The international automotive industry calendar is punctuated by motor shows that generate a splash of media interest and excite consumers and industry participants alike. There is a pecking order with each event performing a particular role. Some shows are clearly global ‘premier league’ status, but others play mainly to a local market. Report by Anthony Lewis.

While Paris’s auto show in September basked in the afterglow of 1.4 million visitors – making it the world’s best attended motor show for several years – the British International Motor Show a month later hit the headlines because of a row over a poster. Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt took exception to a poster showing a woman wearing a bra and the words “The other way to your man’s heart is down the M6 and off at Junction 4,” a reference to directions to Birmingham’s NEC.

Ms Hewitt condemned the poster as old-fashioned and a ‘big mistake’ given women’s significance in the car market. Almost 50 per cent of new cars are sold to women and women are estimated to have a say in more than 80 per cent of all new car purchases. On that basis, more than 250,000 women should have been among the half-million visitors to the show. I doubt it, somehow.

Incidentally, the poster could also be offensive to those south of Birmingham who would travel UP the M6 to get to the NEC, or even those of us – like me – who don’t have to go anywhere near the M6 to get there.

Detroit and Geneva – hardy annuals

I digress. The auto industry has established a comfortable pattern over the last ten years of international shows. Detroit in January has moved rapidly from being a North American dealer show to an annual show worthy of its international status – despite the best efforts of Los Angeles to upstage it – with around one million visitors each year.

Geneva, also held annually, proves its worth every year. The value of the Geneva salon goes far deeper than the three-quarters of a million visitors each year. It’s the place where the whole industry gathers to chat and gossip, an annual jamboree that is enjoyed by all and which always seems to mark the end of the European winter. These two annual shows – Detroit and Geneva – are, I would argue, in the premier league, joined every other year by Frankfurt, alternating with Paris, and Tokyo.

Other shows, like Chicago and Moscow, enjoyable as they may be, and with high footfalls, are provincial shows.

Quality not quantity please

SMMT’s controversial Birmingham ad

– a bit of harmless fun?

The industry argues that the important thing is not the quantity but the quality. Rumour has it that at the Paris show, security guards were selling press day tickets to passers-by. Certainly not everyone inside the halls was press, unless journalists are getting younger and younger -several under-10s were seen at various stages of the day.

Nevertheless, Paris can lay claim with some justification to having been the best-attended show worldwide for some time, outdoing even Tokyo with 1,447,753 visitors and 1.5 million visitors to its website during the show. Of the press attendees, 44% were from France, the equivalent of 4,600. Of course, anyone who needs to be there on press day from cameramen and sound recordists to producers, directors and the rest would count as a journo for the purposes of this little piece of marketing, so be sceptical.

Germany boasted the next highest at 590, the UK at 430 then Spain, Italy, Japan and the USA (many courtesy of Jaguar Cars) with 300 each. It was certainly busy on press day – and damnably hot.

Birmingham’s main raison d’etre – the consumer

By contrast, Birmingham was a very quiet affair on press day – great for working journalists, not so good for the PRs stuck on their stands with no one to talk to. Again, we come back to the question of quality.

On the positive side, the British motor show was the biggest consumer exhibition in the UK; there were half-a-million visitors, and a similar amount visited via the show website. Discounts and special offers at the show led to many manufacturers reporting that they were hugely impressed with the number of genuine inquiries from show-goers. Some even said that this year’s show was the best ever in terms of registered interest.

Ford said inquiries for its 3-door Fiesta, the Focus RS and the new Street Ka had reached record levels, while Citroen said this year’s event had brought in a higher quality of visitor than at any other motor show. How much of that, though, is down to organisation? I would suggest it has more to do with the strength of the British economy with people much more positive about the prospect of spending a lot of money.

In addition, it is estimated that this year’s show has contributed some £30 million to the West Midlands economy, with some 20,000 people working before, during and after this year’s event.

Are you local?

These are all fairly seductive arguments in favour of the show continuing and possibly the industry shoots itself in the foot too often by thinking and acting globally, forgetting that most people are very parochial.

So what if the Porsche Cayenne, VW Touareg or Bentley Continental GT were first seen at Paris? It matters not a jot to the guys travelling down (or, indeed, up) the M6 to see these and many other cars in the metal for the first time. Motor shows make the local TV headlines – whether in Birmingham or Moscow – and fill acres of newsprint in local evening and daily newspapers, even if it’s only the controversial that makes the national news.

So what if a show is viewed as second class – or not in the premier league to be polite – because it doesn’t attract the big world debuts or seven-figure crowds? Are these show any less important in local terms? Did we miss BMW or Mercedes-Benz at Birmingham? I don’t think so. If a manufacturer or importer can justify the minimum investment – £500,000 and upwards – and they can show a return in raised interest and awareness, then it doesn’t really matter how sexy the headlines are.

What matters is that business is done, and they want to come back again and again. If Birmingham 2002 proves to be success that the organisers, The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, would have us believe, then it will be back following in the wake of Paris, in 2004. Then again, many rumours abound. One such brings the Birmingham Show forward a few months to May or June to steal the thunder from Paris. Another suggests a move to persuade Geneva to he held every two years alternating with Birmingham. Now, let me think, where would I prefer to be at the end of February…….?

Nonetheless, it is an interesting concept. Is Geneva being greedy by having a major show every year? The good thing about Geneva is that it is neutral territory with no indigenous motor industry. The other annual, Detroit, stands alone. Unique because many of the cars it shows are not on sale, or simply not wanted, anywhere else in the world.

What will vanish though will be a London show following Frankfurt’s footsteps. London has its Docklands affair; successful but very local. The point surely is that a ‘local’ show means a show for England, or Spain, or Italy, not a show for Birmingham and one for London, or a show for Madrid and Barcelona or Turin and Bologna.

The NEC has excellent facilities in terms of road, rail and air access. Its only problem is an austere location. And moving the date so that it falls in mid-summer between Geneva and Paris, won’t change that.