How Many Auto Expos Do We Have Left?

  • Apr 22, 2023
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Like the technologies, cars and motorcycles showcased at it, the auto expo needs to evolve if it’s to survive

Yep, this is another one of those articles. The death of motor shows as a concept has been spoken about for years now but following the 2023 Delhi Auto Expo, India’s biggest motoring showcase, this question is hitting home harder than ever.

But First, Context

In the grand scheme of things, the auto expo hypothetically ceasing to become a concept won’t come across as that big a deal for most. I’m not a movie or fashion buff, so if you told me the Oscars are no longer a thing or if Milan Fashion Week would never happen again, it would be biologically impossible for me to care less.

But since I live in this lovable bubble of auto enthusiasts, motor shows are a HUGE deal to me. These events have played host to the global debuts of iconic cars, public showcases of technological concepts and even gave everyday people a look into how cars are made with exhibits showing live clay model carvings!

Closer to home, the Delhi Auto Expo has been pivotal in telling India’s automotive story. The 1996 Auto Expo, for example, gave many Indians their first complete view of brands like Honda, Ford and Daewoo. The Tata Indica, India’s first indigenously developed passenger car, also made its debut at the auto expo in 1998. And while exotic cars are a more common sight today, the first time many Indians saw a Porsche 911 or a Ferrari F355 was at the auto expo.

So, Where’s The Problem?

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I’ve been attending the auto expo since 2014, with the 2023 expo being my 5th ever. The auto industry has only been growing since then with more players, vehicles and technologies entering the fray. Heck, the number of auto content portals/avenues have gone up exponentially too!

You’d think this would mean the auto expo is getting grander to cover every year but it’s quite the opposite. The number of vital OEMs participating has gone down year after year, with 2023 being the most severe example of this.

Mahindra, Honda, Renault, Nissan, Volkswagen, Skoda, Force Motors, Jeep, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi - ALL gave this year’s auto expo a miss! Even a new entrant in India like Citroen didn’t express any willingness to participate. Two-wheeler giants like Bajaj, Hero MotoCorp, Honda, TVS and Royal Enfield made their disinterest in the event apparent much earlier.

There’s more media than ever, year-on-year footfalls went up by nearly 30,000 people vs 2020, and contrary to what the car industry may want you to believe, most OEMs are making great money. So where does this duality stem from?

Money Talks

For major car brands, setting up an exhibit at the auto expo is an expensive affair. To have a large display (a non-negotiable for most), OEMs have to cough up Rs 30-35 crore apiece to account for floor space, logistics, planning and of course, manpower. Of course, their marketing departments have the spending power for this but part of the issue lies within the nature of the event itself.

Visibility

The media days of the auto expo operate via 20 minute press conferences that start at about 8am. These happen back to back, and have the media jumping from one hall to the next. In the golden era of only print and TV media, this would be fine, with journalists having the luxury of time to think about what they should say. Today, speed trumps all else and the “reviews” are live before the emcee’s have had a chance to even end the conference.

From the media, it’s poor coverage; for the viewer, it’s inaccurate or half-baked information; and for the brand, it’s subpar visibility that is further struggling to find its place among reports about rival brands/products that flood the internet at roughly the same time.

In this context, it’s hard to quantify what return the brand even got from its investment. This is exactly why some host their key launches in separate events before or after the auto expo, so their brand/product(s) are the centre of attention. Expo aside, such events also let them deliver a more focused experience of what their brand stands for, whether it’s BMW with the Joytown events or Mahindra’s EV showcases alongside India’s first Formula-E race in Hyderabad. 

Disconnect

While visitors get to see a grand congregation of cars, most of these crowd pullers have to be viewed from a distance and behind barrier tapes. Is it nicer to see a cool car/bike in person? Absolutely, but when a youtube video gives you a more vicarious experience than you can literally have in flesh, the visit starts to feel redundant. 

Another side to this is the nature of what’s even being showcased. Concept cars or global models are often a great sight at the auto expo but the end user, more often than not, cannot make out how or why it’s relevant to them personally. And at this auto expo, cars of this nature were abundant. No doubt, these cars make for great attractions but if the lion’s share of your display is just a tease, what purpose did it serve?

And when we as the media cover these cars, the first question (and reasonably so) we receive is “When can I buy this?” A question to which even the people who are showing off the product have no consequential answer.

The Way Forward

Is there going to be another auto expo? Yes, I’m willing to bet there will be at least two more but it will be difficult to predict what direction the event takes. One possibility is the participant list becoming more startup driven and less legacy manufacturer dependent, like we’ve seen happening in the two-wheeler halls of the auto expo. 

Generally speaking, we may never see the auto expo end but the nature of the event itself is likely to change. Switching the event back to the original Pragati Maidan venue could help improve accessibility, or shifting the venue to a different city altogether could bring in a new audience (we’ve already seen this happen with the Frankfurt Motor Show). 

That aside, the expo could (and possibly should) become about blending the car world with different experiences such as music, art and technology which is the most effective way to access audiences who otherwise wouldn’t care about automobiles.

The motor show as a concept is still a beautiful thing and as stressful as it is to cover it as media personnel, no one has ever regretted attending this event. However, if the show continues in its current format and remains a brand chest thumping contest vs something audiences can enjoy and derive value from, there’s no saving the expo from itself.

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