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.
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.
“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
- 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.