In the discussions on the changes of the exhibition industry, the Detroit Auto Show always comes up. Detroit is home to the headquarters of three major US automobile manufacturers, namely Ford, GM, and Chrysler. With the longest history in the US, the Show debuted in 1907 at Beller’s Beer Garden at Riverside Park. Since then, the Show has been held every year except 1943-1952. In 1957, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and other European manufacturers jumped on the bandwagon. After that, the Show has become the largest international annual auto event in North America, which changed its name to “North American International Auto Show” (NAIAS) in 1989. However, from January 14 to 27, 2019, auto giants including BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, and Porsche announced that they would no longer participate in NAIAS—once a Top 5 auto show in the world.
As exhibitors pull out and industrial prosperity fades away, NAIAS, a very important show for the auto industry of Detroit and the US, now struggles to survive. Although monetary policies, tariffs, economic conditions, and the volatility and evolution of the auto market contribute to such decline, I believe the key issue lies in NAIAS itself.
BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Audi (BBA) were very “diplomatic” about the reasons why they withdrew. For Mercedes-Benz, the show does not fit with the cadence of their launch calendar as they do not have major new products to promote during that period. For BMW, they are exploring alternative platforms and formats—“the overall goal is to communicate our ideas and plans regarding future mobility in the best way and achieve the greatest possible visibility for our products, technologies and innovations.”
As for Audi, their statement was: “for 2019, we have decided that we will not participate in NAIAS. We will continue to evaluate Auto Shows on a case by case basis relative to the timing of our product introductions and the value the show brings from a media and consumer perspective.”
It is easy to see that exhibitors choose a show for many parameters: timing, platform, format, value…Of course, NAIAS understands it needs changes and innovations, as it announced that since 2020, it would move from the beginning of the year to June and the venue would be changed to outdoors.
As the traditional auto industry focuses more and more on electric drive, auto pilot, AI, and other technological innovations, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which opened in Las Vegas one week before NAIAS, better suits the auto exhibitors. BBA now chooses CES to launch their latest technologies. Perhaps, it is CES that provides the better timing that Mercedes demands, offers the “value” that Audi seeks, and is the “alternative format” that BMW looks for.
In addition, Auto Shanghai 2019 can also offer some insights as to how the exhibition industry is evolving.
In my opinion, auto shows are built on auto brands, concepts, designs, technologies, and cultures. Behind these elements are the state of the art, design philosophies, lifestyles, and brand values. To successfully get these ideas across, the way they are conveyed must be highly aligned with their audiences. Specifically, during a show, only two things truly matter: scenario and experience.
Today, auto manufacturers are following the trend of “smart development, interconnectivity, clean technologies, and shared experience”. Exhibitors’ foremost branding and marketing priority is to showcase how they lead the auto development with their cutting-edging technologies, to persuade consumers to upgrade their consumption habits. At Auto Shanghai 2019, exhibitors demonstrated many scenarios for car use, including daily driving, road trips, smart interconnectivity, auto pilot, etc. Some even built “experience camps”, so that visitors could immerse in all the different auto experiences powered by smart technologies. The exhibitors aimed to enable the visitors to truly experience both the concept cars and the marketable products and services, along with the philosophies and designs behind them.
Exhibitors were very creative in demonstrating the scenarios. “Smart theaters”, “smart living rooms”, “smart concert halls”, “smart streets”, and other immersive interactions based on smart technologies were created. They each showcased a different technological innovation featured in products, such as smart pixel lights, smart driving, smart home, smart stereos, etc. These interactions demonstrated how the products could help their users lead futuristic and convenient lives.
To further showcase their extreme performance and innovative technologies, exhibitors also created more human-oriented recreational zones, which offered games, VR driving simulators, immersive anime, and racing contests.
In contrast, traditional auto shows are much more formulaic: the venues always consist of vehicle exhibition zones against large backdrops, covered by a big dome; from the back to the front, one invariably finds the discussion area, the work zone, the technology demonstration area, and the stage. Due to the blind pursuit of “the bigger” and “the cooler” and a culture built around people’s fantasy of cars, stars, models, and online celebrities, auto shows are becoming increasingly inaccessible, hitting a bottleneck in formats.
Auto Shanghai 2019’s focus on scenarios and experience can also be seen at Beijing Motor Show 2018. Generally speaking, auto shows are deconstructing the traditional layouts and formats: the shows are more open and more lightweight; booths are divided into more diverse “theme zones”; online and offline “quests” are provided for visitors to complete. These all aim at immersing visitors in playful demonstrations, for greater visibility and influence.
Auto Shanghai 2019 also used electronic tickets for the first time. Mobile search, ticketing, and entry are now widely implemented. But before this, it was RFID that helped upgrade events by offering tag recognition, item tracking, information collection, and other features. As professionals point out, “paper tickets, RFID cards, and the electronic tickets today mark the three eras of auto shows: the traditional, the technological, and the digital. This also corresponds to the three eras of automobile development: manufacturing, marketing, and service.”
Based on the evolutions of the Chinese and American auto shows, we can see that future events will have the following focuses: show visibility and branding, more accurate audience positioning, visitor-oriented formats, and better experience for both exhibitors and visitors.