Let’s face it, the Auto Show has been dying for a while. Manufacturers who once spent millions on lavish displays and hospitality booths have left even the major market shows for a few years. Some shows altered timing of the event to find better weather and/or less competition (cough, Detroit).
Then there was a global pandemic, and the lights started to go out at venues once impossible to imagine, like Geneva. If you are a fan of the automobile, you have some knowledge of the Geneva Motor Show, even if you don’t realize it. Geneva is the mother of all car shows. It is the site of some of the most significant and outlandish model reveals in automotive history. You have inevitably seen the model debut photos, even if you didn’t know where they came from.
The Geneva Motor Show has been “the” place to debut new and important Porsche, BMW, Mercedes, Lamborghini, Bugatti, etc. cars for decades, and in 2020 it didn’t happen. The show was to begin in March. I think we all know how things went for any mass gathering of people in March 2020. It was canceled. Manufacturers already spent millions of dollars, and now had nowhere to show their new shiny toys, so they improvised.
Volkswagen debuted the new eighth-generation Golf to the world via the Internet, as did many others, including the debut of the 992 generation Porsche 911 Turbo. Instead of product specialists pulling the silk sheet off the car in front of thousands of journalists and guests in Geneva, Porsche went with a virtual unveiling live-streamed all over the world.
Since the decline of the major automobile shows has been apparent for a while now, the topic of how they will survive is not new. I attended the Los Angeles Auto Show in 2018 and 2019 and saw a change in manufacturer presence in that short period. Off-site reveals of the Mustang Mach E, and the new Land Rover Defender slightly upstaged the 2019 show. At least they were also on display at the auto show itself. The biggest splash of the week in automotive news was seen in person by a select few invitees, and by the world on-line when Tesla unveiled the Cyber-truck.
The fact that Tesla chose to unveil this product on their own, and not even have a presence at the LA show was telling. They weren’t alone with private reveals as the new Aston Martin DBX SUV also debuted in Los Angeles, but not at the auto show. Leaving only the chosen few invited journalists and VIPs to the brand’s carefully manipulated show with any access. I believe the future lies in events like this versus big-budget public presentations, and I’m not convinced that’s a good thing.
Having a display at a major auto show is extremely expensive for the manufacturer. But it provides democratization of access that private events do not. In an age when internet and social media influencers are occasionally edging out established journalists at press launches, this might not bode well for readers.
How the public receives information on new models will change if auto shows as we know them disappear. The same is true if invite-only live shows take their place. Anyone with media access can get into the show’s press days to meet with manufacturer representatives, discuss the new car’s features, and physically get in the vehicles. The good news is that getting “media access” is not that difficult if you work in anything tangentially related to the auto industry.
The access is essential, it is the first time journalists can get in the vehicle, assess the comfort of the seats and interior dimensions, touch the switchgear and materials. These tactile experiences are critical to forming a first impression of the vehicle for the consumer and answering initial questions to help them with a purchase.
By having access to people from the company, and to the physical product, journalists of every stripe can better convey what the consumer can expect from the vehicle when it goes on sale. The best reviews won’t come along until people get to drive the car, of course, but at least the current model allows initial impressions to get to the public.
When the only people to have this access are small groups, the message gets a little cloudier. Influencers and VIPs are often compensated by manufacturers, because of that, their opinions are suspect at best. The few journalists invited to the private unveiling now have a monopoly on the information, restricting the variety of assessments upon which the consumer can rely.
Reducing access to products also restricts the development of future journalists. My experiences at the LA Auto Show has helped me critically analyze a new vehicle, and that experience will be increasingly important to my future. I’ve also met several people honing their print, photography, and videography skills at these events. If the auto show disappears, so will these career-broadening opportunities.
Is it all bad?
The flip side of this is the benefit to the manufacturers. Having the opportunity to help craft the initial public opinion of their product is vital. The cost of a private vehicle launch with travel, accommodations, food, and access to driving the cars is high, but it is still a fraction of what it costs for a full auto show activation.
While that doesn’t paint the best picture for consumers, it is not all bad. Manufacturers re-envisioned some pandemic-era vehicle launches in a way that has had positive results. Instead of packs of journalists flying to a single location to test drive cars, manufacturers have been sending press cars to the journalists. This doesn’t help people trying to break into the business, but it does help the consumer.
The reviews we are seeing are fascinating in their differences. Journalists are reviewing these vehicles in familiar territory, their own. Rather than the winding roads around Estoril, Portugal, we see reviews in and around New York City, Austin, TX, Park City, UT, and the famous canyons around Los Angeles.
The array of settings has produced more variety in opinions than I have seen in the past, which is exciting. It also allows consumers to see a better view of life with the vehicle in a setting that is more akin to their own. Knowing how the car you’re interested in performed on the pot-hole filled streets of a Northeastern US city is far more applicable than the cobblestones of Majorca.
Change always causes some problems. If the pandemic hastens the death of the traditional auto show, there will be growing pains. My hope is that whatever model rises to vogue offers the public what they need, access to many voices.