The Auto Show Isn’t Dying. But It Has To Change

News flash to the journalists and automaker executives: It's not about you.

Steve Jobs killed the auto show.

The date was January 9, 2007, on the stage at MacWorld in San Francisco. Jobs delivered a speech that changed how people across the world connected with one another, announcing three new products to an adoring crowd: “An iPod, a phone, and an internet communicator. An iPod, a phone, and an internet communicator.”

Everyone in the room understood what that meant. The world’s first iPhone was all three of those things in one, and it ushered in the modern era of the smartphone. 

Meanwhile, 2,400 miles east in Detroit, January 9 was also the third press preview day at the North American International Auto Show. Automakers from all over the world staged elaborate press conferences for the reported 6,000-plus reporters gathered there, all in an attempt to vault their new car to the front page of the newspaper.

Unlike Jobs, whose famed black turtleneck mirrored the aesthetic of his miracle device, minimalism was not a concept you would find that day inside Cobo Hall. Mercedes-Benz created an ice rink complete with sled dogs, hockey players, and figure skaters to help Dancing with the Stars winners Emmitt Smith and Cheryl Burke introduce a diesel-powered GL420. An ice rink! Audi hired musician Seal to perform while introducing a new Q7 TDI. 

Ford held its own Apple-like event next door at Cobo Arena featuring, in the darkened room, Apple-like giant digital screens behind its own affable CEO, Alan Mullaly. Fittingly, Ford’s version of Macworld featured none other than Bill Gates piped in via satellite from the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas to announce a partnership between Ford and Microsoft. Chrysler went similarly over the top with NASCAR drivers at a Dodge event and a band of drummers to show that Jeep “marches to the beat of its own drummer.”

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Only one of those press conferences changed the world. Today, the others feel much more quaint and dated. It’s enough that critics often say auto shows are dying.

Luxury manufacturers, who have pricier cars but much smaller marketing budgets, are dropping out left and right. Costs are skyrocketing in an auto show production-value arms race. Attendance, while still strong at U.S. shows, is down, and that’s all before you get into unexpected disasters like the coronavirus outbreak that meant the cancellation of the Geneva Motor Show and now the postponement of the New York Auto Show. 

We went January without a Detroit show, too, as that event moves to the summer in hopes of reinventing itself and regaining attendance—as well as relevance. 

But I see them as evolving, rather than dying. As someone who worked on the manufacturer side for a long time, putting on events like these and running communications, I still have hope for auto shows, even if their future depends on serving the actual consumer instead of generating breathless hype.

But something has to give.

When Pulling Out All The Stops Doesn’t Make Sense

It takes about $1 million for a brand to produce and execute a straightforward auto show press conference at one of the big global shows, like the now-postponed New York International Auto Show. And that’s just for a staged announcement, on top of the multi-million-dollar tab any major automaker has to foot for the exhibit itself. Creating some of the extravagant shows described above can add hundreds of thousands, or even millions more to the bill.

Little of it is appreciated by the news media that covers the industry. They bristle and complain about loud music and bad convention center food. The photographers complain that the pyrotechnics, smoke machines and lasers wreak havoc on their work. The speeches of the executives onstage fall on deaf ears, and why wouldn’t they? Very few people want to listen to someone in a suit stumbling through 20 minutes of cringeworthy teleprompter talk, working to ensure every “key message” has been delivered, especially that one about how they’re now more a tech company than a car company

I’ve been both sides of this auto show debate for more than 25 years. I covered the Detroit show as a journalist first in 1994, writing for the Ann Arbor News’ special auto show section. In 1995, I took a PR job with Ford Motor Company and was brought into my first show from the inside, the 1996 North American International Auto Show. We staged a mock political convention complete with sign-wielding “delegates” shouting key messages and car features and benefits from the crowd. (I don’t think that idea would be as warmly welcomed today, given our current climate.) I’ve also worked for Hyundai and Nissan, directly, and General Motors on the agency side. 

All of this is to say I know what I’m talking about here. I have been defending and questioning the value of auto shows for most of that time. I’ve heard and made all the arguments. I managed annual budgets in the tens of millions of dollars at some of the biggest automotive giants in the world.

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I’ve been part of shows that pulled out all the stops, from hiding a car in the ceiling of Cobo Arena and lowering it to the stage, to drifting into the Javits Center, to hiring entertainers like Ray Charles and Kid Rock and Margot Robbie, paying them in appearance fees and in cars to impress the media and make our executives feel like rock stars themselves. And behind the scenes, auto shows press days can be a lot like rock concerts. There are green rooms, meet-and-greets, private kitchens serving gourmet meals to the VIPs, and even, in the case of one senior executive, a personal masseuse.

