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Auto shows adapt in a changing landscape

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Los Angeles — Auto shows are dead, long live auto shows.

Buffeted by the winds of change — the electronic revolution, social media, growing global markets — vehicle showcases like the Detroit auto show are losing influence and manufacturers. Industry insiders say traditional auto shows remain an essential part of vehicle marketing even as they are viewed as just one of many tools to amplify a vehicle's premiere.

Auto reveals now often include big names, such as actor Robert Downey Jr. who attends the global reveal of the Audi e-tron GT concept in Los Angeles in November.

Consider Audi, a premium automaker in Germany’s Volkswagen group, and its introduction of key products two weeks ago at the Los Angeles Auto Show. Audi was one of a wave of European premium-makers that pulled out of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit earlier this year — a list that included BMW, Mercedes, Volvo, Porsche, Jaguar, Land Rover and Mini Cooper.

“Our product cadence simply did not fit Detroit,” says Audi Product Communications Director Mark Dahncke. “Auto shows have become so expensive and less relevant with the advent of the internet.”

So Audi decided to show its first-ever all-electric model in September at an independent media event. The product: the e-tron SUV. The venue: the San Francisco Bay area.

Audi even gave the event a theatrical name: “The Charge.” It was broadcast live worldwide via satellite, Audi MediaTV and other Internet sites.

Ten weeks later, the e-tron made its auto show debut on a full Audi stand at the Los Angeles show – just a day after Audi took advantage of hundreds of media attendees to give a sneak peek of the e-tron's sexy sibling, the e-tron GT. Adding to the sex appeal, the GT was introduced by Tony Stark himself, Robert Downey Jr.

“If we had introduced the e-tron at an auto show, it would have been drowned out where media reveals are so tightly clustered together,” says Dahncke. “We need the ability to have an exclusive venue so we could take people and media through this very important in detail.”

Still, the Los Angeles show, which ended Sunday, boasted a healthy 65 new-vehicle unveils this year across a crowded floor that included new players like Rivian, an electric-truck maker. By contrast, the Detroit show, which saw 69 new reveals last year, will drop to about 30 this year, according to show organizers.

"Big reveals will always happen at auto shows," said Chris Paukert, a veteran Detroit-based auto journalist who is executive editor of Roadshow by CNET, a California-based website. "But automakers have many more, different ways to approach things now. Honda introduced its CR-V ute at a farmers market in Detroit last winter. That was unheard of a few years ago."

Says IHS senior auto analyst Stephanie Brinley: "Auto shows still have the advantage of being the only place that automakers can get both lots of media and a lot customers. There is still an element of maintaining relationships with the customers that you have."

A driver demonstrates drifting with a BMW M5 during CES 2018 in January in Las Vegas, a week before Detroit's auto show.

Take the Chicago Auto Show. It's always played fourth-fiddle to the Detroit, Los Angeles and New York shows in product reveals. Yet nearly every automaker has a floor presence in the sprawling McCormick Place every February, because it's the No. 1 show for public attendance in the United States.

Shows also are benefiting as automakers drastically increase the pace of new-vehicle reveals. According to a Bank of America Global Research report, reveals of new models have grown, on average, from 38 per year in recent decades, to 58 per year.

But carmakers' budgets are being stretched thin: Brinley says that in addition to the high cost of having displays on show floors, carmakers have to manage more shows such as those in emerging markets like Beijing and Shanghai. And tf the Las Vegas show takes place the week before the Detroit auto show.

That has worked to the disadvantage of the North American International Auto Show, which carmakers see as the backyard of the Detroit Three. It's a market stacked with incentives to buy hometown products.

"It's nothing personal," says Audi's Dahncke. "Detroit is Big Three country, and we may go back there. But right now we have luxury electric products, and our customers are in California."

Other regional shows like Paris and Geneva have also seen automaker erosion. 

Like Detroit, Los Angeles is a car town in a car-crazy state. But the different nature of the Southern California market has helped the Los Angeles show weather the storms that are shaking other events.

"Automakers know that we are a top market for most brands," says Lefty Tsironis, the Los Angeles show's director of experiential marketing. "This is a top sales market for every segment of car."

Adds IHS's Brinley: "LA and New York used to be smaller shows than Detroit. Now luxury automakers see them as important to selling their cars in those regions, and so Detroit has more to lose."

With a majority of luxury vehicles sold on the West and East coasts, Audi is simply going where its customers are.

Two years ago, the Los Angeles show fused technology and automotive together with "Automobility LA," bringing tech geeks and gearheads together under one tent.

The Detroit auto show is evolving as well.

The North American International Auto Show also has added forums for new technology. More fundamentally, the Detroit show will move from January to June in 2020, which will give carmakers a chance to move outside in more hospitable temperatures and give a resurgent Detroit a chance to showcase its restaurant and social scene. Attendees will be able to take test rides in vehicles —including self-driving cars — while sampling local entertainment and food along the waterfront. 

"It gets us away from just static displays," says Detroit Show chief Rod Alberts. 

Says Audi's Dahncke of Detroit's new date: "I think it's a positive move. It's better timing for us to show our products, and it's a better time to be in Detroit. It's hard to go there right after the holidays, especially when there might be a snowstorm."

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.