Are car shows losing their relevance?
It seems like just yesterday that automakers were spending millions of dollars every year on car shows (perhaps they still are), making blockbuster presentations in their allocated 20-minute spaces, with Chrysler, for a time, taking the lead — crashing a car through glass, performing little plays, letting cattle run through the streets. Every company had a glossy press kit, and in some cases — again, mostly at Chrysler — very expensively and cleverly done, including the diner-menu Durango kit and the “leapfrog” minivan kit (complete with a toy leapfrog).
Suddenly, those kits turned into little index cards showing a Web site URL. At the last New York Auto Show, about half the companies only had cards; the others generally had USB drives, sometimes with booklets, sometimes not. The dramatic presentations, still led by (now Fiat) Chrysler, had toned down. What’s more, many introductions took place before the show. Jeep launched the new Wrangler days before the Detroit Auto Show, at a different event, for example; Dodge launched the Demon the night before the New York Auto Show. Why share the spotlight when you can be alone in the headlines?
The vast Chicago Auto Show turned its second media day into social-media day. Detroit and New York kept two days of launches, but the second day is largely Chinese companies, suppliers, and smaller outfits that wouldn’t have had their own presentations in the past. Budgets have been slashed all over, and some automakers have much smaller display areas (especially for sedans).
The Paris Auto Show, which takes place every other year (alternating with Frankfurt), is taking a huge hit this year, continuing the trend. Volkswagen, Europe’s largest and wealthiest automaker, is skipping the show entirely and will apparently be doing media events somewhere in Paris. They are not alone: Ford, Fiat Chrysler, and Nissan/Infiniti are sitting out, though Maserati may place a car or two in a supercar area. Volvo already said it would sit out the Geneva show next year, and the three major German luxury brands, Mercedes, BMW, and Audi, are skipping Detroit. Fiat, Alfa Romeo, and Jeep skipped Frankfurt last year, too, though Alfa is still being relaunched and Jeep should find many buyers in Germany.
It seems that now, automakers are doing cost/benefit analyses, rather than image calculations, in deciding whether to go to a show. How many real buyers will pricey German cars find in the Detroit metro area? Precious few, one would think, aside from people coming in from Ann Arbor. Chrysler and Dodge slashed their sedan/minivan show space in New York, but kept their huge truck area, moving along with sales trends.
Perhaps it’s the end of an era, but most likely, the show organizers will find ways to lower prices and increase incentives; or the absence of the big boys will help the little guys, the suppliers, smaller companies, and (okay, they’re not little) huge Chinese and Indian automakers to strut their stuff instead. It seems unlikely that the big auto shows are going to go away any time soon — but they will probably never again be the huge spectacles and key news stories they used to be, just a few short years ago.