Auto manufacturers, dealers and OEMs will catch a break from the busy auto show circuit this year after the COVID-19 pandemic essentially wiped out the ability to hold crowded events.
This will either be a welcome reprieve or a missed opportunity for these companies, depending on their marketing strategies.
“I certainly do understand the thinking around, ‘We have another auto show to do and there is the new so-and-so model — OK, big deal,’” said Mike Wall, director of automotive analysis at IHS Markit in Grand Rapids. “Believe me, the industry is still driven by a model cycle, for sure. As new models are coming out, you have new technology and you want to get that out to the masses. You want to get that story out.”
Those stories were not told at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, which was slated for its first summer installment this year. The June 9-20 series of events were canceled, falling in line with a long list of counterparts around the world, including the New York International Auto Show, Geneva International Motor Show and Auto China (Beijing).
The next NAIAS is planned for June 11-26 of next year.
In fact, the Chicago Auto Show was the last big show to take place in the United States in early February with nearly 1,000 vehicles at McCormick Place.
The Consumers Electronics Show (CES) also went on as planned in Las Vegas in January, featuring 160 automotive technology companies and also 10 automakers, including the likes of Ford, GM, Nissan, Honda and BMW.
That show stressed the latest innovations in tech. For instance, GM showed off its integration of Amazon’s Alexa Auto voice-controlled virtual assistant in a new Cadillac CT5.
Auto show obsolete?
These auto shows are going dark at the same time more and more automakers are scrutinizing their value. Many of these companies are facing the dilemma of whether to invest in these shows — many of which are slowly dropping in popularity — or to harness their own digital tools to reach out directly to consumers via off-site and off-cycle unveilings.
Crain’s Detroit Business reported prior to 2019’s NAIAS that Mercedes, BMW and Audi were all pulling out of the show to reassess their auto show footprint.
“What we’ve seen is automakers have been doing a very good job at tailoring their messaging via Facebook or live feed — pick your poison, but they’re going virtual and going through social media channels to get those new vehicle launches out there, and this was before the pandemic,” Wall said. “This was already happening. We were seeing automakers pulling out of select auto shows over the years. That’s one of the reasons we saw Detroit shift to June, and it wasn’t all Detroit either — it was all the auto shows, even the international ones, wrestling with this.”
Wall added: “Automakers have finite resources and they want to get the most bang for their buck. If you’re going into an auto show and you’ve got 25 other automakers and you’re all shoulder to shoulder vying for the eyeballs of either the media on certain days or the public on other days, you begin to wonder if it’s all worth it.”
Not a critical touch point
Like many suppliers, ADAC Automotive in Grand Rapids routinely sends a team to NAIAS, but executives never saw it as a crucial means for connecting with potential customers.
“We don’t traditionally look at the auto show as a critical customer touch point,” said Jeff Dolbee, CFO at ADAC Automotive, a Tier 1 supplier specializing in door handles and vehicle access solutions.
“There are meetings that take place, probably as much out of convenience because you have the right folks in the same place at the right time. But we don’t use the auto show in any way to leverage our showing of new technology to customers and things like that.”
At the same time, Dolbee admitted that losing all these high-profile auto shows around the country could certainly result in a blow to consumer excitement.
“From my own anecdotal perspective, I think that there is some loss of consumer excitement,” he said. “For a consumer, especially if you’re in the market for a car, you get to go to one spot and most of the cars that you’re going to be considering are going to be sitting there somewhere on that showroom floor where you can walk back and forth.
“My view is there’s got to be some level of loss as a result of that, but people don’t drive from all over the country to come to Detroit.”
Tier 1 supplier Gentex is taking a similar approach as ADAC Automotive.
The Zeeland-based company manufactures automatic-dimming rearview mirrors, camera-based driver assistance systems and the HomeLink Wireless Control System. Insead of exhibiting at shows like NAIAS, it’s moved directly to customer sites.
However, with today’s health crisis, even those more intimate exhibitions have been put on hold.
In response, Gentex has worked to beef up its digital tools to provide the same in-depth look at its products for potential clients.
“My team has been busy developing new digital sales tools that our sales teams can use online with customers,” said Craig Piersma, director of marketing at Gentex. “We’re creating new videos, websites, e-brochures and other online materials that can be reviewed by customers remotely or during virtual meetings.”
However, Piersma admitted that, regardless of how advanced these digital tools might be, it doesn’t quite trump the in-person experience.
“We’ll take vehicles and display properties and set them up on site with our automaker customers so they can view and test drive new technologies,” Piersma said. “The face-to-face, hands-on interaction is far more effective than virtual meetings.”