50 Years Of “Car Talk” In Traverse City

For one week every summer for the past 50 years, Traverse City becomes a mini Motor City.

Since its creation in 1965, the Center for Automotive Research’s (CAR) Management Briefing Seminars have been held exclusively in Traverse City  – some 250 miles north of the automotive capital of the world – bringing industry leaders, innovators and researchers from around the country and points abroad to talk shop and the future of the industry.

It was amidst the automotive advances of the early 1960s that the University of Michigan’s Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation initiated a small conference to gather academics and engineers. By 2000, the Center for Automotive Research (CAR) began separating from U of M to become an independent nonprofit research organization. According to Dr. Jay Baron, president and CEO of the Ann Arbor-headquartered CAR, little has changed, however, in the staff, development or execution of the Management Briefing Seminars (MBS) since its inception – and this summer will celebrate its longevity at its 50th gathering.

While it may be that little has changed in the organizational side of the seminars, over the half century the event has blossomed into the preeminent automotive conference in North America with representatives from the state and federal government, manufacturers, suppliers, academia and the media. Today CAR’s MBS is a resume-worthy event, where delivering a presentation is a milestone in the careers of high- ranking employees of companies both domestic and international.

As the industry quickly recognized the significance of the seminars and CAR’s ability to “convene diverse stakeholders,” heavy-hitters such as Sergio Marchionne, Lee Iacocca, and Akio Toyoda joined the event. For the last three years, Governor Rick Snyder has also attended.

WHY TRAVERSE CITY?

In early August, the annual date for the MBS, Ann Arbor is a hot and sticky place. CAR Program Director Brett Smith, whose father was a researcher at U of M and involved with the early conferences, said right away organizers wanted a unique location where attendees could network, cool off and have some fun.

In addition to the in-state stakeholders who may travel “up north” on their own vacations, the seminars introduce cross-country and international travelers to Michigan’s breezy shores.

“There are many times people arrive before their presentations and comment that they never knew it was so beautiful up here,” Smith said. “It’s really an opportunity to show off the state’s beauty and introduce people who may not have come to the area otherwise.”

Grand Traverse Resort Director of Sales, Ryan Buck, echoed that sentiment, “I’ve worked in San Francisco, Miami, Chicago, all over, and Traverse has the best of all those places in one space – without any pretension.”

A PERFECT FIT

 In its early years the seminars moved around Traverse City. Initially held at the Park Place Hotel downtown, it also occupied the Holiday Inn and Northwestern Michigan College. CAR moved the event to the Grand Traverse Resort shortly after the resort opened its doors in 1980, and has continued to return annually without exception.

“I think what’s compelling is this is a high profile event, and the resort has maintained it for thirty years,” said Buck. “We have a great respect for our relationship with CAR, and it’s an event that gets us thinking outside the box.”

Other cities and states have tried to lure CAR away from Traverse City.

“We’ve had offers to move the conference, especially as it has grown in popularity and esteem,” commented Lisa Hart, vice president of operations at CAR, who has been a part of the event since 1984. “But you’d be surprised how few places can offer us everything that Traverse City and the Resort can.”

Initially a two-day conference, the Management Briefing Seminars are now a week-long affair. Ancillary events have developed as CAR-approved companies have added their own exhibitions to the panels and presentations. With up to 30 exhibitions scheduled for 2015, CAR will utilize nearly all of the resort’s 86,500 square feet of meeting space. The group schedules outdoor dinners, social hours and golf scrambles, while companies such as GM often organize private dinners, gatherings, or parties for their attending employees.

BEYOND THE RESORT

Ticket sales for the 2015 seminar are projected to be around $1.5 million. That money, as well as corporate sponsor money, contributes to CAR’s annual budget as well as the resort’s. With the influx of people and currency, the economic impact to the region is extensive.

And while 1,000 attendees are registered, that number doubles when family members and event staff are included in the count. Hundreds of visitors will require hotel rooms outside of the resort. When stakeholders are busy at the seminars, spouses and other family members have enjoyed private lunches at the Wellington Inn’s Tea Room, enjoyed Black Star Farms-hosted wine tours and downtown shopping, or just soaked up the sun on the beach. Seminar scheduling now includes a “Partners Program,” and a representative from Traverse City Tourism begins the week introducing new arrivals to the area.

DRIVING INTO THE FUTURE

Although the Management Briefing Seminars began as a gathering of academics, the wide scope of the event today still exemplifies the original vision. At its heart, the Seminars are about networking and collaboration – and Traverse City has proven an exemplary backdrop for that tradition.

For Brett Smith, “It (TC) is easy to get to but far enough away you don’t feel like you’re at the office. You can enjoy a different frame of mind.”

Added CEO Baron, “We get a lot of feedback about the venue and the atmosphere. We are very cautious about tampering with that success.”

Successful it appears the Seminars will continue to be. Even as manufacturing and production shift among the dominant American, Asian and European markets, CAR’s Seminars has only grown in prestige and popularity. As CAR continues to collaborate with industry, government and academia, so to will they continue to collaborate with Traverse City on the premier automotive conference in North America.

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