Interesting article in the Sydney Morning Herald on October 17 by Steve Colquhoun describing the high absentee rate amongst auto brands at this years Sydney Motor Show. Marques such as BMW, Chrysler, Jeep, Renault, Volvo and – hang onto your peals – Rolls Royce are all missing in action.  For one of the most prominent and largest crowd puller (200,000 paying punters are expected through the doors) exhibitions held in Australia, does this mean doom for the exhibition industry?

Nah.  More on that soon but there were some intriguing points raised in Steve’s article.

First up we had Edward Rowe from European Automotive Importers who distribute high price luxury brands such as Ferrari, Maserati and Lotus explain his absence from the show as “We have to sell cars in the most cost efficient manner. We’re not in the entertainment business”.  Steve, matey, I don’t mind you taking a pass on exhibiting at the Sydney Motor Show but the entertainment industry is EXACTLY the business you are in. The Ferraris and Maseratis all represent high-class, sexy motoring that will thrill both the driver and their social circle.

And then we had Clyde Campbell the managing director of Chrysler, Jeep, Alfa Romeo and Fiat saying about this about his brand’s non-attendance, “We think it’s more important to have direct contact with our customers, and our marketing has been working well,” he says. Sweet Jesus, exhibitions are all about-face to face marketing Clyde and if there is more direct form, I reckon there would be an “R” rating and Barry White playing in the background.

Those kind of comments get me a little bit cranky – not with the views held by Edward and Clyde – but with the exhibition industry.  We are doing a pretty poor job of explaining the value of exhibiting if the basics of face-to-face marketing and creating an entertaining and immersive experience is not understood.

Returning to the insider view, I was the project manager and part of the design team at Acumen Design for stands such as Mercedes-Benz, Smart, Maybach, Suzuki, Seat, Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz Commercial Vehicles from 1999 to 2005.  Back in the day, the Motor Shows were done as a circuit.  Starting in Sydney in October, it then cruised through Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide and finished in Perth in May the following year.  At each capital city, the stands varied in size according to the venue, audience and my need for the lucky rabbits foot got less and less.  In those heady pre-GFC days, marques could not get enough space to display all the range of cars they wanted and they was much argy bargy about securing enough space. Space was generally awarded based on market share but the luxury brands that were recognized as a big crowd puller, were afforded a generous space offering.

So then the GFC happened, the world exploded, ice caps melted and dodgey bankers got bailed out.  The Motor Show circuit has been trimmed from a five city circus to yearly alternating between Melbourne and Sydney.  And everyone – not just car makers – are looking closer on the return on investment and how their marketing dollar is spent.  I know some people might gasp and reach for the smelling salts when figures like $1 million dollar investment to participate in a Motor Show is thrown about but how many cars do you reckon need to be sold by a marque to recoup these costs?  For your Holdens, Fords and Mazdas, quite a few as the average car they sell is in the low to medium price range so their markup is kept pretty lean.  How many cars does it take a luxury marque to recoup their investment?  Three.  That’s right.  Three. Back in the early 90’s in Brisbane, Mercedes-Benz sold 3 cars off their stand meaning they had a positive return on investment in the low hundred thousands.  And one of those cars was a scare-the-sheep purple colour!  I don’t doubt that the same returns would be on offer today for the car markers.

What the car markers don’t want to admit is that with annual car sales exceeding pre-GFC levels, the market got savvier and more segmented.  With the rise of internet marketing, the introduction of Asia car markers into the Australian market and new niche car types like SUV’s, hybrids and so on, it has made selling cars more challenging.

So why wouldn’t a car maker use an opportunity like a Motor Show to build brand awareness and do some really cool stuff rather than treat their stand space like a glorified show room?  Ford has been doing this really well since 2010.  Their stand has been flooded with punters as they use simple, engaging interactives to explain the behind the scenes design processes and safety features.  The punters are going nuts not only getting to see the latest Ford vehicles but getting a peek behind the curtain.  Ford totally got it.  It is all about entertainment.  If people hare handing over $19 to walk through the door with parking and a Gaytime ice cream on top of that, you’d freaking well hope you have got more to offer them that a car on a polished timber floor.

Ford @ 2010 Sydney Motor Show

Mercedes-Benz also got it.  While so many of their Motor Show attendees could not afford their mid to top end range of luxury cars, there were a large number of attendees that were aspirational tradies who could purchase the Mercedes-Benz Commercial Vehicle range when it was released.  By showing it at the Motor Show and adding the Mercedes-Benz bling to the display and promotion of it, the range was guaranteed a successful launch.

I am with Russ Tyrie, the director of the Motor Show and all round nicest blokes you could ever meet.  Motor Shows have a future.  And that future belongs to marques that deliver an entertaining experience that elevates it from the typical show room presence and justifies the effort and expense punters have put into getting their butts along.

In keeping with the car theme, here is what I am blasting on my Jazz’s stereo at the moment.  Fu Manchu’s “Squash that Fly”.    I am so going to have a problem with hearing later in life but hot damn, what a way to go!

See you next week!