From the first auto show in New York nearly 121 years ago, millions of American vehicle shoppers have flocked to their local car show each year to be awed by the latest and greatest the industry has to offer. From electric headlights and heaters to four-wheel drive and front-wheel drive, auto shows are the places many consumers first see and experience new body styles, vehicle segments, amenities, features and technological advancements.

From Volkswagen and Nissan to Toyota and Subaru, every new brand entering the U.S. market has leveraged auto shows to introduce themselves to a skeptical, resistant American public.

There’s an easy answer to why this system has been in place since the inception of the horseless carriage. Simply put, auto shows — the industry’s largest experiential marketing option — work.

Before COVID-19, an average 11 million Americans went to their local show every year. Seven out of 10 were in the market for a new vehicle. In a market of 14.5 million retail sales, this is a staggering share of the car-buying audience walking those show floors.

Based on thousands of surveys conducted annually with show attendees, the argument for auto shows only gets stronger. A typical visitor drives up to an hour; pays for parking, show tickets and concessions; and spends five hours on the show floor. That is huge commitment to attend what could be considered one very long car commercial.

As a result of their show experiences, a stunning 40 percent of shoppers add one or more brands to their consideration list. And when they buy, the show influences their purchase choices — influencing as many buyers as digital does and having more influence than other marketing options in the toolbox.

So why, then, are some brands opting out of shows?

Perhaps the first winds of change blew in January 1992, when Bob Lutz and Detroit Mayor Coleman Young drove a new Jeep Grand Cherokee through a window at Cobo Center. The stunt, orchestrated by public relations whizzes, shocked journalists and was followed by other wildly successful Chrysler press events. The game was on.

Competitive brands had to raise the stakes. Displays became increasingly elaborate — and exceedingly expensive — all to lure auto journalists to freshly expanded convention centers and dazzling multimedia launch presentations delivered by company brass.

Then the crash of 2007-08 left financial markets and the auto industry in ruins, and cost cutting was a matter of life or death. As the world clawed out of recession, auto marketers were faced with dual realization in a new normal:

Media consumption was shifting to digital, making the distribution of content and messaging quick and inexpensive, and a circuit of journalists gathering in one place less necessary.
Exploded budgets led to legitimate questions about the value equation of auto shows.

When management asked what those dollars spent were truly yielding, the answers often came in the form of media results and lead generations, or spikes in auto show-driven dealership traffic.

With those types of answers, it might be easy to conclude that auto shows should be skipped by some brands. Because if valued solely based on the numbers of journalists accredited, how many articles were written or the sales leads generated, one could conclude that at present investment, auto shows deliver subpar returns.

But throughout most of their history, auto shows were not about the media. They were about providing consumers a low-pressure, pleasant environment in which to touch, smell, sit in and learn about the latest offerings in hundreds of new vehicles. About helping customers down the path from brand awareness to cross-consideration, shopping, and ultimately, to their purchase decision.

Every part of this remains as true today as it was more than a century ago.

There is a strong argument to be made that auto shows will be even more critical in coming years. The industry has to persuade consumers to buy the battery-electric vehicles now churning out of factories.

A recent J.D. Power report reveals that the supply of BEVs currently outweighs buyer acceptance for them — and even more supply is on the way. That study also states that BEV consideration goes up dramatically if consumers become familiar with them, even by simply sitting or riding in one.

In a modern world when dealerships increasingly fall at the end of the shopping process — if they are not avoided entirely — where can large numbers of consumers intimately experience, be educated about and get comfortable with BEVs?

It is still auto shows, where consumers have been unwaveringly along for the ride for 121 years — and counting.