Is the clock ticking for motor shows?

Big names, including Ford, will be absent from the Paris show.

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On Thursday 29th September France will become the centre of the automotive world for two weeks, with the opening of the bi-annual Paris Motor Show. But when the international executives and the world’s motoring media wander the halls on the first day, they will notice some big names are absent.

Significant manufacturers, such as Rolls-Royce, Volvo, and perhaps most remarkably, Ford, are not at Paris, deciding that in an age of online marketing, social media and such like, there are better ways to spend the considerable amount of money – in many cases several millions – that it costs to exhibit at a show such as Paris.

On the surface it would seem a no-brainer to be at Paris. Said to have attracted a remarkable 1.2 million visitors when last held in 2014, the event is one of the three ‘premier league’ automotive shows in Europe, the others being Frankfurt – which alternates with Paris as Europe’s Autumn show – and the Geneva event, held every year in March.

The sheer size of the Frankfurt show has to be seen to be believed.
The sheer size of the Frankfurt show has to be seen to be believed.

The three are very different – Paris is big, Frankfurt is huge, an event so vast in its floorspace spread over so many halls that manufacturers run shuttles between them, and after the two press days journalists in particular can be seen physically wilting, no longer able to feel their legs.

Geneva, however, remains a very compact event, held in an exhibition pavilion next door to the city’s airport and easily ‘doable’ in a day, flying in on the first plane of the morning and flying out again in the early evening. And despite a footprint of much less than half of that of Frankfurt, Geneva is generally regarded as the premier European show.

The automotive market has changed, however, as consumers become ever more informed about the new metal beforehand. Where once on the first day everyone eagerly crowded onto each show stand to see the reveal of each new model, today virtually every one is announced on the Internet, across social media, sometimes weeks before the show – a truly newsworthy unveiling at a show is becoming a rare thing.

Where once a new model unveiling at a show was a newsworthy event, today it's all revealed online weeks before... Photo: Andrew Charman
Where once a new model unveiling at a show was a newsworthy event, today it’s all revealed online weeks before… Photo: Andrew Charman

And the manufacturers are beginning to see targeted marketing to those most likely to buy their product as much more effective than hoping to appeal to a portion of the 1.25 million that might pass through the Paris halls. The preferred venues today are the likes of cultural and lifestyle events, taking their new models to where their audience is, rather than the other way round, and in many cases spending rather less doing so.

“Volvo Cars sees the need to present our brand, products and innovations to customers and the media, but motor shows are not always the best way to do this,” says Nikki Rooke from Volvo Cars UK.

“Motor shows are a traditional way to launch new products but it’s a crowded environment. Over recent years, we’ve gradually reduced our motor show activities, remaining in one motor show per region per year: Geneva in Europe, Shanghai/Beijing in China and Detroit in the United States and instead embarking on our own series of new product launch initiatives that better reflect our individual approach to the market.

“Volvo is a unique brand so we feel can be better marketed in alternative ways that challenge the traditional cycle of other automotive brands.”

Other automotive brands are challenging this ‘traditional cycle’. Ford announced at the end of 2015 that it was planning a new marketing push in France, which rather than attendance at the Paris show would see a series of ‘experiential events and activations throughout France showcasing product and smart mobility solutions’, quoting as examples technology shows, design events and mobility forums.

And the brand is also looking to its own dedicated events, rather than competing with everyone else. “Paris is a great show but we are always looking for new ways to communicate with our customers, dealers, employees and other stakeholders,” says Tim Holmes of Ford UK.

“This year we have decided to share our important European news at a dedicated Ford event later in the autumn.  Watch this space!”

All of which is concerning for the future of the traditional motor show. Those outside the premier league are already falling by the wayside, notably Britain. The UK’s international motor show moved from Birmingham to a well-received new location at London’s Excel Centre in 2006, but the second show in 2008 was the last.

London's Excel Centre was a quality new home for the UK motor show - but a short-lived one...
London’s Excel Centre was a quality new home for the UK motor show – but a short-lived one… Photo: Andrew Charman

Interestingly, the manufacturers who no longer spend money on the British show can now be seen erecting ever more elaborate stands at the ‘Moving Motor Show’ which has become an extra day of the Goodwood Festival of Speed motorsport event – again, targeted marketing.

…but they are spending money at more targeted events, such as Goodwood. Photo: Andrew Charman

So, are the really big shows under threat? Not immediately perhaps, but as manufacturer marketing techniques continue to shrink towards more specific audiences, it might be time to make the most of our big auto shows, before their time is up…

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Andrew Charman
Andrew Charman
Andrew is a road test editor for The Car Expert. He is a member of the Guild of Motoring Writers, and has been testing and writing about new cars for more than 20 years. Today he is well known to senior personnel at the major car manufacturers and attends many new model launches each year.

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