ATLANTA — With thousands of consumers set to stream into the Georgia World Congress Center, Nissan positioned the Kicks, its new subcompact crossover, front and center on its stand. It won't hit dealerships until June, but the Kicks was already well-traveled by the time it reached Atlanta's auto show, going from Los Angeles to Detroit, Chicago, Washington and even Montreal.
A small gaggle of mostly local media showed up on a brisk March morning to hear from Nissan and other automakers exhibiting here. While media attendance has increased in recent years, it's nothing like the thousands of journalists who attend the industry's biggest, glitziest shows.
Yet automakers still put on a spectacle. Nissan sprinkled its display with plenty of eye candy, including Star Wars-themed vehicles created through a marketing partnership with Lucasfilm.
"These regional shows are hugely important for sales for us," Casey Kilmer, Nissan North America's manager of auto shows, said from the Atlanta show floor. "That's not to say our large Tier 1 shows aren't. We do a lot of great product reveals there. But there's a lot more connection with sales that we can tie back to these particular Atlanta-type shows."
Nissan expects to sell plenty of the Kicks, which has a footprint suited for tight urban spaces, to buyers in Atlanta and the Southeast. Many likely would-be shoppers wandered the convention center during the five-day Atlanta show.
Nearly 80 percent of the leads Nissan gathers at auto shows come from the regional events rather than the international expos that get most of the media attention, Kilmer said. Attendance has increased, he said, and Nissan is trying to convert browsers into buyers in part by offering special discounts to showgoers in some markets.
And Nissan is not the only one.
Foresight Research estimates that about 7 million people attended regional and local auto shows in the U.S. during the 2017-18 season. One out of every four new-vehicle buyers attends an auto show before purchasing, Foresight CEO Steve Bruyn said. Most shows don't report attendance, so that comes from household surveys Foresight conducts covering 55 shows in 53 markets.
That wide reach is why American Honda attends 64 auto shows in the U.S. each year, said its public relations chief, Sage Marie. Honda will invest more money next year to start measuring at the smaller shows.
"We're seeing auto shows grow as a decision-making aid," Marie said. "For Honda, it's kind of a target-rich environment."
According to research that Foresight does for Honda, about 40 percent of auto show attendees last year added a brand to their consideration list because of their visit, Marie said, with Honda and Ford being the two most frequent additions. About 28 percent of Honda buyers are millennials, and one-third of the automaker's millennial buyers attend auto shows.
Marie theorizes that the rise of online shopping makes auto shows more relevant.
"People shop for the best price online, but the auto show gives them a physical place to interact with the car," Marie said. "And more and more auto shows are offering test-drive opportunities."
Marie listed shows in Washington, Philadelphia, Miami, Phoenix, Dallas, San Francisco and Orange County, Calif., as influential with Honda buyers. And Atlanta, too.