Was it just me, or did the Geneva auto salon lose some of its gloss this year?
Where, for example, was the new Mercedes-Benz C class? Just a month away from launch, the Stuttgart manufacturer decided that if it could not be sure of stealing the show, then there was no point in making an effort. The only major launch came from a tiny British sports car manufacturer.
I have a question: Are we getting all showed-out? There were no surprises in Geneva. In fact, how many real surprises have we seen at recent auto shows? Look back at Detroit, Tokyo and Frankfurt. We had seen it all, read it all and even driven most of it long before the shows began. At the final reckoning, might the bean counters take a look at this and call timeout?
Take a look around the world - it's already happening. Last year's Seoul Motor Show was boycotted by importers who were fed up with high costs, poor sales and even worse facilities. This year's Moscow International Motor Show is heading the same way. Twenty-seven import brands will not go to Moscow for the same reasons they are boycotting Seoul.
Moscow has a motor show every year. That is simply too often, say European, American and Japanese automakers who must pay up to $400,000 to be there. With only 40,000 imports sold in Russia last year, one doesn't need an accountant to figure out that the numbers do not look good. As in Korea, there also is a sneaking suspicion among foreigners that the locals do not pay as much for their display space. Of course, organizers heatedly dispute such speculation.
OK, Moscow and Seoul are second-rate shows compared with Detroit, Frankfurt or Tokyo. But look at what's happening at the famous Turin show this June. Honda, BMW and Rover will not be there, and Ford has not yet committed. BMW is not participating at the Bologna show either, although Rover will. In fact, over the past half-dozen years, there have been more Italian shows without BMW than with. Honda says it has no budget for two Italian shows a year and prefers Bologna.
So if the automakers are starting to think of better ways to reach potential customers, what is the future of the traditional motor show? Will it disappear altogether? Let's hope not. Attendance figures show there still is plenty to excite the consumer, even if every model can be seen on any newsstand or television commercial.
There still is a buzz about a motor show, even for the most cynical of journalists. We would not want to miss press days at the motor shows, with the jostling for position, the search for the scoop and the rush to meet a deadline. Press day is a time for journalists to catch up on the latest new models and concepts. Even more important, it provides an opportunity to spend a few minutes with the engineers, designers and CEOs.
However, automakers are struggling to find the right mix of showmanship and substance. Not many years ago, manufacturers used semi-nude models draped across their vehicles to generate publicity. We have moved away from that, but rather than letting the metal do the talking, automakers seek other gimmicks. In Detroit, for example, Chrysler's Hollywood-style productions spawned a wave of rival stage shows.
How much executive time is wasted trying to coach the top guys to present their shows? Most of the time, the whole thing is excruciatingly embarrassing. The result of this is that Detroit's press event now spans up to five days. That's a ridiculous amount of time, particularly for foreign visitors who often have an additional day's travel after the event.
Frankfurt's motor show has become too big and is poorly managed. Press conferences can be half a kilometer away and within a few minutes of each other. This is really three shows: cars, suppliers and aftermarket. It really should be split up.
It's worth reminding ourselves every now and again what motor shows are for. Traditionally, they have been a selling tool, a showcase of all the available models for the consumer to view in one place. The shows give consumers a glimpse of what will be arriving in the showroom over the next few months. The Detroit auto show, for example, was started to encourage sales at a traditionally slow time of the year. Not only did it work commercially, but the show quickly has become one of the world's premier auto events.
Chris Wright is International Editor of Automotive News International. He is based in London. You can email him at automotiveinternational @compuserve.com