From Paris to Detroit: is the internet killing off international motor shows?

Participation in car expos worldwide looks as though it's on the decline, so what can organisers do to keep their events fresh?

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 12 November 2019. The new Land Rover Defender at the Dubai Motor Show opening day. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Nic Webster. Section: National.
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Motor shows have been around for almost as long as the automobile itself. Karl Benz is credited with designing and building the first car, known as the Motorwagen, in 1885, while the first motor show, Le Salon de l'Automobile du cycle et des sports (essentially the maiden Paris motor show), was held in 1898. As part of this, exhibitors had to prove their seriousness by driving their cars from Versailles to Paris.

Just as cars began to become more mainstream in the early 20th century, so, too, did motor shows, with the first Detroit iteration – now officially known as the North American International Auto Show – staged in 1907.

As the years rolled on, these events evolved into slick, big-budget affairs and manufacturers added wow-factor to their unveils with pyrotechnics, song-and-dance routines, elaborate multimedia visuals and, occasionally, celebrity guests onstage.

It made a lot of sense. Here was the perfect platform for manufacturers to whip a silk sheet off their latest concepts and production models. Automotive media from around the world would be in attendance, so the car company’s message – and images of their latest and greatest offerings – could be trumpeted all over the globe in one fell swoop.

It worked brilliantly for more than a century, but, as the old cliche goes, what goes up must come down, and what we’re witnessing now is the marked decline of the entire concept.

As effective as auto expos have been for all these years, the "I" word – yes, the Internet – has taken away much of their sting. So-called "reveals" of new cars are rarely that in the modern era, as images and details of any debutant tend to be either pre-released, or leaked, prior to the show, and this material subsequently goes viral.

It’s now a rarity to attend a motor show and see something that hasn’t been exposed prior to the event. This fact alone has robbed much of the appeal of such events, but

there are other shortcomings, too.

There is a general feeling in the industry that major shows such as Paris and Detroit could perish over the coming years due to lack of interest from both car companies and the general public

Many car companies are increasingly unable to get an adequate return on investment to justify the millions spent on participating. Part of the problem is that they’re competing for the media’s attention with numerous other brands, so whatever coverage they earn tends to get lost in the avalanche of content churned out over the course of the show.

Several manufacturers are now finding a way around this by staging their own events whenever they have a significant new product to reveal. Porsche did exactly this by unveiling its revolutionary Taycan EV – simultaneously in Germany, China and Canada – the week before the Frankfurt Motor Show, and Ferrari did likewise the night before the show in Maranello with its F8 Spider and 812 GTS.

Frankfurt’s is the biggest auto expo on the calendar, yet there was a staggering number of no-shows at this year’s event, with the absentees including heavyweights such as General Motors, Toyota, Nissan, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Kia, Peugeot, Citroen, Volvo, Fiat, Chrysler, Jeep, Ferrari, Maserati and Bentley. Consequently, several halls at Messe Frankfurt were vacant, and there was a notably subdued atmosphere compared to past years.

It’s a worrying sign for organisers, as even Volkswagen Group chairman Herbert Diess says such shows “are a product of the 1960s and not as relevant anymore. They’re not delivering what we want and they’re not delivering what car buyers want.”

There is a general feeling in the industry that major shows such as Paris and Detroit could perish over the coming years due to lack of interest from both car companies and the general public.

The outlook is brighter for more targeted programmes such as Geneva, which is a lucrative haven for ultra-premium and niche brands. These high-end manufacturers invariably sell several cars at the show, which makes it well worth their while to invest in a presence.

Across the Atlantic, every November, Las Vegas hosts the SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association) show, which houses a smorgasbord of custom cars and aftermarket equipment. This, too, has its own unique appeal, so its future – at least for the short to medium-term – seems assured.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 12 November 2019. A Mclaren at the Dubai Motor Show opening day. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Nic Webster. Section: National.

Locally, there's the Dubai International Motor Show, which this year has the support of the regional offices of Jaguar-Land Rover, General Motors and Nissan. BMW, Mercedes, Ferrari, Maserati, Lincoln and Mitsubishi are there, too, via their respective local dealers. There's no official presence from Toyota, Lexus, Mazda, Hyundai, Kia, Ford, Volkswagen, Audi, Porsche, Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge and Peugeot, to name a few.

Even so, the managing director of Jaguar-Land Rover Mena, Bruce Robertson, says: "The scale of the Dubai International Motor Show makes it the ideal place for ­Jaguar-Land Rover to make a number of big reveals. The new Defender will make its regional debut at [the event], with order books already open for this highly anticipated vehicle."

Nissan ME is using the expo to display its refreshed 2020 Patrol, and managing director Thierry Sabbagh, says it "has been an important platform for us to reiterate our commitment to the region, aligned with our ... mid-term plan that aims to achieve 20 per cent market share in the Gulf by 2022".

As a general trend, though, the focus is shifting away from motor shows and instead to more focused and interactive events such as the Goodwood Festival of Speed in the UK, Pebble Beach Concours in California and Concorso d'­Eleganza Villa d'Este on the shores of Lake Como in Italy.

Another example is the recent BMW M Festival – showing the Bavarian brand's high-performance "M" cars – held at Kyalami Grand Prix Circuit in South Africa. The event drew about 25,000 paying visitors, thanks to attractions such as high-speed taxi rides around the track, as well as several other interactive experiences. The company also set up an impromptu showroom at the track, with 200 cars up for sale. I was there and witnessed three cars being sold over a 15-minute duration.

These are the kinds of events that now deliver greater value for both manufacturers and the public. It’s the way forward, proving motor shows aren’t dead yet.