Soup it up: Show exhibitors go the extra mile

Larry Edsall
Special to The Detroit News

With the North American International Auto Show fast approaching, this week’s Soup It Up feature suggests you pay attention to more than the cars you’ll see on display at Cobo Center. Be sure also to take a look at the “stands” in which they are displayed.

Several specialist companies work with the automakers to create an environment that best showcases the Original Equipment Manufacturer’s newest products and concepts.

This is very serious — and expensive — business, dating to General Motors and its Motorama shows. So serious that back in the 1950s, H.B. Stubbs Company, a specialist in trade show displays, built at its Mound Road headquarters in Warren a full-scale duplicate of the Waldorf Astoria’s grand ballroom so it could make sure the displays it was creating for GM would fit properly once transferred to New York City, and with the right ratio of room for vehicles and people coming to see them.

But our focus in this space is on the automotive aftermarket, which stages its own version of a major international auto show late each year. The SEMA Show (SEMA is short for Specialty Equipment Market Association) brings together aftermarket parts producers and those who buy (on the wholesale level) and use their products, and it’s become so important to the automotive world that many of the OEMs also have major displays of their cars and their lines of custom parts.

A highlight each year for SEMA Show-goers is not only the newest products from automotive paint supplier PPG, but to see the booth in which those products are on display. However, booth isn’t a strong enough word for the PPG display, which annually is among the largest and by far the most creative of the hundreds at the show that overflows the Las Vegas Convention Center into adjacent parking lots and even a nearby hotel.

This year the PPG display was the re-creation of a New Orleans streetscape during Mardi Gras.

Although she claims it’s a “team effort,” the inspiration behind the theme comes from Cristina Fronzaglia-Murray, whose title is communications manager, automotive refinishing. She’s a 22-year PPG veteran who formerly was marketing manager for the company’s commercial coatings division.

Eight years ago she moved to the automotive paint division and convinced company executives to pump up the SEMA display.

“How,” she asked herself, and then others, “can you display color as best as possible?”

How, she added, can you move beyond the typical body-shop repair scenario to help people see the possibilities in automotive paint products?

“Color,” she believes, “is about all the senses. It’s not just visual.”

Fronzaglia-Murray comes up with the theme, gets it approved and then recruits “artists,” people who actually work at body shops, to create the artwork that is part of the overall display.

The PPG display themes, with two-story storefronts and at least two or three real cars and/or motorcycles in the “parking lot” have included the Ditzler Drive In (serving free munchies), a collision and customs shop (You Bend ’Em… We Mend ’Em), a circus-themed Carnival of Colors, a ’70s-themed Get Funky, a perhaps Pixar Cars-inspired Toy Store, as well as the Mardi Gras display this year.

It will be interesting to see if any of the OEM displays at Cobo can match PPG’s colorful creativity.

Larry Edsall is a Phoenix-based freelance writer. You can reach him at