Canada’s biggest automotive consumer events are moving online in 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and although it will be impossible to have the sights and sounds of a live event, they’re attempting a radically different type of immersive experience.
“The challenge with a traditional auto show is making sure it doesn’t feel like an auto hall. The challenge with the digital platform is to make sure it doesn’t just feel like a website,” David McClean, marketing director for the Canadian International AutoShow (CIAS) in Toronto, told Automotive News Canada.
The pandemic is also forcing the Montreal International Auto Show (MIAS) to replace its live event with an online program, while the Calgary auto show cancelled its 2021 event. The status of the Vancouver auto show, normally held in March, was unknown as of press time.
Virtual auto shows will be a major departure for the industry, which has traditionally relied on in-person events and sales.
But McClean said CIAS organizers began discussing a digital platform after the 2019 CIAS, long before the emergence of COVID19. The plan was for 2022, but the timeline was accelerated after it became clear that the 2021 show could be in danger because of the pandemic.
The CIAS explored using platforms similar to ones developed for conferences and conventions that have been forced online this year, but organizers instead hired a company to build a new one focused on the user experience and re-creating the feel of an in-person auto show.
JUST LIKE THE REAL THING?
The CIAS platform will feature a digital replica of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, where the show normally takes place. The public will be able to virtually “walk” through the show and click on the displays of brands that interest them.
What the automakers’ virtual booths look like will be up to them, McClean said. They could be digital versions of a physical booth, with customers clicking on a vehicle to learn more instead of opening the door and sitting inside as they would in person.
But whatever automakers build must keep customers on the virtual auto-show platform, meaning their virtual “booth” cannot simply be redirecting a customer to their websites.
The platform will include virtual versions of mainstays such as collections of exotic vehicles and classic cars. And as users virtually “move” from one part of the show to another, they will encounter digital avatars of people walking by them doing the same.
“We want to make sure it’s as realistic as possible,” McClean said.
Admission will be free, and McClean expects 500,000 to one million unique visitors to the digital show during its 10-day run in February. By comparison, the 2019 CIAS attracted 334,000 people. The online show will be accessible online during the same days and hours that it would have been in person: 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Feb. 12 through Feb. 21.
McClean said it would rely on “manufacturer inclusion fees” and sponsorships to generate revenue in lieu of ticket sales.
He did not say how many brands were expected to take part in the 2021 show, though organizers were having regular conversations with automakers about “the value of the digital experience.”
He said, for instance, that automakers could potentially have a much larger audience than they would at an in-person event and they can save millions of dollars by not having to design, build, transport, set up and staff physical show booths.
“When you get somebody excited with your brand experience, there might be a lag time of 10 days or a few weeks before people decide they want to go see this car,” McClean said. “Well, from a virtual platform, someone can leave from the comfort of their living room or home office and go out and look at that vehicle, make an appointment and depending on what the environment is go right then and right there.”
McClean said the virtual platform could allow company executives to make pitches specific to the Canadian market for their vehicles. As a hypothetical example, he said General Motors could have an executive such as CEO Mary Barra explain to the market its plans for electrification and how that could benefit Canada.
“In the past, there would be scheduling conflicts and cost conflicts and all kinds of different things and considerations,” McClean said. “But now you can prepare your content as a manufacturer [to create] a whole new experience with consumers. That’s what we’re trying to get them to understand.”
Organizers of the Montreal show will also launch a free fiveday digital show in January.
“It would have been easy to make the decision to just skip a year, but we wanted to keep this tradition going in January despite the absence of the in-person event,” MIAS President Francois Boisvert said in a statement.
LIFE FOR LIVE SHOWS
While organizers think virtual shows can be effective in drawing customers to participating brands, the benefits will not be known until the events are under way.
Even as some automakers explore other ways to launch new vehicles — using social media, for example — live events have remained important for many brands looking to connect with new customers, and for dealers who depend on leads to generate sales.
Hyundai Canada CEO Don Romano said it will be impossible to re-create the emotional experience of walking through the show floor with family or the ability to compare vehicles in person.
“It’s not an art exhibit where you can go and it’s very much a visual experience,” Romano said. “With cars, it’s a physical experience.” Traditional auto shows still play “a huge part” in the car-buying experience, said Tim Reuss, CEO of the Canadian Automobile Dealers Association (CADA).
He hopes, however, that digital events can help dealers connect with new customers.
“You can take a lot of things online, but at the end of the day, it is still for most people the second most important purchase of [a customer’s] life.”
Romano predicted that the first physical auto show in Canada after the pandemic would be “packed,” though McClean was not so sure. It might take a while for customers to become comfortable with large events again. That means CIAS plans to continue to offer a digital platform in 2022 and beyond, even if there is a physical show.
“Who wants to roll the dice and gamble millions of dollars,” McClean said, “just to find out that consumer behaviour just isn’t there yet?”