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The auto show is dead; long live the auto show [Op-Ed]

by Byron Hurd

Say good-bye to the auto show as you know it.

The car show. Not a car show, which conjures images of baby boomers gathered around a church parking lot, slurping lemonade and saying "motor" a lot more than they probably should. No, the car show--something that should prompt a tingle in the brain of anybody who grew up (or still lives) near a decent-sized city.

Once a year, the cars would come to town, right? And maybe dad needed a new truck, or mom wanted a new minivan or station wagon. Whatever the excuse, you'd pack up and head into town and spend hours sitting in, marveling at, or breaking the switchgear off of everything you could get your grubby hands on. Maybe you were really lucky and you lived in an affluent region where even the Porsches and BMWs were unlocked.

It's not a uniquely American phenomenon, but given our love affair with the automobile, it should come as no surprise that your typical auto show draws a fairly comprehensive cross-section of the population. It's not just a bunch of car geeks admiring dash materials and arguing over torque curves. That sort of behavior is reserved for something else entirely...

The press preview
Auto shows are to car people what pro sports drafts are to ball jocks, and like those annual circuses, the media get first-crack at just about everything. You may not know this phenomenon by name, but if you follow the industry at all, you're aware of what it is. It's called the press preview, and it's what happens before you and your clan get to lather everything up with hot dog grease and baby vomit.

Press conferences. Sheets being pulled from sheet metal. "Booth professionals." Celebrity endorsements. Poor jokes. Poorer translations.

That's all well and good, but before we get to the part where everybody stands around a convention floor and engages in whatever it is you call magazine racing before a magazine has a chance to print anything at all, one must first navigate the labyrinth of pre-previews, private events, off-site reveals and online world debuts that takes place before the actual preview. This complete cluster**** is why the typical auto show schedule for a journalist consists of three or four days of events for what is ostensibly a one- or two-day show.

Wait, what?
Yes. In this age of instant, worldwide information delivery and video streaming, simply revealing a car on a convention floor in front of the assembled pens and notebooks just doesn't cut it. Take the 2018 North American International (aka Detroit) Auto Show, for instance. The press preview began on Monday, January 15th. The first unveilings, however, took place the preceding Saturday. The first embargoes began to lift on Friday.

As a result, there are essentially no surprises on the show floor. Everything has been revealed, discussed, disseminated and in some cases, already forgotten by the time the press "preview" even begins. So what is the point of a press preview? An excellent question. The short version? There isn't one, and the recent shake-ups in the auto show scene are happening as a direct result.

If you haven't been keeping track, here are some catch-ups: An increasing number of automakers is bailing on auto shows, both stateside and overseas. Ford just announced that it won't go to Geneva next year. Volvo has been playing things by ear since 2016; Porsche has been doing it even longer. Yes, they still show up when they feel like they have news big enough to warrant the expense, but it's the exception rather than the rule.

For those of you with longer memories, you'll recall something similar happening back in 2007-2008, when the economy was first slipping into crisis and the future of the American auto industry was very much in flux. The recovery only prolonged the inevitable. What we're seeing here is the beginning of the end of the auto show media circus, and I, for one, could not be more relieved. Stand beside me and open your arms to the coming media preview apocalypse.

How it started
First off, you're going to have to abandon a common preconception. Auto shows weren't invented for the purpose of showcasing new models to the media. They came about as means for selling cars to customers--no more, no less. And while the highest-profile auto shows in the U.S. are held (in no particular order) in Los Angeles, New York and Detroit, just about every major (and in some cases, not-so-major) metropolitan area has one.

Fear not: I didn't forget the Windy City. But I separated it for a good reason. Chicago's impact as a news venue has been dwindling over the years. At most, it's a day and a half of manufacturer-sponsored parties followed by a half-day's worth of trim package introductions and marketing briefings. It's also the most expensive venue for automakers thanks to its eye-popping labor costs.

Why bother, right? Simple: Chicago is the largest consumer auto show in the nation, and one with a century-long history.

The big U.S. shows are a symbiotic production of both local dealers and the automakers themselves. That's why an OEM such as Nissan could "skip" two major shows in 2009 despite having cars on the floor for customers to see. It's the local dealers, not the automakers, who are largely responsible for the consumer side of things--frequently including the actual delivery of vehicles.

The evolution
The media preview evolved naturally from that relationship. Simply put, it made sense to show cars to what was effectively a large, captive media audience. Detroit capitalized on the fact that the automotive press grew naturally around the center of gravity represented by its manufacturing base. New York, Los Angeles and Chicago are simply large population centers with tons of journalists. It was inevitable that they followed suit.

This peaked in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when marketing budgets were still huge, the Internet was still slow, and government eyes weren't so keenly focused on the goings-on of worldwide automakers.

But now? The automotive press is completely decentralized. Sure, there are advantages to being physically located in certain places depending on your beat, but thanks to the wonders of modern technology, it's pretty easy to do this job from just about anywhere. Why live in an industrial wasteland when you can virtually attend a plant opening just as easily from just about anywhere else in the world (which is exactly where you'd rather be)?

The beginning of the end
If you've watched any live streams from pre-auto-show vehicle debuts, you're already aware (whether consciously or not) of how automakers are evolving away from the press preview format. On the show floor, an OEM may get 15-20 minutes to give a marketing presentation, talk about future product, and ultimately reveal a car. It gets limited control over the space (a booth, no matter how lavish, is still just a booth) and while the audience may be somewhat captive, there's little control over who attends each briefing. A CEO may be giving his remarks as much to his competitors as to media.

A private preview can be catered to a given message, the audience cultivated to maximize exposure. Don't believe for a second that it isn't already happening. As these events grow in both number and scale, their coordinators are slowly and silently measuring just how valuable it is to continue trying to wedge a private event into an existing auto show calendar. It's only a matter of time before the scales tip away from a centralized event. Some auto makers, such as Ford and Volvo, have already started unveiling cars at events with no connection to a show.

Why care?
There are those who have a vested interest in keeping the current auto show model afloat. Dealer organizations enjoy the added publicity of a high-profile show. Media organizations benefit from larger audiences (often helped along by features such as regional and national awards meant to cement their relevance). Some of these groups are already sending up signal flares and referring to the decline of the auto show as a "crisis."

Me? I'm not convinced that there still exists a compelling consumer benefit to the status quo. We as media are being asked to spend more time (and more money) covering what is ultimately a smaller volume of newsworthy content, and for what? The pleasure of seeing it for ourselves? Free shrimp and booze? On balance, it's a bad deal, and you're going to see fewer and fewer outlets committing resources to it as the once-coherent system continues to unravel.

But, hey, Detroit is pleasant in June.