Auto Shows Need to Reinvent Themselves

Auto show organizers better rethink their format. Automakers are voting with their feet. Unless they figure out how to make these shows more relevant they’re going to fade into the sunset.

John McElroy, Columnist

April 13, 2016

5 Min Read
Auto Shows Need to Reinvent Themselves

Auto shows are in danger of becoming irrelevant. Automakers spend millions on their exhibits but are finding they are not getting the kind of return they did in the past. And so they’re starting to turn to other venues instead.

The biggest problem is there are simply too many. The International Organization of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers, better known by its French acronym OICA, lists 18 officially recognized international shows. That’s more than one a month. In the U.S. and Canada there are 64 auto shows. That’s more than one a week.

For the public, these shows can be fun and interesting. But for the manufacturers it’s become too expensive and ineffective to attend them all, and so we’re starting to see them skip some altogether, even the big ones.

Jaguar, Land Rover, Mini, Bentley and Tesla skipped the North American International Auto Show in Detroit this year. Mazda, Ford and Volvo already announced they’re going to skip the Paris show this fall. The auto show in Leipzig, the second-largest one in Germany, was cancelled earlier this year. Thirteen of the 22 automotive exhibitors abruptly dropped out.

The format for these shows isn’t very effective in today’s connected world. Pretty much every new vehicle being unveiled has been shown to the media weeks before the show. Automakers know journalists simply don’t have the time to learn much about a new model at a car show because there are so many press conferences. So they give them all the information ahead of time.

Even so, the media days are pure bedlam. The press conferences start early in the morning and run back-to-back until the end of the day. At the Frankfurt auto show, for example, a new press conference starts every 15 minutes. They are scattered about in 10 different buildings spread across 23 acres (9.3 ha). It is a physical impossibility to attend them all.

Unless you arrive 20 minutes before the press conference starts, you’ve pretty much lost your chance of getting a seat or being able to see the stage and the vehicle being unveiled. Each press conference is jam-packed, mainly by employees who work at that automaker, consultants and suppliers who want to get a contract with that automaker, and by competitors who want to learn what the competition is up to. The media probably is in the minority.

Even though each auto show brags it has 5,000 or 8,000 or 12,000 media attending, that’s an exaggeration. I doubt there are more than 1,500 full-time legitimate automotive journalists in the world.

Each press conference is a predictable affair. Loud pop music blares from speakers. Then the voice of God introduces a suit who walks onto the stage and reads from a teleprompter. Finally the speech ends, a loud music video thunders onto the screens and it all builds to a crescendo when a new car rolls onto stage. Half the audience then storms the stage to get a closer look while the rest hurry off to another press conference.

There’s always a second day of press conferences, but all the automakers want to be in Day One, believing they’ll otherwise lose the big crowds. There’s some truth to that.

Sometimes a car company keeps a new model secret and springs it on the media at the show. Almost without exception these hidden surprises are heralded as “the hit of the show.” The media loves these kinds of surprises.

On rare occasions a car company will have a truly entertaining introduction. They’ll have a great band, a headline entertainer or some kind of theatrical presentation. Chrysler used to be famous for stunts like crashing a Jeep through the glass front lobby at the Detroit show. Everyone made sure they were there firsthand to see how Chrysler could possibly top last year’s spectacle.

Overshadowed by Consumer Electronics

As more consumer electronics make their way into cars, auto shows are starting to lose business to technology shows. Worse, automakers now are holding back some of their coolest technology to introduce at these shows. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, Volkswagen introduced the Budd-e electric CUV, BMW showed off the i8 roadster with its “Air Touch” technology, Kia launched its “Drive Wise” safety brand and Faraday Future unveiled the FF Zero1. None of these made it to the Detroit show the following week. GM even used CES to unveil the Chevrolet Bolt EV and, while it ended up in Detroit a week later, it was old news at that point. The CES-Detroit battle is only going to grow.

The Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in February also siphoned off tech unveils that would have been introduced at a car show in the past. It’s disheartening to see auto shows devolving into a “cars on the carpet” affair instead of venues where you go to see the future of automotive technology. And these tech shows are not open to the public, further depriving car buyers from seeing the technology firsthand.

The best part of any auto show, as anyone in the media will tell you, is running into colleagues or insiders you don’t see often. The most insightful news coming out of any show is not from the press conferences or the executive interviews. It’s from these private side conversations where you really find out what’s going on at a company or within the industry.

Auto show organizers better rethink their format. The automakers are voting with their feet. Unless the organizers figure out how to generate more buzz and make these shows more relevant, the writing is on the wall. They’re going to fade into the sunset. 

About the Author(s)

John McElroy

Columnist

John McElroy is the president of Blue Sky Productions, which produces “Autoline Daily” and “Autoline After Hours” on www.Autoline.tv and the Autoline Network on YouTube. The podcast “The Industry” is available on most podcast platforms.

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