By Laurence Iliff
When former Chrysler Corp. President Bob Lutz intentionally drove the first Jeep Grand Cherokee through a plate-glass window at the 1992 Detroit auto show, the media stunt not only generated global headlines but also marked a new era.
Car shows were nearly a century old at the time, but the Chrysler marketing team helped push the perception that the annual expo was a major media event rather than what it always had been — mostly an opportunity for local dealers to get local consumers into shopping mode during January’s winter doldrums.
Fast-forward to the digital age. Even before the event-crushing arrival of COVID-19, auto manufacturers were cutting back on splashy auto show debuts, doubting their bang for their bucks and looking for ways to spark product attention online.
The media hot take in recent years has been to declare that the era of the public auto show is dead.
But nothing could be further from the truth.
All over the U.S., dealer associations and automakers are gearing up for dozens of auto expos in markets as modest as Charleston, W. Va., a metro area of just over 200,000 people, to Orange County, Calif., where more vehicles are sold than in 24 states individually.
Before the coronavirus halted consumer auto shows in March 2020, visitors were still flocking to convention centers and state fairs to comparison shop in what is often a combination of family fun and seat-of-the-pants research.
Foresight Research estimates that 11 million people attended U.S. auto shows during the 2018-19 season. Traditionally, the season has run from September to April. Those attendance numbers had held steady for several years until the pandemic canceled most 2020 events, said the Michigan-based data firm.
Show proponents say the reality of auto expos’ status lies in a difference of definitions. The narrative that the shows are dying is only true if they are defined as media events, say organizers, dealer associations and automakers that are still deeply invested in them. Only a handful of big shows, including Detroit, New York and Los Angeles, have had media-only days to generate industry news before opening to the public.
“Auto shows have had a lot of negative press, starting back with the pullout of the German luxury brands from Detroit” for the 2019 show, said Chris Stommel, president of Foresight Research, which has gathered show data since 2005.
“Some in the press have responded by calling the time of death on auto shows entirely,” Stommel said. “We take a completely different view. Auto shows continue to be an incredibly powerful experiential marketing channel and have not declined in the slightest from the consumers’ point of view.”
In fact, auto shows have a few unique things going for them in the coming months and years. One is the pent-up demand for real-life experiences after much of America has been cooped up trying to stay free of the coronavirus. Planners of events such as auto shows, boat shows and other experiential marketing say they can see demand rising as Americans get vaccinated.
In Minneapolis-St. Paul, consumers are now buying tickets for the Twin Cities Auto Show, which starts Saturday, May 15.
“The presales are right now four times what they would normally be,” said Scott Lambert, president of the Greater Metropolitan Auto Dealers Association of Minnesota, which produces the show. “People are ready to bust out of this pandemic.”
The show moved from its normal March dates at an indoor convention center to an outdoor show at the Minnesota State Fair Grounds in St. Paul. The later date allows more visitors to get vaccinated, and the outside venue favors social distancing and natural ventilation.
Last year, the show was closed after just six days because of the coronavirus outbreak. Lambert said 27 brands out of the usual 33 have returned this year and are adapting to the setting with tents as an alternative to their indoor displays.
The Milwaukee auto show was held last week at the Wisconsin State Fair Park, moving its dates and venue to have a combination of indoor and outdoor activities.
“It’s alive and well in terms of attendance,” said Jim Tolkan, president of the Automobile Dealers Association of Mega Milwaukee. “The automakers bring cars and displays to the show, and we bring people that are going to buy those cars.”
Small town, big event
Organizers stress that regional shows are not about media coverage. They are often major social events for small towns and cities. And they have a natural constituency of dealers, automakers and consumers coming together with products that are otherwise difficult to compare side by side.
“Some of those top-tier shows are media-driven shows,” said DeeDee Taft, who has been doing media promotion of auto shows at her own agency, Spin Communications, for more than 20 years. “The shows that are on a more regional level are designed for those regions. The manufacturer support is super important.”
One big incentive for automakers is that research indicates showgoers will add or subtract brands based on their show experience, said Steve Freeman, who has been producing auto shows for two decades and started his own firm, Steve Freeman Events, late last year.
Foresight Research has been gathering data on auto shows for more than 15 years, focused on how they drive retail sales at dealerships. Here are some key findings.
- The percentage of households attending shows that plan to purchase a new vehicle within 12 months has averaged about 70% over the past 5 years, about double the intention of the general population.
- Show visitors consistently trend younger, more affluent, more multicultural and are more often owners of or intend to own luxury-brand vehicles compared with the general population in the same market.
- Visitors are interested in both entertainment and shopping. About two-thirds are specifically interested in shopping.
- Top messages influencing attendance by order of importance are to: see newly launched vehicles; have fun; comparison shop; see concept cars; learn about new tech features/EVs/AVs.
- Showgoers expect auto shows to allow them to sit in vehicles, find a specific vehicle to experience, see a range of vehicles and find product specialists and printed brochures.
- Future show interests include: more access to ride-and-drive, including simulators; information on EVs/AVs; a variety of information sources, including print, digital and video.