5 Lessons From the Death of Frankfurt Motor Show


The world’s most important auto show – Frankfurt – is dead. The VDA organizing group (Verband der Automobilindustrie, or Association of the German Automotive Industry) has pulled the plug on the odd-years-only IAA (Internationale Automobil-Ausstellung, or International Motor Show).

Frankfurt was in trouble when the likes of Toyota, Renault, Peugeot, Nissan, Fiat, and Ferrari pulled out in advance of the show, and Frankfurt became a dead man walking as soon as attendance figures came out: down 31 percent in 2019, down 40 percent this decade. What’s dead, actually, is Frankfurt as the site of long-running of the show. VDA solicited hosting bids, got seven offers, and will decide among Berlin, Munich, and Hamburg. That doesn’t mean good times will return in a different city.

Here’s what we can learn about auto shows from what happened to the Frankfurt Motor Show, as well as the experiences of other show facing troubled times, notably Detroit:

The Deuce, Henry Ford II, shows off the all-new Mustang (this from the Ford press release), New York World’s Fair, April 17, 1964. Fairgoers could ride a monorail of Mustangs above the Flushing Meadows site, near where the Mets now play.

1. Nobody Goes to the World’s Fair Anymore

Auto shows were where you went to learn about the progress of the motorcar. Just as people used to travel to the World’s Fair to learn about the march of progress: broadcast TV (New York, 1939), the Ferris Wheel (Chicago, 1893), the Eiffel Tower (Paris, 1889), the Ford Mustang (New York, 1964). Now, you just go find a YouTube video. There hasn’t been a World’s Fair in North America since Vancouver 1986 and the more recent ones have expensive exercises in nation-building and chest-thumping (somewhat like the Olympics).

If you go to an auto show, it’s either out of the thrill of seeing new cars, getting your kids excited about cars, or because you’re shopping for one you’ll buy soon. But you probably know the top lines on what they look like and how much horsepower they have.

Long before Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus (“Ridin’ on a horse, ha, You can whip your Porsche”), Ram trucks opened the Detroit auto show with a 2008 cattle drive. It was a mega-cold day and you had to get up real early to see this one-time event.

2. Automakers Don’t Exhibit Where Their Cars Don’t Sell

This is what hurt Detroit. For years, foreign automakers – those headquartered outside the US – all went to Detroit (NAIAS, or North American International Auto Show). They wanted to be part of the excitement for the two, or two and a half, press and charity days before the show opened to the public. In Detroit, no matter what Mercedes-Benz showed, local coverage favored the Big Three: Chrysler (at the time), Ford, and GM. But then, who’d want to write up variable valve timing and direct injection in a new Benz when you had Ram Trucks (Chrysler) driving a herd of cattle in front of Cobo Hall? That was in 2008, the year after Daimler and Chrysler ended their 10-year merger.

Basically, the Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Porsche market share in Michigan rounds up to about, oh, zero percent. So they stopped exhibiting. Some, like Porsche, stopped exhibiting multiple times. And the internationals stopped underwriting booths they used for two days and the local dealers then used for 10 more. Detroit may well be the worst auto show for automaker ROI because just about everybody works for or has a relative working for one of the automakers and access to employee/family discounts. The odds are nil that someone in a Chrysler family buys an F-150 or Silverado over a Ram 1500.

Most major auto shows also don’t happen when cars are being sold. That’s in the spring. It certainly isn’t in the dead of winter, which is when auto dealers prefer the shows to be held, so they can build a few more sales in December and January, and then hold February sales in honor of – yes, there’s irony – two of America’s most honest Presidents.

3. Auto Shows Are Green, Mobility Shows (Doesn’t Sell)

In an effort to be future-looking, auto shows added components for electrification, sound environmental practices, and mobility services such as shared-ride vans. In some places, it works (Los Angeles); in others, it doesn’t. Regardless, that component is the look-what’s-new part, sort of like what the World’s Fairs used to be. Most Americans are not yet shopping for EVs, not with sales stalled at less than 2 percent of US market share.

