With drinks flowing and music blaring, Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared at the press unveiling of the new Mercedes-Benz G-class in Detroit in January 2018. Miked and amped up, surrounded by a dense crush of expectant journalists, and tailed by fawning Benz CEO Dieter Zetsche, Schwarzenegger was in full Terminator mode, cracking flat-affect asides, drawing in and revving up the crowd, and downing shots of schnapps onstage with the Mercedes exec. The gathered writers delighted in the celebrity and spectacle, connecting the rugged Austria-built truck with the rugged Austria-built bodybuilder/actor/governor. It was a memorable event in a sea of press unveilings, and the coverage was commensurate.

But though the press was gathered in Detroit for the flagship North American International Auto Show (NAIAS), this event didn’t take place in Cobo Center downtown, where NAIAS—the tentpole for the annual cavalcade of car conventions—has been held each January for decades. Concerns about expense, return on investment, and the ability to stand out in a sea of unveilings caused the German automaker to move this reveal off-site to a Mercedes-controlled, Mercedes-branded environment in an old theater elsewhere in the city.

This sideline event was a sign of things to come. This past January, Mercedes-Benz skipped NAIAS altogether along with other major European brands, including Audi, BMW, Jaguar Land Rover, Porsche, and Volvo. Headlines announced the death of the Detroit auto show. Yet these issues aren’t limited to NAIAS.

Attendance by manufacturers is down at other shows large and small, including international venues like Paris and Frankfurt. FCA, Ferrari, Nissan, Peugeot, and Toyota are just some of the major carmakers that sat out the Frankfurt show (IAA) this year. Attendance fell to 560,000 visitors, down from the 2017 and 2015 shows, which drew in 810,000 and 931,700 people, respectively. During the press days at Frankfurt, former Opel CEO Karl-Thomas Neumann tweeted: “It is obvious so let’s say it explicitly: The #IAA2019 is a huge fail. It’s just a sad shadow of what it used to be. There will not be an #IAA2021. End of story.”


Illustration by Tavis CoburnCar and Driver

Changing Times

So what is causing this shift? Some of it is simply due to changes in automakers’ development and production schedules. “It used to be that we would shoehorn everything in,” says Terry Rhadigan, a General Motors veteran and the automaker’s executive director of communications. “We’d start with a calendar of the auto shows and we’d start plotting which vehicle was going into which show. It’s much more of a rolling cycle now.”

Rhadigan also cites the pie-slicing metastasization of manufacturers’ vehicle offerings—what he calls “proliferation of models”—as driving this need to present cars outside the proscribed and limited auto-show schedule. But there are other issues. “We have long felt that you can be more creative when you’re not necessarily inside an auto show,” he says. “And you might be able to reallocate your money in different touchpoints that make it more of a brand experience.”

Consumers already have access to infinite information on their smartphones and are looking for something more engaging when they leave their homes.

This mantra of experientialism is key. Consumers already have access to infinite information on their smartphones and are looking for something more engaging when they leave their homes; witness the rise of “experiential retail,” such as IKEA’s warehouse sleepover party or Nike’s in-store basketball court. When automakers create their own off-site event for displaying their vehicles, they control the entire visitor experience in a way they just can’t inside a cavernous convention center.

All of this has led brands to reconsider their once automatic commitment to the auto-show model. “As a growing luxury company, we’ll definitely continue to showcase models at global auto shows,” says Stuart Schorr, vice president of communications for Jaguar Land Rover North America. “What has changed, though, is that we’ll evaluate on an annual basis our presence at every auto show in the context of our new-model launch plans, local market dynamics, and other options. Like every other promotional arena, from network TV to art fairs, auto shows have more competition than ever before.”


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This is not to suggest that auto shows are no longer important to consumers. Though overall attendance is down, the major shows still draw big crowds. The biennial Paris show, for example, saw more than 1 million visitors in 2016 and 2018. (Disclaimer: “I would strongly advise you to take the attendance reported by some other shows with a grain of salt,” says Mark Bilek, senior director of communications and technology for the Chicago Automobile Trade Association.) And according to Foresight Research, two-thirds of all auto-show attendees in 2018 were in the market to buy a new vehicle in the coming year. Given that a car is among the largest purchases most people will ever make, and that there’s no other place where they can see, touch, and get inside such a breadth of models, the appeal of car shows remains notable. But consumer needs are shifting. “The question isn’t, Can these auto shows still be relevant?” says Alexander Edwards, president of automotive research and consulting firm Strategic Vision. “I think a better way to think about them is, How can they evolve so that they are as relevant as the consumer needs them to be?”

