Detroit ‘Ambassadors’ May Help Auto Show Attendees Get Outside Cobo Center

How someone asking ‘Where is the nearest restroom?’ could benefit Detroit’s reputation.

More than 40,000 professionals attend the North American International Auto Show during the press and industry preview days.  But how many of them travel beyond the walls of Cobo Center?

Laura Herberg / WDET

[Click on the audio player at the top of this post to hear this story.]

Soumya Dev is smoking a cigarette outside Cobo Center. He works on social media for Ford in Bangkok. This is his first time in Detroit.

“I haven’t seen much of the city,” says Dev. “So far it’s been from the hotel to the Cobo Center every day and back to the hotel.”

For most of the professionals visiting Detroit during preview week, the trip isn’t a vacation… it’s work.  But this Thailand native says he’ll finally get a little time to explore Detroit this evening.

“I want to go downtown. And definitely go to Slows,” says Dev.

His friends who have been to Detroit before recommended Slows to him. Nothing against the Corktown barbecue joint, but locals know it’s not the only restaurant in town.  And that’s why more than a dozen people have been hired to be Detroit “ambassadors” at the auto show. Jennifer Ruud is one of them.

Can I Take an Uber to Windsor?

“People will say, ‘What do you suggest?’ and I’ll say, ‘Well, what are you interested in?’ because there’s so much to choose from,” says Ruud. 

She’s standing in the lobby area with an iPad in hand.

“We’re basically helping individuals find their way around Cobo and if they’re interested in going to any place outside of Cobo for dinner or entertainment or anything, we’re kind of helping guide them in that way,” she says.

Ruud estimates she’s answered over 100 questions in her first day and a half, including everything from, “Where’s a good place to get a drink?”… to, “Can I take an Uber to Windsor?”  If attendees have a question about the cars inside Cobo Center, she can connect them to industry experts using the iPad.

The First Step

Planners of the auto show came up with the idea for the ambassadors and helped put together a partnership to bring them to fruition. Ruud and her cohort from the Detroit Experience Factory are being paid by Motor Trend.

The Detroit Experience Factory is a local organization that runs a welcome center and employs knowledgeable Detroiters to take people on excursions. There are a couple of tours planned during the show, but here at Cobo Center, the DEF staffers are basically just standing around answering questions. So, what’s the big deal?

Jeanette Pierce is the Detroit Experience Factory’s executive director. She says what they’re doing inside Cobo matters because it is a first step to meaningful engagement.

“Some people want to have a deeper conversation, right?” says Pierce. “They might start with ‘Where can I go for this?’ and then you start talking with them… then they leave with a better understanding of what’s happening in Detroit.”

More Than a T-shirt Slogan

Michelle Ortali is perusing souvenirs at the Detroit Shoppe inside the convention center. She’s the executive director of an auto company in Brazil called Miksom. She’s paused at a display of T-shirts

“I’m shopping (for) a T-shirt for my uncle… Because he loves cars, Detroit,” explains Ortali.

Ortali decides on a navy blue tee with a logo that’s made to look old. In white and red cracked lettering the shirt reads “Motor City Detroit, established 1701.”

For Ortali, who hasn’t had time to explore the city, this generic message might be the only thing she’ll take home about Detroit. The hope is that as the ambassador program continues, more industry professionals will be able to bring home their own personal report from an actual experience with the city. 

That is, of course, assuming they have the time.

The “Ambassadors” will be available to answer questions next week, as well.  The North American International Auto show opens to the public on Saturday and runs until January 23.



  • Laura Herberg is a Reporter for 101.9 WDET, telling the stories about people inhabiting the Detroit region and the issues that affect us here.