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Post-COVID auto shows must survive for consumers


The Kia display at the 2020 Chicago Auto Show (Image courtesy of the Chicago Auto Show)

While media have been attacking auto shows in recent years, saying they’re dead, many have been wondering if COVID-19 is the final nail in the coffin. However, after spending a month shopping for a truck and working as a journalist during this time, it’s clear to me we need them.

The days of glitz and glamour and scantily clad women at the front of the stage with a smoke-filled room in the back are — or should — be long gone, but auto shows haven’t lost their place in the grand scheme of things.

This is especially the case in today’s car market.

Why consumers need auto shows

Anyone who has shopped for a new truck or SUV in the past few months can quickly understand how invaluable auto shows are for their needs. The fact of the matter is while driving impressions are one thing, the majority of most consumers’ likes and dislikes will focus on the interior of the cabin. Do they have a place for their cell phones/purses/backpacks? Is the layout pleasing to the eye? Does it feel cheap?

Then, you have the matter of the seat comfort which is a much bigger issue for many over the 0-to-60-mph time.

Plus, you can see if your family fits, how much legroom they have and what the kids like — all in one place. This is opposed to dragging the entire family around from dealer to dealer. As a father myself, I can’t tell you how valuable this really is for your sanity.

The Honda display at the 2020 Chicago Auto Show (Image courtesy of the Chicago Auto Show)

Finally, you have all the bonus things you can learn at an auto show. These are key. For example, pickup trucks will often put up seemingly outrageous claims of payload or towing. Yet, the reality is far different.

Like with the 2021 Ford F-150 PowerBoost (aka hybrid) I’m looking to purchase. On the Ford towing guide, it says payload is 1,800 pounds and my max towing is 12,700 pounds. Nothing against Ford — or GM, Toyota, Nissan or Ram, but that’s a lot of hooey. Those numbers really only apply to one certain configuration of truck and no, you can’t get both the max towing and payload on one truck. It just doesn’t work that way when you start realizing what equipment goes with what and how truck buying really works.

Instead, the numbers are often much lower, which makes a BIG difference when you are trying to decide what truck to buy with which camper for your family — without you being tossed out to sleep in the tent.

With an auto show, you can open the doors of various truck models, brands and sizes to see what the numbers are in reality. This lets you see things in a way that would take hours, days or even a few weekends to do at a dealer.

Finally, fit and finish really do matter to consumers. At an auto show, you can shut the door, check how it closes, examine how the stitching looks on the fabric and literally compare it to other trucks sitting a couple feet away from different brands.

Again, another gigantic time saver.

The media reveal of the Jaguar F-Type at the 2020 Chicago Auto Show (Image courtesy of the Chicago Auto Show)

What about journalists?

This all sounds good for consumers, but what about the journalists? For myself and my colleagues who have attended these shows for years, we have grown bored with the current model of car reveals. But that really misses the full potential of the auto show.

For me, the true value of an auto show is not only networking but also acting like the consumer above and comparing payload and towing. Sure, I can read a spec sheet just like anyone else, but I also want to see the actual payload.

We often write all these stories about the best payload truck or the best towing truck relying on manufacturer data. Again, like above, that’s a lot of baloney.

Instead, we should be writing stories on what matters to consumers. Like Jill did with the story on which trucks have adjustable pedals. We should be checking things out and writing stories on which crew cab V-8 trucks have the best real-world towing or payload. Those are the valuable stories that provide value and help people narrow down their truck shopping list.

We can also get real face-to-face time with executives and better try to understand why key decisions were made instead of always blaming the “bean counters” for making a change. Take, for example, the 2019 Chevy Silverado 1500 not having adaptive cruise control. We could have just blamed the bean counters, but our reaction to this news and how we reported on it made a difference. How do I know? The 2020 Chevy Silverado now has it.

Besides that, it is more and more clear to me, our work can’t just be done via video conference. Sure, we can all attend the same conferences, and some reveals make sense on video conference. But then we also walk away with the same exact story. No unique narrative, no real experiences to share and nothing of real value to give our audience.

For example, doing a virtual reveal of XYZ vehicle is fine, but we can’t tell our audience if the cabin feels roomy or cramped without seeing it in person. What value are we giving to those who want to order their new car now? None.

We aren’t journalists in this case; we are just extensions of the marketing team, regurgitating the facts they want to give us.

The bottom line on auto shows

Yes, the world has changed since COVID-19 began, and we will likely have a different world moving forward. Auto shows will naturally change and adapt to this new world, as they should. But we cannot downplay their significance for both the consumers and the journalists.

Related posts:

Behind the scenes: Reasons for buying a new truck for the channel

Which pickup trucks have adjustable pedals?

2020 North American International Auto Show Cancelled, FEMA To Use TCF Center As Field Hospital

Tim Esterdahl

Automotive Journalist Tim Esterdahl has been a lover of trucks and SUVs for years. He has covered the industry since 2011 and has pieces in many national magazines and newspapers. In his spare time, he is often found tinkering on his '62 C10 pickup, playing golf, going hunting and hanging out with his wife and kids in Nebraska.

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