later in the week. At the show itself, Delphi presented nine technical papers, distributed press kits and on Monday reserved one of four private technology salons on the show floor.

SAE created the four salons — dubbed “Area 51” after the government's highly secretive Southwest testing grounds — for exhibitors who need additional space for displaying proprietary technology to customers away from the prying eyes of competitors.

There were four rooms (with privacy walls about 7-ft. tall) clustered together in the middle of the show floor, and a different company reserved each one on each of the four days.

D2T America Inc., a Clinton Twp., MI, company that produces software packages for automotive test cells for suppliers and OEMs, invited 200 people to its Area 51 salon on Wednesday and had only six visitors.

“We were very disappointed with Area 51,” says D2T spokeswoman Linda Schwarm. The idea was good because her company needed space for a projector, but getting people to visit was extremely difficult.

“I even walked around and tried to get people to come by, and I tried to perk their interest by telling them what we would show,” Ms. Schwarm says. “It seems like a lot of our customers didn't even come to the show.”

Despite Area 51, Ms. Schwarm says her company is pleased with its experience at the Congress, and that a bigger booth may be necessary next year.

At presstime, final attendance figures were unavailable, but SAE's David Amati estimates that international and OEM attendance should be up 3% over last year, when 49,200 people attended the Congress.

Mr. Amati says he left the Congress with a positive impression, and that it's OK if the show focuses on Tier 2 suppliers and below, rather than the Tier 1 megasuppliers.

“We will still ask the Tier 1s to exhibit and, more importantly, to send people down to look at the opportunities with the Tier 2 and 3 companies,” he says. “We see that as the new focus.”