Amid auto show evolution, Ford hosts 'immersive' pop-up in Texas

Jordyn Grzelewski
The Detroit News

Ford Motor Co. this week is bringing its portfolio of buzzed-about new vehicles — including the all-electric F-150 Lightning, Bronco and Mustang Mach-E — to the streets of downtown Austin, Texas, for what it's describing as an "immersive" pop-up experience for consumers.

The free 10-day event, which kicked off Friday and runs through Oct. 24, is yet another example of automakers finding new ways to get their product in front of prospective customers beyond reveals and displays at traditional auto shows.

An aerial view of Ford Motor Co.'s "Built to Connect" pop-up in downtown Austin.

Auto companies see such opportunities for consumers to experience new vehicles as key as they transition to technologically-advanced electric vehicles that may be new to many drivers. And the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in cancellations of many of the major auto shows over the last year and a half, accelerated some of these changes as event organizers looked to outdoor events as safer alternatives to more traditional formats and automakers grew accustomed to revealing new cars virtually.

Last month, for example, the Detroit Auto Dealers Association hosted an outdoor auto event called Motor Bella that served as an alternative to the North American International Auto Show, canceled two years in a row because of the pandemic, and which focused on giving consumers the chance to experience new vehicles and technologies via cruises, off-roading demonstrations and laps around the race track. DADA plans to incorporate such experiences into the Detroit auto show, which is expected to return to the city next fall.

Automakers also see events such as Ford's "Built to Connect" in Austin as a way to introduce consumers to new vehicles they may not be able to find on dealer lots that have been left bare in recent months due to supply-chain issues.

"Consumers, when they have a chance to not only ride in them but maybe do something a little different ... they can see how that vehicle fits better into their lives," Raj Register, head of global brand experiences for Ford, told The Detroit News. "That's why we prioritized this, to give consumers an idea of what Ford has to offer, as well as thinking about all the reveals and launches that we've had over the last year during this pandemic where we had to reveal things virtually. This is also an opportunity for us to carry on that excitement, especially with some of our iconic vehicles like Bronco."

The Austin event is organized around three themes: Built to Electrify, Built Wild and Built Tough.

The Built to Electrify exhibit highlights Ford's electric vehicle portfolio, including the forthcoming F-150 Lightning as well as the Mustang Mach-E, which launched late last year and is the Dearborn automaker's first fully-electric vehicle. Attendees have the opportunity to participate in a zero-to-60 ride in the Mach-E.

“In the next nine to 10 years, almost 50% of our portfolio will be electric vehicles," said Register. "And many of the consumers that we have now reserving vehicles and even purchasing vehicles are new to the brand."

The Build Wild demonstration puts consumers in the passenger seat of Ford's resurrected Bronco so they can experience the SUV's off-road capabilities via drives through sand and water and up a hill.

Built Tough highlights Ford's truck lineup, including its new Maverick compact pickup and various F-150 models. It includes a trailer tow assist demonstration.

“This isn’t for everyone, but we do think that a lot of people are looking to engage with the vehicles very differently, versus just going and seeing something static," said Register.

Still, she said, Ford doesn't view this type of event as a replacement for more traditional auto shows: “We see as a complement. Our goal is not to replace auto shows. This is a way for us to meet consumers where they are.”

Ford selected Austin for the event, she said, in part because the automaker has a strong dealership network in Texas. The company recently announced it would spend $90 million in Texas as part of a broader $525 million investment over the next five years in auto technician training.

Depending on how the Austin event goes, Ford could look to expand the concept to additional markets in the future, Register said.

Twitter: @JGrzelewski