But over the past few years, luxury brands from Audi to Volvo have been cutting back on auto shows. They’ll tell the media via press releases that their plans are to “use marketing dollars to better reach target customers,” or something that doesn’t sound like a retreat. The argument goes that, rather than spend millions on an auto show, an automaker can host its own separate event to unveil a new car, grabbing the undivided attention of the otherwise fragmented media.

Again, this may all be Steve Jobs’ fault.

He was so successful with his Apple events that everyone started scrambling to replicate them. That’s true in the tech industry, too. Everybody does it that way now. But no one has ever achieved Jobs’ level of glory, and it’s a safe bet they never will. Car companies are now trying to “break through the clutter” by creating a singular event of their own. Their own Macworld Expo, or TED Talk, or whatever you want to call it.  

At their TED Talk, automakers might rent a warehouse or a hangar and create an elaborate stage to deliver a speech. They’ll bring in some giant LED screens and darken the room with pipe and drape. So they’ll spend $1 million or more and fly in 100 or 200 journalists to see their stunt.

If an airport is too trite, perhaps they’ll rent a race track and lower a new pickup out of the sky dangling from a helicopter in front of a hundred or so media who they fly in for the event. That’ll go viral, they figure. And they don’t want to share the stage with any competitor. Apple doesn’t, so why should they?

Only days after the Dieselgate scandal broke, Volkswagen was to unveil the 2016 Passat in a warehouse in Brooklyn, which was transformed into a full-on private rave party headlined by Lenny Kravitz. The media were invited. The airfares booked. And Lenny was tuned up. So the show went on under a strange specter of gloom. To be fair, it kinda went viral.

Even Tesla uses this tactic. In an interesting bit of one-upmanship, Ford unveiled the much-anticipated Mach E in a hangar at the Hawthorne Municipal Airport, in the shadow of Elon Musk’s SpaceX and in the very complex where Tesla leases space for a design center and R&D facilities. Only days later, Musk would steal another show with the unveiling of the Tesla Cybertruck in a hangar at—guess where? Hawthorne Municipal Airport.

But the irony of those two events is not the common location of the unveilings. It’s that both automakers did their events during the LA Auto Show news cycle, taking advantage of the thousands of journalists who came in to attend the auto show. Isn’t this an acknowledgment that auto shows might still have legs?  

With all of these one-off events, when the press event is over, everything is packed up. Here’s where this approach falls down, in my book: when a three-hour production ends, there won’t be a half-million customers coming in to check it out in person over the next 10 days. That makes the ROI unsustainable, even with a momentary boost in news coverage.

The premise of the demise of auto shows is a flawed and fumbled narrative that needs to stop. Auto shows are really two things: the product reveals that hopefully become news, and the weeks-long show itself, which is open to the car-buying public to experience the stuff they may want outside the pressures of a dealership. So let’s call it “The demise of the press previews” instead.

One of the major gripes from the media is that the shows don’t truly break news anymore. Car companies send all the information in advance, including beautiful photos, which mostly are over-processed studio shots or complete CGI. Said reporters lament the lack of surprise and don’t understand why OEMs don’t keep their unveilings secret until the curtain raises, or the car emerges from the ceiling.

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On the flip side of the argument, if I am an OEM PR lead, I cannot risk spending a million dollars on a news conference and having the media give more attention to the competition who sent all their information in advance. So I am left giving away my story in advance as well, under embargo agreements that most outlets abide by.

The result is a bunch of reporters standing around at the news conference, pens and notepads tucked into their pockets, hearing things they already know for a story that’s already been written, queued, and published the second the stage lit up. Most in attendance half-listen to a couple speeches and mainly just wait for it to end so they can run up to the car and get a closer look before everyone else, and maybe some actual photos. Then both sides bristle about the time and money spent as they head out for bad hors d’oeuvres, too many cocktails and flights out of town.

Who Are These For?

But therein lies the distinction. The auto executives and journalists who run with the narrative of dying auto shows don’t really attend auto shows. They attend press previews attached to the front end of an auto show.  

Press preview day is an illusion. The show floor doesn’t even look the same on press preview day. To accommodate the requisite Seal concert or marching band performance or TED Talk, in many cases the first thing you have to do is pull out your cars to make room for stages, chairs, bleachers, sound and light booths, rigging, etc.—all for 20 minutes, hopefully, of fame. Flipping a show stand overnight to accommodate the public the next day can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in labor.

When the announcement ends and the crowd disperses, the person paying the bills can be filled with remorse, leaving at the end of the day to head back to the home office and struggle to justify the lavish expense. What he or she completely misses is the fact that when they are back in some conference room in Detroit, California, Germany or Japan, the show booth is bustling with hundreds of thousands of potential buyers for the next week-plus.

