Some things never seem to change. Auto shows, for one thing. While they’ve gotten bigger and, perhaps more fancy, they’re not all that much different from the sort of event car buyers came out for more than a century ago.
The pandemic could change all that, however. When COVID-19 struck last year, it shut down large public events all over the globe. With only a handful of exceptions, primarily in China, there hasn’t been a major car show in 16 months. As infection rates fall and restrictions are eased back, organizers are cautiously looking for ways to start things back up again. But it’s far from clear the old auto show formula will still work.
That’s particularly true of big events like the shows in Detroit, Geneva, Chicago, Paris and Los Angeles, which served both to reach consumers and the automotive media, journalists turning out by the thousands for new car debuts. Those big events routinely cost automakers millions of dollars. And many manufacturers are asking whether it’s worth it. Lamborghini, for one, has decided it won’t participate in traditional auto shows going forward. Other manufacturers are cutting back and exploring alternatives.
“The pandemic is getting us to reevaluate things the way we didn’t before,” said Rob Moran, the head of media relations for Mercedes-Benz in the U.S. “Our eyes are open to many different opportunities. Now is a chance to balance digital and traditional,” he added, pointing to the various online previews the German automaker has staged during the pandemic.
Starting back up
Two major car shows, one in Chicago, the other in New York, are back on the calendar, albeit during the summer, rather than during their normal time slots earlier in the year. They’ll follow their relatively traditional formulas, but with shorter runs and restrictions on attendance to minimize COVID risks.
But organizers in Detroit are taking a significantly different approach to bringing back the North American International Auto Show. They won’t even use that name this year. Now scheduled for late September, “Motor Bella” adopts a radically different approach — and a markedly different venue — from the NAIAS that was considered one of the top shows in the world for more than three decades.
For one thing, it will take place at the M1 Concourse, a race track located about a half-hour’s drive north of the old Cobo Hall convention center in downtown Detroit where the show had previously been held.
Emerging from the pandemic “offers the opportunity to look at (the way car shows are run) in a whole new light,” said Rod Alberts, the head of the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, the group that organizes the NAIAS. “(Car) shows have their place and they’re important, but you can’t keep doing it the same way.”
A new way of doing things
The largely outdoor event taking place in three months will take advantage of the 87-acre facility to handle things quite differently. The track itself will allow manufacturers to show their products — especially performance models — in action. There’ll be opportunities for attendees to drive new vehicles, whether on track or on adjacent public roads. There’s also an off-road course that could serve brands like Land Rover and Jeep, among others, noted Alberts, during a virtual meeting of the Automotive Press Association Thursday.
“We can do things we couldn’t do before,” he noted.
Classic car shows are a generally static event, whether vehicles sit on fancy stands at events in Detroit, Paris or New York, or on indoor-outdoor carpet at second-tier shows in places like Philadelphia and Grand Rapids, Michigan.
The buzz word now is “engagement,” finding ways to get potential buyers more involved, whether by using technology or simply by putting “butts in seats,” said Alberts.
The fifth estate
One thing that Motor Bella will carry over from the old NAIAS is a two-day press preview. But the DADA chief acknowledged it is far from certain there will be many, perhaps even any, of the splashy media events that routinely drew more than 5,000 journalists from around the world to the indoor show downtown.
A 20-minute news conference, he noted, “Costs a ton of money.” While manufacturers rarely disclosed figures, insiders tell TheDetroitBureau.com a modest news conference would run more than $1 million, with some investments pushing to five, even 10 times as much. “It’s a big investment,” said Alberts, and increasingly budget-conscious carmakers had to look at the “risk and reward and the opportunities.”
Even before the pandemic, it was becoming more and more common for carmakers to stage splashy previews ahead of official press days and away from the convention centers, private venues usually far less expensive. The approach also gave automakers a chance to keep journalists around for longer since they didn’t have to dash from news conference to news conference every 20 minutes.
The DADA was already looking to shake things up before the pandemic. Original plans called for changing the time of the NAIAS from early January to June. The warmer weather would have allowed the use of outdoor space alongside the Detroit River near newly renamed TCF Convention Center. As with Motor Bella, there were plans for more interactive displays and a chance for motorists to drive some of the vehicles on display.
Two shows instead of one?
Looking forward, the DADA hasn’t ruled out a return to a more conventional car show. “We will be doing something downtown in 2022,” said Alberts, while adding, “It may not be exactly the same.”
There are a number of reasons why the old-style event remains attractive. The executive said he’s hoping to draw 150,000 people to Motor Bella — though it would be considered a success if attendance simply topped 100,000. By comparison, the old NAIAS routinely drew over 600,000 paid visitors, even in a bad year.
If anything, the organizers are looking at the possibility of staging two different events, one downtown, the other at the M1 Concours, next year. But what’s clear, said Alberts, whatever does happen, it won’t be a return to the old normal.
“We’re going through a reimagining of what we had in the past and a rebuilding.” And organizers at other major auto shows are saying the same thing. For the short term, they’ll be watching closely to see if the crowds once again descend on the events now scheduled for New York and Chicago, as well as Detroit’s Motor Bella.