The auto show is back with less brilliance as automakers change tactics

Detroit opened its first auto show since the coronavirus pandemic began last week, and the subdued show illustrated how automakers are changing the way they market cars and trucks.

More and more car manufacturers are skipping shows and unveiling fewer products to them, with less glitz. While Jeep unveiled a plug-in hybrid version of its Grand Cherokee on Wednesday climbing a two-story-high indoor track, 30 years ago the company drove one up the steps of the convention center and through a pane of glass.

The board to exhibit at a show reaches into the millions, and automakers, especially luxury brands, are choosing to advertise their products instead at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the Texas state show, or via a virtual launch. Frankfurt held its last show in 2019 and the Geneva International Motor Show has stated that it won’t hold another event until next year, so in Qatar, not Switzerland.

However, U.S. consumer participation in auto shows is bouncing back as the pandemic ebbs, and proponents say they still represent a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for automakers – a place where potential buyers pay to be marketed.

“This is gold,” said Dan Bedore, an industry consultant who worked in communications for Ford and Nissan. “People would kill for that in other businesses. . . The death of the auto show is exaggerated. ”

But he added, “the decline is certainly real”.

Auto shows originated from 19th-century industrial exhibitions and bicycle shows. The first US all-car show was staged in 1900 at New York’s Madison Square Garden.

The shows have spread throughout the United States and today a “season” of over 60 shows runs from October to May, punctuated by major exhibitions in Los Angeles, New York and Detroit.

The Detroit show climbed the international charts in 1991 following a rebranding as the North American International Auto Show. Held in January, a month in which many automakers released new models, the number of launches peaked in 2004 at 70, with public attendance peaking at 811,000 a year earlier.

Automotive executives flew to the opening of the shows to speak at 20-minute press conferences with reporters, usually leaving before the floor was open to the public. Manufacturers have competed to outdo each other with lavish exhibits, which can cost more than $ 10 million to design and build.

Executives began to wonder why they were spending so much to compete with other companies for media coverage, said Chris Stommel, president of Michigan Foresight Research firm.

Jaguar Land Rover, Volvo and Mazda skipped the 2018 show, followed a year later by Mercedes-Benz and BMW. The companies argued that the Michiganders’ loyalty to US automakers made it too difficult to break the market, Stommel said. Their absence prompted others to reconsider their participation, and “then it just started snowing”.

The first large-scale auto show in the United States was held in New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1900 © ISC Archives / CQ-Roll Call Group / Getty Images

Covid-19 has devastated consumer participation in the shows and introduced a nerve-wracking uncertainty into the multimillion-dollar process of launching a new vehicle in one. Automotive executives feared that supply chain disruptions could derail a presentation or an auto show could be canceled, as happened with the 2021 New York show. At the same time, they realized that the launches online could still generate media coverage.

Auto shows once measured their relevance by the number of products that manufacturers debuted there. There were six in Detroit this year, down from dozens in the aughs. Car manufacturers can only tolerate so much ambiguity “before they give up and do something else,” Bedore said.

Matt O’Mara, executive vice president of Czarnowski, a Texas-based company that designs and builds auto exhibits, said he runs the same amount of business, but auto manufacturers, especially luxury brands, are redirecting the their expenses. They want to produce an event where they are the only headliner, or appear in places suitable for the rich, like Pebble Beach’s Concours d’Elegance, where a ticket costs $ 525.

“Every luxury carmaker has the same problem: they have a champagne taste and a beer budget,” he said. As fewer people buy luxury cars, brands control lower marketing budgets, prompting automakers to spend dollars “in goal-rich environments.”

While luxury car buyers are more likely to visit auto shows, Stommel said, they are the high-volume brands that attended the shows most frequently held during the truncated 2021-22 season. About half of 35 car brands have appeared in 17 shows or more.

This year’s exhibit space was dominated by the General Motors family of brands, totaling 75,000 square feet; Stellantis at 85,000; and Ford and its luxury brand, Lincoln, at 64,000.

Stommel’s research shows that before the pandemic, the 56 largest auto shows in the United States attracted a total of 11 million people each season. Thirty-five of these shows took place last season – 63% of the whole – and attracted around 5.5 million people, or half of the pre-pandemic attendance.

The changing nature of auto shows can be seen in GM’s presentation of its Chevrolet Equinox. Marketed as an electric sports utility vehicle for the masses, the company launched it a week before the Detroit show. But when consumers arrive at Huntington Place, an Equinox will be parked on the carpeted floor with a product specialist nearby to explain the technology to visitors without drifting away.

Those specialists are the corporate descendants of the “spin and grin girls” of the 1980s, who showed cars on turntables but couldn’t talk about them. Many are employed by the talent agency Productions Plus, headed by President Hedy Popson. Just as the work of staff members has changed over the past decade to emphasize the product experience over glamor – “This isn’t where competition queens die,” auto shows are changing too.

The agency’s business is back to roar this year, Popson said, but now automakers are focusing less on generating news coverage and more on educating and entertaining the public.

“Saying the auto show is dead is like saying the state show is dead,” Popson said. “It might attract a different audience and for different reasons, but I don’t think it will ever go away.”

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