Chicago’s enormous McCormick Place covers one million square feet of display space. On press day at the auto show there, about 1,000 members of the media move about the eerily quiet building. At any given news conference, the crowd count is in the hundreds. Automakers pump in music and even live bands to bring a scene to life. Yet it doesn’t occupy the same exalted space in the yearly news cycle as New York, Los Angeles, Geneva, or Tokyo, with fewer spendy reveals and big offsite parties.

That’s because in Chicago, the focus from the organizers, the Chicago Auto Trade Association, is more properly on the public days of the show. It is considered to be the best-attended consumer show in the country (side note: the major gatherings refuse to publish attendance figures, which is a source of friction for the OEMs). As a result, automakers can and do spend less on the press days, which turns out to have little-to-no impact on foot traffic.

Chicago’s real-world success as a public event is proof that the industry needs to think along those lines. The reinvented Detroit bonanza coming this June is being designed with this people-first objective in mind. News flash to the journalists and executives: the auto show’s not about you, it’s about your business and your dealers. It’s no coincidence that most of the auto shows are owned and operated by local dealer associations. Research shows nearly 70 percent of the people who attend an auto show intend to buy a car in the next 12 months.

Let’s look at more numbers. In Chicago, nearly 60 percent of visitors are 40 or younger. In New York, 60 percent of visitors come from outside the city and likewise, 60 percent earn more than $100,000 a year with 30 percent earning more than $150,000 a year. Most importantly to me, 40 percent of show-goers say they added a new brand to their consideration after visiting a show. And 87 percent say they intend to visit a dealership or dealer website after attending. 

You should know that stories about the death of auto shows are not for or about those visitors—who flock to some 70 smaller events across all 50 states every year in addition to the big four. That narrative is borne from the concerns of journalists and a handful of car company VIPs for whom the biggest stages still seem to matter, regardless of how distracted the crowd is.

The media doesn’t attend the Indianapolis Auto Show. But a lot of people in Indianapolis do.

What’s Next

One answer might be permanent installations at big destinations, where automakers can show off their wares in places like Times Square or the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica in the same kind of low-pressure, non-sales forum. Maybe we could call them…showrooms? What a concept. You’d also get exposure to countless tourists that way. Then again, tourists aren’t necessarily prospective car buyers, while we know that auto show attendees almost always are.

Still, auto shows have been living under the specter of their own mortality for years. It has been a slowly progressing illness. But today’s economic and editorial realities, combined with a global pandemic, are far more serious.

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In the end, it might be the coronavirus that finally overwhelms the host. Yesterday the organizers of the New York International Auto Show announced the show will have to be postponed to August over the coronavirus pandemic. The New York show is a big deal, normally; even if it’s lighter on news than Detroit, it still draws some of the wealthiest visitors in the country, and 70 percent of them are ready to buy a new vehicle.

Public health is more important than any auto show, and it’s no surprise this happened as factories, offices and convention centers around the world go temporarily dark as governments fight to contain the virus.

So the Geneva Auto Show and the New York Auto Show, two of the industry’s favorites in two of the world’s biggest markets, didn’t happen, and now we’re left to wonder: did anyone notice? The economic impacts from keeping potential real buyers away are still unknown, but last time I checked, the lack of a media day didn’t change much. Websites still had plenty of new product news. Press conferences were live-streamed instead.

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You have to believe this might change the press preview days, forever. If an OEM can stage a webcast, send out pics and a spec sheet and get the same attention, or at least results similar to the competitors, this will signal a huge shift in the way new vehicles are revealed.

We also should keep in mind that there is an entire micro-economy of hard-working people whose livelihoods are made by the auto show industry, including press days. Additionally, charity previews at major shows raise millions of dollars for local causes. Without the shows, none of it happens. From union laborers and truckers to food vendors, show producers, and on-site product specialists, there is a lot more at stake than a photo splash on a website.    

As someone who worked in the business for a long time, I hope it all gets back on track soon. And I think people in the industry shouldn’t be so quick to celebrate the demise of the auto show. In what other industry do consumers drive 30-45 minutes to get there, pay $20 or more to park, pay their admission fees, buy $5 hot dogs and obsess over sheet metal for hours as they make their purchasing decisions?

If your job is to sell cars, those people should be your heroes.

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Dan Bedore owned a comedy club, a muffler shop franchise and worked as a newspaper reporter before starting a 25-year career in automotive marketing and public relations at Ford, Hyundai and Nissan. Once, when challenged as to his bonafides by a chassis engineer at Ford’s Dearborn Proving Grounds, he replied, “I think it’s safe to say I’m the only one here who has ever performed a four-wheel alignment on a 1993 Probe.”