“The world has changed. Technology has changed. Cars have changed. Detroit has changed. What mobility represents has changed. And we needed to get out in front, to say that we want to be way more relevant.” —Doug North, NAIAS chair

This kind of relevance, according to Edwards, requires something more compelling, something to activate consumers’ passion. Something that demonstrates their affection. “They want something that really says, ‘Hey, we’re going to give you an experience that reminds you why you love your vehicle so much—why you name it, why you consider it an extension of your personality, a symbol of who you are.’ “

Edwards’s firm conducts an annual in-depth psychographic survey of hundreds of thousands of new-car buyers, attempting to uncover the emotional motivations underlying their purchase decisions. And his conclusion is that the auto shows need to move far beyond the realm of static displays in a giant convention center to regain relevance. Surprisingly, in order to accomplish this, he feels that the industry needs to reach at once forward and backward in time.

Edwards first mentions the allure of interactive and contemporary gatherings like Comic-Con, South by Southwest, and CES. He cites these as examples of “pop-culture events where people can be a part of an integrated, innovative, fun experi­ence.” Furthermore, he states that these experiences do more than engage. “They really help early adopters and advocates get on board with what’s there and turn around and sell that to others.”

But then he shifts gears, into reverse, and considers the immersive automotive conclaves of yesteryear, such as the General Motors Motorama—a mid-20th-century traveling spectacle, like a mini mobile World’s Fair, that visited American cities and showcased the OEM’s current, future, and fantastical plans. Edwards believes: “It really could become presentation again. Pageantry. There was as much Hollywood in those events as there is at CES today. If the auto shows want to say, ‘Look, we know some of you love brand A, brand C, brand X, and we’re going to have a theatrical event where you can come in and do things that you wouldn’t be able to do elsewhere,’ and it’s talked about, presented in that sort of way, they would immediately be relevant again.”


Illustration by Tavis CoburnCar and Driver

Future Plans

Though it’s taken time, the auto shows’ organizers finally seem to be adapting to these needs. Last summer, NAIAS announced that 2019 would be the final iteration of the old Detroit auto show. Version 2.0 will move from January to June, beginning in 2020, with a new configuration. “The world has changed,” says Doug North, the chair of NAIAS. “Technology has changed. Cars have changed. Detroit has changed. What mobility represents has changed. And we needed to get out in front, to say that we want to be way more relevant to all the constituency groups—manufacturers, consumers, communities, and cities.”

“There’s an awful lot of conversation that all eyes are going to be on Detroit. So to the degree that it impacts other shows, I hope it will.” —Doug North, NAIAS chair

To this end, the new Detroit show will feature a different format. The downtown convention center will still be the hub for dozens of staid manufacturer and technology stands. But there will also be a bevy of experiential opportunities. These will include outdoor venues along the riverfront for displays of and interaction with vehicles; closed-down roadways for test drives; on-street demonstrations of new and emergent driver-assistance technologies; entertainment tents for intermittent performances, TED Talk–style monologues, and panel discussions; motorsports demos; and, of course, the now de rigueur food trucks. There will even be a series of barges moored in the Detroit River to be used for display, entertainment, and dining purposes.

The organizers also hope that the show will spill out into the city environs, especially some of the newly reinvigorated, gentrified pockets right around downtown. This is something that should be far easier to realize during the long warm days surrounding the summer solstice than during the numbing and short days in darkest winter.

If this strategy is successful, it may have huge repercussions for shifting the format and execution of other auto shows. “There’s an awful lot of conversation that all eyes are going to be on Detroit,” North says of the scrutiny from other auto-show executives. “So to the degree that it impacts other shows, I hope it will.”

Of course, in an industry guilty of repeating failed practices, not everyone is banking on this change succeeding. “One of my close friends, when he learned what we were doing, said, ‘Doug, you’re either going to be famous or you’re going to be infamous,’ ” recounts North. ” ‘You can only be one of the two.’ “

From the December 2019 issue.

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