A radical thought to fix auto shows: Work together


Auto shows around the world seem understandably anxious about their collective futures — albeit to differing degrees. They can see and hear the foundations of their costly business models beginning to crack like Great Lakes ice on an unseasonably warm, late-winter day.

Sure, there might be plenty of time to drill another hole and catch more fish, depending on their location, but nobody wants to be left stranded on the floe when things break free. So the shows keep watching one another, nervously trusting that the wisdom of the collective will determine best when it’s time to cut bait and run for shore.

Detroit, of course, has already bailed, announcing that the 2020 North American International Auto Show would move from January to June in hopes the warmer weather will improve its luck. Whether show organizers’ skittish jump proves to be the right move will take time and experience to determine.

But I would argue that auto shows already have the means to rejuvenate their brands, if they’re willing to take a radical step and work together.

Let’s be clear: Any ongoing trouble with auto shows is not with their main reason for existence — showing and helping sell vehicles to consumers, which they still do quite well — but with the shows’ interactions with the ever-changing media.

The auto show press day format hasn’t changed much in decades. It consists of a running series of too-short “press conferences” that are in different locations on individualized stands by each automaker’s display. For many of the journalists in attendance, most of whom received the press materials in advance and have already written their stories, the overly scripted 20-minute events offer little in the way of meaningful interaction. They’re really little more than high-budget commercials, competing with the same high-budget commercials from every other automaker trying to win some earned media for their newest product.

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Auto shows compete with one another behind the scenes to host global reveals of new vehicles from automakers in order to raise the interest in the shows themselves and draw more ticket-buying customers. Fair enough. But automakers are finally getting wise to the fact that their multimillion-dollar launch extravaganzas can be easily lost in the shuffle.

In response, many automakers have moved their reveals to a day or two before the show, when the news cycle is less crowded and there’s more concentrated attention to be found. Or they do really ugly things, such as schedule their own remote press conferences away from everybody else to try to shift the “free media” attention away from their competitors.

Were global auto shows to collectively limit their press conference schedules — to, say, no more than five per show — I believe the action would stoke demand among automakers for those spots that barely exists now. And, if in the limiting, auto shows were to offer up central, shared staging venues where the press conferences could all take place, it would end a lot of the featherbedding that so drives up the costs for automakers to reveal their new products at auto shows.

There’s no panacea for everything that ails major auto shows, but working more closely with one another to try to keep everyone on the dry side of the ice would be a welcome change and a good start.

You may email Larry P. Vellequette at lvellequette@crain.com.





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