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January 11, 2010 2:06 PM | By Jim Kenzie, MSN Autos

Do we really need auto shows?

At a time when budgets are shrinking and bottom line is more important than ever, will auto shows become a thing of the past?

Auto shows - are they going the way of the do do? (© Photo: Rex Features)

There were some pretty strong rumours early last fall that if one more car company decided not to exhibit at the Tokyo Motor Show, there might not be a Tokyo Motor Show in 2010.

None of the big European or American car makers made it, and if any of the major Japanese companies had taken a pass, it probably would have been shut down. And if this Tokyo Motor Show had been cancelled, you'd have had trouble finding someone to bet with that it would ever return.

"That could never happen!" most observers believed. "It's the Tokyo Motor Show!" That's what they said about the British International Motor Show in Birmingham in 2008. It is gone.

The internet has made a lot of things possible, including the very web site you are reading. But there has been, as they say, 'collateral damage'. Not only have the various print media taken a hit (or taken the 'hint', and expanded their reach into the electronic side of the business). But various other forms of marketing have had to re-evaluate their role in the larger scheme of things.

And that, perhaps, is one reason why car marketers are re-evaluating the entire concept of the motor show. There might just be better ways to spend their limited marketing budgets.

The final GM Motoarama, 1961 (© Photo: GM)

GM's Motorama traveling auto show was a sight to behold. The final one ran in 1961.

Motor shows have been around for almost as long as the car itself, dating back at least to the early 1900s. They probably really hit their modern stride in the 1950s, with the General Motors Motorama, a travelling road show that displayed GM's latest and greatest, along with fabulous concept cars that teased us (usually incorrectly) about what the future of the automobile might be.

The last one ran in 1961, in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and drew over one million visitors. Sounds like a big hit to me, and I'm not entirely sure why they stopped doing them. Maybe the general motor shows could deliver a similar message at far lower cost to GM, even if it meant sharing the stage with the competition.

Whatever, management decided to go in a different direction. Maybe history is repeating itself.

A few years ago, Porsche decided to pull out of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, a remarkable decision given that Detroit was without doubt one of the top three auto shows in the world (Frankfurt and Tokyo are generally considered the other two). In fact, most people ranked Detroit first, not only because it was (was, past tense ...) truly Motor City, but because it was the only one of the major shows that was held annually.

For public consumption, Porsche gave as their rationale the fact that they didn't sell many cars in the Detroit area, the local dealer network wasn't crazy about supplying staff to 'person' the show stand during the public days and - again - it wasn't worth the cost. Sounded plausible.

Except especially for Detroit, the raison d'être for an auto show isn't only to get bums in seats with the hope of eventually selling a car to said bums' owners, but for the media exposure a major auto show generates.

Auto shows aren’t just about getting customers into cars – but as automakers are increasingly wary of display costs this may soon be a key deciding factor. (© Photo: Erik C. Pendzich, Rex Features)

Auto shows aren’t just about getting customers into cars – but as automakers are increasingly wary of costs this may soon be a key deciding factor.

Turns out there is a back story to this incident, which is unofficial but which I have on good authority from some colleagues who were close to the situation.

That 'media exposure' is typically generated by a dog-and-pony show on the show stand during the press preview days prior to the show's public opening. Depending on how big your story might be - an all-new hot-shot sports car or a flashy new concept car versus, say, a recitation of the company's financial results for the previous year - you will get great or lousy attendance at your presentation (we always know in advance which it's going to be, although we don't always have full details - that's why we play the games ...).

This particular year, all Porsche had was essentially financial results. Listening to a heavily-accented German accountant blather on with figures on turnover and market share - it might've made it in the Stuttgarter Zeitung, but it ain't gonna make the first paragraph of my story. What's worse, Porsche chose to have its press conference not on the show stand where the media can get to it easily, but in a conference room in the catacombs of the show venue, outside of Cobo Hall itself.

Related Autos links:
Auto show coverage from MSN Autos
2010 Detroit auto show Preview
2009 LA Auto Show
2009 Tokyo Motor Show

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