How healthy are auto shows these days?
It’s an interesting question. There’s been plenty in the news lately about the fact some shows that once were untouchable are now struggling.
The prime example is the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Mich., which was standing-room only for decades but is now moving its traditional January date into June in an attempt to halt its mudslide of a decline.
Most of the big-name brands were missing from the Cobo Center in 2019: Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Jaguar Land Rover, Volvo, Mazda. There was so much space inside the hall this year that there was room for an indoor off-roading demonstration and a food court.
If you’d arrived in a DeLorean 20 years ago and tried to tell people that this is where the Motor City’s auto show is headed, they would have laughed you right into the Detroit River.
Meanwhile, in Toronto, the Canadian International AutoShow is as strong as ever. Every single brand that sells cars to Canadians has a presence at the show, including premium marques such as McLaren and Tesla. With 54,634 people passing through the gates, the Sunday of the Family Day long weekend set an all-time single-day attendance record for the second year in a row.
What’s the difference? According to industry experts, it’s not that Toronto is an outlier and auto shows are otherwise dying. There’s still a place for them. Some of them just need a bit of a rethink.
“I think they’re awesome,” said Don Romano, president and CEO of Hyundai Canada, during a panel discussion. “And I think those (brands) that drop out, I will bet money right now they’re going to be back.”
“I’m also of the opinion (auto shows) will stay,” added Wolfgang Hoffmann, president of Jaguar Land Rover Canada. “(Visitors) can compare our products to others. We have a chance to show that we have a better offer, and they are in a no-pressure situation.
“Our lead generation we get at auto shows is actually very cost-efficient for us. I like it.”
Joni Paiva, president of Nissan Canada, said the human need for tactile interaction with a car will keep auto shows and physical dealerships relevant even as the buying process becomes more digitally driven.
“I don’t see a full digital process,” Paiva said. “I think the customer will always need to touch and feel the car. You cannot do that through a screen or a tablet.”
Paiva went on to make an interesting point: the people surmising that auto shows may be going extinct are those who work in media, and that is one aspect of shows that has been seeing consistent decline in recent years.
“To me, there are two purposes (to auto shows),” he said. “The first one is to get media awareness of revealed products. The second one is to display our vehicles to the public.
“Those who say auto shows may not exist anymore are those who have seen their time in the shows decreasing, the media. My point of view is as a manufacturer, as a brand, it’s our responsibility to keep the excitement going, to make the experience for when customers come.”
Hoffmann reiterated these sentiments.
“The press side is getting smaller and smaller in importance because we all do our reveals off-site anyway so that we have the attention of the media,” he said. “For the consumers, we go and we’ll stay.”
But Romano suggested a different reason why the Toronto auto show continues to see success that perhaps other auto shows could learn from: it fosters a love of the automobile and passes it down to the next generation by going beyond manufacturer displays.
“You’ve got this Bugatti out there that’s built with Lego and all kinds of cool stuff,” he said. “Watch people walking around, and watch their cameras. They’re going crazy.
“People are saying that millennials don’t want cars anymore, that the younger ones don’t want cars. They are absolutely crazy about them, and they’re having a blast and just waiting until they can get their driver’s licence. That’s our future there.
“I think car shows are far more than just press events and having cars on display, launching new cars,” Romano said. “It’s bringing the emotion and fun back into why we’re in this business.
“I love auto shows, and I think they’re here to stay. I wish and hope they continue to grow and get bigger and better.”