Importance of auto shows fading

John McCormick
Special to The Detroit News

Are auto shows as we know them a dying breed? The distinctly subdued atmosphere of this year’s Detroit show suggests that at least for the media, the usefulness of the traditional show format is fading.

It’s not just Detroit that’s seeing a decline in relevance. The Chicago Auto Show press preview has been dwindling in importance for years. On the world scene, automakers small and large are starting to skip major shows altogether; Ford, for example, did not attend Paris last fall. And in Detroit this year the list of no-shows, including Porsche, Jaguar and Land Rover, was significant.

Lots of factors are at work here. Firstly, auto companies are fed up with the costs involved in a full-scale media presentation, which can exceed $5 million. Multiply that figure by the number of global tier-one shows and it’s easy to see why automakers are increasingly saying no. It does not help that some U.S. shows, notably Detroit and New York, are saddled with high and restrictive union rates and practices that drive up costs and complications for auto companies and their agencies.

Another key element is the transformation of the media over the last decade. The dissemination of information via social media channels and content-hungry websites has upended the old order dominated by magazines and newspapers. Now speed is all-important and brevity takes precedence over well-researched longer stories.

For automakers this means that an elaborately staged presentation at Cobo Center (or any other show venue) is increasingly irrelevant and a waste of resources.

The preferred option for many companies is a lower cost, off-site event with a tailored message and a focused media audience. This trend played out in Detroit this month, as auto writers spent the day before the show hopping from one brand event to the next from dawn to dusk.

This process gives the automakers a chance to get the undivided attention of media in a controlled setting and thus, they hope, a bigger share of show coverage.

For Detroit itself, this is a not a bad thing as automakers are happy to use the growing number of cool meeting spaces, venues and restaurants in the city.

Not surprisingly, auto show organizers are not entirely thrilled with this trend as it dilutes the impact of the traditional “press days.”

Complicating the outlook for Detroit, and other auto shows, is the tendency of automakers to stage new model introductions not just off-site, but at quite different times on the calendar. Detroit, of course, does itself no favors with its grim appearance in early January.

Critics have been pushing the Motown show to move its time slot, possibly to May or June, for years. The organizers say that being the “first” big show in the year is important, but that advantage looks increasingly weak as rival conferences, notably the CES technology show in Las Vegas, occasionally steal Detroit’s thunder.

It’s time for auto shows to focus on their original and most valuable purpose: acting as venues for the car-buying public to come and see the new sheet metal. For many consumers, auto shows remain the best option to see, feel and decide on their next set of wheels.

John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at