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.”
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.
Freeman said the shows are often the final step for shopping decisions after weeks or months of digital research. “People are doing more research before they come to shows now, so they are very well informed, but nothing beats that tactile experience of sitting in or driving the cars,” he said.
Another potential new driver for auto shows is the explosion of new products, especially electric vehicles.
Given the interest in EVs generated by the Biden administration, the Washington Auto Show is planning a series of events when it returns in early 2022 that will tackle high-level discussions of government policy and give consumers their first EV experience through displays and test drives.
“With so many different technologies coming out — EV and autonomous driving — it’s incumbent on show organizers like myself to ask how we can expose the hundreds of thousands of people that come through the show over 10 days,” said Kevin Reilly, chairman of the Washington Area New Automobile Dealers Association, which owns and operates of the show.
With an estimated 100 EV models coming out over the next few years, exposing a reluctant public to the massive technological shift should convince automakers to continue their support.
“The challenge for the manufacturers — and this is where I think auto shows are going to play a very important role — is they’re not just trying to sell their brand or a particular model. Now they’re also tasked with selling a new technology,” said John Sackrison, executive director of the Orange County Automobile Dealers Association in Southern California.
“Consumers have been going to auto shows for decades, and it’s just a natural place and a great opportunity to expose consumers to this technology that both the manufacturers and the government want them to adopt but, frankly, the consumers aren’t clamoring for,” Sackrison said.
Sackrison said there is concern in the show community that automakers forced to pause their participation in 2020 may be rethinking the expos now. Although dealers generally own the shows and run them as nonprofits, they do need the manufacturers to show up with vehicles and displays.
A fresh worry is that the global semiconductor shortage is going to weigh on some automakers financially, causing them to tighten show budgets even further. Budgets could be trimmed by downsizing elaborate vehicle displays, Sackrison said, but providing cars and trucks to shows remains critical.
“The most important thing for the manufacturers to remember is to be there,” he said. “The No. 1 thing people want to see at the shows are the cars. The displays are important. But if you have to scale down your exhibits for cost reasons, do that.”
Bo Puffer, Stellantis shows and events manager, said the impact of the chip shortage is real, but there’s a compelling case to be made that the public wants to see and feel all the new vehicles that are reaching the market. Those include the Ram TRX, Jeep Grand Wagoneer and plug-in hybrid Jeep Wrangler 4xe.
“Budgets are always tight, and we’ve been getting a little squeezed over the years, but we’re very efficient,” Puffer said. “There’s nothing like sitting in a new car at a car show in an unpressured, unstressful situation. We’re not selling cars, but we want to talk about them.”
Stellantis, formed this year from the merger of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and PSA Group, does 69 shows in the U.S. per year, including state fairs, and restarted after the coronavirus pause with the Central Florida International Auto Show in Orlando in December. At that event, Jeep had a simulated off-road course inside the convention center, and Ram had a truck exhibition, both with visitor ride-alongs.
Safety measures in Orlando and the shows after it have proved effective, Puffer said. No one on his staff developed COVID issues, and none of the events was linked to a virus outbreak. According to his product specialists, attendance appears to be down 15 to 20 percent, but visitors are extremely grateful.
“Literally, I had consumers come up to me and thank us for being there,” Puffer said of the Atlanta auto show last month. “I’ve never had that happen before, and I’ve been to hundreds of shows.”
While interactive displays are extremely popular with visitors, the biggest value of the shows is that they stimulate shopping, Puffer said. Research shows that local dealership foot traffic increases up to 20 percent in the month the show takes place and in the following month as well, he said.
“It’s a piece in the marketing wheel, and there’s a lot of ways you can find out about new products,” he said. “But the shows are very important to our dealers.”
Toyota Motor North America said in a statement that it has participated in around 70 auto shows across the country annually over the past five years, although the number can fluctuate a little. While the media component of big auto shows is less relevant with digital alternatives, the consumer aspect remains important.
“Budgets have been a challenge,” Toyota said in the statement. “We built new auto show kits two years ago that were more modular, allowing us to have more flexibility with what we display. The new kits also help us to be more efficient with spend, especially when press conferences are involved.”
Toyota’s show participation has also been changing during COVID.
“The landscape will look different with wider aisles, temperature checks, etc.,” the company said. “Some shows are moving to outdoor venues and/or planning their shows for spring and summer dates, which is the traditional off-season for auto shows.”
General Motors said in a statement that it does not participate in a set number of consumer shows each year but continues to see them as an important driver of vehicle sales.
“Regional auto shows are important to GM and our dealer network,” the company said. “We will continue to monitor the consumer interest in events and exhibits as we craft our strategic plans for 2022 and beyond.”
Hyundai Motor America said it is looking for the right time to jump back into the show circuit this year or next.
“Hyundai has always found regional auto shows effective at building awareness, consideration and reaching in-market buyers,” the company said in a statement. “We will be prudent about participating at any auto show or large public gathering for the time being.”
Several automakers and show organizers made the point that auto shows are the only place where potential buyers pay to see the product. That in itself is a powerful indication of their value.
“They drive up to an hour,” Foresight Research’s Stommel said of show visitors. “They pay for parking. They pay for overpriced concessions. They spend five hours on average on the show floor, all to attend what amounts to one long car commercial.
“So there is certainly value from the customers’ perspective.”