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There's No Business in Show Business

"Why do I have to trudge through this snowy mess in the middle of winter to see a bunch of cars I've already seen, either in person or on the Internet?" It's in January for two reasons: January was once the official start of the model year, and the dealers that run the show use it to boost sales at a time when the market is soft.

The North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit takes place each January, a time of the year that is best described by words that used to grace our license plates: "Water Winter Wonderland." And though those words referred to the Great Lakes, wintertime pursuits, and natural wonder of both peninsulas, it pretty much describes the thoughts of many who come to the city during January to attend one of the major auto shows in the world. As in: "Why do I have to trudge through this snowy mess in the middle of winter to see a bunch of cars I've already seen, either in person or on the Internet?" It's in January for two reasons: January was once the official start of the model year, and the dealers that run the show use it to boost sales at a time when the market is soft. And, in Detroit, the show creates excitement for a simple reason: This is a company town and the show is a company show.

That point was made in a surprising way when Nissan pulled out of NAIAS. True, the financial crisis forced Nissan to look for ways to save money, and auto shows are an easy target. But in Chicago, where Nissan also dropped its participation, the dealer body stepped in and paid for a large portion of the costs. This won't happen in Detroit because the dealer body isn't as strong-Nissan sells a grand total of 6,000 Nissan and Infiniti cars in Detroit in a good year. So Nissan joins Porsche, Ferrari, Rolls Royce, and others in passing on NAIAS. End of story, right?

Not exactly. That's because auto shows the world over are in danger for a number of reasons. Let me be clear: The customer at these shows is the car-buying public, not the media or the industry executives. What are prospective car-buyers getting from these venues that they can't get from a trip to the local dealer-or the Internet? Comparison shopping? Uh, people are doing more and more of that on the ‘Net. Seeing what's new? Ditto. Actually seeing and sitting in the cars and trucks to see what they're really like? Okay, you got me on that one, but a trip to the local mega-dealer often takes care of that. Ambience? You have to be kidding, though there is a level of excitement for car enthusiasts let loose among all of those vehicles. Is this is true of the general public? Not so much. Not any more.

I doubt that auto shows will disappear from the face of the earth, but I do think they will become less relevant. The number of "big"-in terms of industry importance-auto shows will come down to destination cities in large media markets and nice weather or where the industry is an important part of the economic lifeblood. This means Paris, Geneva, Los Angeles, New York, Frankfurt, Tokyo, and-as long as it meets that last criteria-Detroit. And that leads to the question no one wants to answer: Should the industry continue to support this business model?

Clearly, the world is changing. In the coming years display technologies, driven by gaming and the Internet, will move beyond high definition and become immersive and more realistic. Currently, media companies are discussing how to connect the customer with these technologies in order to allow people to take a virtual drive and feel the sensations with a reasonable amount of fidelity. This will let them compare vehicles in ways that can only be accomplished at a dealership today. Why would they take the time to drive to a convention center, look for parking, deal with the "lookers" who jump from car to car, and all of the other indignities just to see a car they might buy? I haven't got the answer to this question, but I do know that those involved in the planning and execution of auto shows the world over have to stop talking to themselves and look at their shows-their displays and vehicles-through the eyes of the consumer. Are they there to be entertained, to learn, to look and compare? What are they learning about your company, your philosophy, your view of the world and, through this, what you think of them? Or are you there to bask in what you imagine is their adulation because, you believe, it has always been thus? Do yourself a favor, ask yourself these questions now, before they are answered for you. 

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