When was the last time you went to a car show? I don’t JUST mean a big, convention center-filling, week-long event, but even a classic car show at your local ball field or drive-in?...Don’t remember? I don’t think you’re alone with that answer. Unfortunately, I feel like the 2 most popular answers to that question are “I don’t remember” or “Never.” Hi folks, Nick here from CEP. For this edition of the Hot Blog, I’m going to expound upon a topic that my co-hosts and I touched on briefly in one of our Spark Plugs awhile back: car shows. More specifically, the decline in interest and why this is a small piece of a much bigger issue in the automotive universe.
Back in the day, car shows were the focal points of a calendar year in the motoring world. Geneva, Chicago, Beijing, Los Angeles…these were the places that the entire auto industry, and the general public, would flock to for major news and announcements, space-age concept cars and to keep their respective fingers on the pulse of everything that was happening with their favorite brands. Nowadays, while the shows are still a great networking opportunity for people WITHIN the industry, it seems as if the general public’s reactions have been lukewarm at best. The car companies are taking notice. All over the place, major car conglomerates are pulling out of these once revered car shows in favor of “new marketing efforts.” It all comes down to this: ROI. What is the return on investment going to be for my company? Through my day-job, while not in the auto industry, I have been involved in quite of few of these trade shows and they are mighty pricey. First the company has to pay to reserve it’s booth, then they need to design the booth, a lot of times with outside help from a marketing/brand company, then they need to staff the booth for up to a week (along with food and lodging for the staffers), not to mention shipping all the products to and from the trade show location. When it’s all said and done, some of these major companies will spend well into the 6, maybe 7-figure range for ONE SHOW….and how many extra cars is that going to sell? Is it really worth all that effort? Companies are learning quickly that they can reach as many people at a fraction of the cost by using an avenue that may also turn out to be one of the auto industry’s biggest competitors: tech.
Yes, “tech” is a general term. I meant it to be so. It encompasses a lot of things. How can a car company be competing with tech, you ask? Why wouldn’t they just use technology to their advantage? They do, and I’ll get to that, but ponder this for a minute: it’s no longer just a Ford vs. Chevy vs. Mercedes vs. BMW world out there. These folks are competing against companies like…Google, for instance, who are working on a self-driving car. Or how about Uber or Lyft, companies that are making apps for carpooling? Heck, my esteemed co-host Tristan put it best in our episode Nikola, Elon and Jeff when he said that “Tesla is a tech company that happens to make cars.” The point is that new people with new ideas on how transportation can work are invading the space long dominated by the automotive giants…and the people who embrace these new ways of thinking just happen to be the people who are currently in the car-buying “sweet spot”: 20-30 year old young professionals. Think of the impact that social media has had on EVERYTHING in the last ten years. Why would a car company spend a million on a trade show when they could utilize Insta, The Tweet Box, The Book of Faces (I think that’s what they call them) and others to launch a new car? They can get a thousand times LARGER reach for a thousand times LESS spend. The people who the big auto manufacturers need to get are these young adults, fresh out of school with their shiny new degree who are ready to make their first car purchase. But these same people are the ones who grew up on cat videos, Tosh.O and LEEEEEROOOOOOYY JEEEEEEENNNNKKIIIIIIINNNNSSSS!!!!! Why would they pay for admission to a convention center when they can look up reviews online for free? Short answer: They wouldn’t. And car manufacturers are starting to realize this, so they are choosing social media over presence on a trade show floor. Now, if you’re the director of a convention center, you shouldn’t worry too much because the vacancies left by car brands are being filled rapidly by parts suppliers eager to show off their wares. So you are still meeting your quota. But let’s face it, The North American International AUTO Show sounds better than The North American International FLOOR MAT Show, don’t you think? Bottom line is, the automakers are starting to realize that they need to change their approach if they want to keep selling, and big auto shows might be one of the casualties before too long. But this leads to a bigger point that I want to get to: it’s not just car SHOWS that are in failing health…its car CULTURE.
I remember wandering around the local classic car shows with my dad when I was little. I still get to them from time-to-time when I can. I grew up in a gearhead family, so I appreciated the time and effort it took to restore some of the pieces I was looking at. But to be honest, the best part about these shows is talking to the owners. I love to hear the stories about the blood, sweat and tears it took rebuilding a 1934 Ford hot rod they found in a barn. Maybe there’s a car on the property that’s an old converted race car, which used to run with Mark Donahue and Dan Gurney back in the 1960’s. There might be an owner showing a vehicle that has been in his/her family for generations and they reminisce about the summer road trips they used to take as a family. THAT’S what car culture is. It’s getting to hear why these pieces of iron mean so much to somebody. But these Snapchatters don’t give a shit about any of that. They view a vehicle as a means to get from Point A to Point B so they can start tweeting again. One thing I’ve begun to notice recently is this: car show crowds are getting older. I am 30 years old, and rarely do I see someone my age or younger at one of these get-togethers. 20-somethings who are actually showing a classic car don’t even exist in the wild, to my knowledge. But even if they did care to do so, what kind of car would a millennial show? Their modded Honda Civic? A Focus ST? Cars today (with the exception of high end sports cars) aren’t even WORTH showing anymore. Car companies are designing everything to look the same, not different. They themselves are contributing to the decline of car culture. At a show, you should be able to walk up to someone showing a car and ask questions like “Is this the version that came with the 427 engine?” But in the very near future, those questions could change to something like “This thing have Apple Car Play?”…just doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?
After all that, I must say I’m not sure what the answer is. How do we preserve car culture? Obviously, all of you reading this or listening to our podcast are level-headed individuals who don’t need reminding of what car culture is. Your version of a good drive is downshifting a couple times setting up for a hairpin turn, and feeling sublime mechanical grip and perfect throttle response as you clip the apex, as opposed to being able to scroll through Fail Army videos while the Uber driver gets you to the grocery store. YOU know why cars are important. YOU still get goosebumps at the sound of a Lexus LF-A. YOUR jaw still drops when you watch an F1 car pound up Eau Rouge at 200mph. Unfortunately, THEY are outnumbering us, people. As somber as this may sound, we may just be the last of our kind.