This is the stuff that the media wants to cover (some of us, anyway) but the same things we want don’t have crowds clamoring to see.

The Frankfurt Motor Show has been held in Frankfurt since 1951. Cars and motorcycles are shown in odd-number years, commercial vehicles in even years. The chart shows the main, motor vehicle, show attendance in the 2000s. Attendance in 2019 was down by almost a third.

4. Buyers Don’t Like Auto Dealers

The main reason for a major auto show’s existence is not press days but the public days, Friday to the following Sunday, nine to ten days. That’s when the public comes and interacts with representatives from the local auto dealers, plus some automaker reps. It’s not clear how much they learn they didn’t already know from online. And it’s not clear how much the public’s general distaste for the car-buying experience inside auto showrooms rubs off on the auto-show experience. You do get to see almost every brand under one roof. At Camp Jeep and a few others, you can ride on an off-roading-lite trek. If the car is popular, you’ll have to wait in line to sit inside.

Meanwhile, the brochures you could pick up in bulk at the auto show, the same info is online. As far as auto shows being parents-to-children bonding time, people born the last three decades see the automobile as less exciting than their parents did as kids. It hasn’t gone away entirely, but it has slipped enough to affect auto show attendance.

Experiential marketing: Ford Police Interceptor doing its stuff at New Jersey’s Meadowlands. Automakers have expanded their targeted marketing to commercial and government buyers, too.

5. Automakers Invest in Experiential Marketing

Automakers are rethinking where to spend their marketing dollars. They want to focus it on the most likely prospects if they can identify them: people who bought a premium car 2-3 years ago, young parents with a second baby on the way and maybe in need of a safe midsize SUV, somebody who just googled Tag Heuer and Rolex. So they sponsor music festivals, support charities, and cough up $5 million for a 30-second Super Bowl 54 (2020) spot. Or they invite the best prospects to drive the cars at speed in a stadium parking lot (speed is relative), give them lunch and a baseball cap, and check back in a couple of days. They also target likely-to-buy demographics with focused online ad buys. Those activities have better ROI than building a bigger, splashier auto show booth, automakers are deciding.

What’s on the Horizon?

Auto shows aren’t dead yet. But convention centers that look to auto shows to fill two-plus weeks of the calendar (including move-in and teardown days) have to wonder if they’ll soon be renting only parts of their facilities in the future.

Ford and Volvo did not exhibit at the Geneva auto show in February. Geneva is an important show because Switzerland, with no auto industry to speak of, is neutral territory, unlike Frankfurt.

The US has three major shows: New York, Detroit, and Los Angeles; Chicago, Washington, and Miami are mid-majors. BMW ended its presence at the New York Auto Show (NYIAS) in 2019. This year, Mercedes-Benz is bowing out, too. Unlike Michigan, where they sell few cars, metro New York is Mercedes’ biggest market. So leaving NYIAS is not for lack of buyers.

Detroit bailed on its dead-of-winter, just-after-CES date after 2018. This year NAIAS (North American International Auto Show) resumes in June as part auto show, part motorist-participation show, part rite-of-spring, June 9-20. There will still be press days, a technology segment called (wait for it) AutoMobili-D, and public show.

The show to watch as bellwether for US shows is Los Angeles, Nov. 20-29 this year. California is the car capital of the world when it comes to diverse buyer tastes and a diverse population. Also, more high tech work and automotive design is done in California than anywhere else. And the LA show has had a booming green-tech-sustainable-ridesharing segment that is unmatched, called AutoMobility LA. Other than the LA Convention Center being broken up and too small, SoCal is as good a place as any for a forward-looking show.

The most new car tech is displayed at CES in Las Vegas and cars stand out even among the show’s traditional consumer electronics devices, home automation, and the burgeoning health tech exhibits. So far, LA / Automobility LA and CES are co-existing.

We’ll have see how no-longer-Frankfurt fares in Berlin, Munich, or Hamburg.

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