Do Auto Shows matter anymore? The short answer is No. Maybe. Kind of.
It is, of course, complicated. And emotional. I think about that time, close to 20 years ago, when I stood on the empty floor of the Sands Convention Center in Las Vegas with forklifts buzzing and golf carts zipping by me. It was my first ever auto show, and I, as the marketing grunt for a small aftermarket outfit, was tasked with helping the display company build the booth.
This was not glamorous work.
I hated every stinking moment, in fact, except for my time spent walking the aisles of tires, fuel system cleaners and the like. That was pretty cool. No – scratch that: it was REALLY cool.
Back then, there were two reasons to go to a trade show like SEMA: get leads and spy on the competition. Ten years later I was a grizzled veteran of SEMA and just about every other Auto Show in North America. From new cars and fireworks inside Detroit’s Cobo Hall in January to Halloween in Vegas with wheels and accessories, if it was showing I was writing about it, shooting bad photos and trudging to the next presser. It was fun, and people were interested in the stuff. What was amazing, however, was that with a little variation the reason for all that spectacle never ever changed: auto shows sell shiny things and give product people a chance to spy on other product people. Even the so-called press previews were just thinly disguised marketing and sales brochures that many journalists (me included) took in like mackerel to a fisherman’s net. And so what? Back when press reveals meant something – kind of – people would tune in to watch the latest auto show coverage. It was important because cars were important as a huge global economic engine, a symbol of American industrial beauty, and as an object of desire.
It’s all changed now. Cars are still all that, even more so, and the show means more than ever from an emotional and philosophical level: the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) is a powerful example of the automotive world’s recovery from the Great Recession. Millions of people still go to the shows, because, honestly, what’s better than a day looking at cool cars? Cars are still sold at the auto show, and there is always room for a tape measure. But in terms of news value and press previews, the concept of auto shows lost its meaning five years ago. Today it is faux preen and posture, of “debuting” cars that have already been shown. The advent of digital sales, marketing, and communication — and the fact that dealerships practically compete with automakers in terms of local marketing and content…you get the point. National press preview days are now sad reunions for old timers better covered remotely or for purely product reasons.
Journalists, if they’re looking for a story, should attend public days. The news is there now. It’s the unvarnished opinion of a Mom and her son, or a Dad and his daughter. They’re the ones who set the tone for design, economy and power. They’re the ones — the only ones — with a legitimate opinion about a car at the auto show.