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Last year's Media Day at the Canadian International Auto Show. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
Last year's Media Day at the Canadian International Auto Show. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

The Displays

How to stand out on a crowded auto show floor Add to ...

Why pay 20 bucks to get into the Toronto auto show when 99 per cent of the new cars on display can be viewed for nothing at local auto malls? There are a couple of reasons: it’s a good environment for comparative shopping and the displays showcasing the cars are often as interesting as the cars themselves.

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First, a little perspective. You will not see the incredibly lavish displays that are put on at the Detroit auto show. Detroit has boasted that there has been $200 million spent in total by the car companies at some shows. The displays there are vast, two-storied affairs with drummers and dancers, skating rinks and amphitheatres, cars climbing mountains – you name it. That’s because Detroit is also a major international media event. The first couple of days are media only, after which the skating rinks, drummers, dancers and amphitheatres disappear.

Of course, if you want to see the ultimate in car shows you have to visit Frankfurt. The German extravaganza fills a dozen huge buildings across an exhibition area a kilometre long. Manufacturers there, at least the German ones, don’t just build multi, multi-million-dollar displays – they build their own buildings in which they construct their own displays. The latest trend is to have a twisting, uphill, downhill driving track up in the rafters so you can watch their latest cars roar past.

You’re not going to see that in Toronto, but you will see some pretty good displays costing manufacturers a million-dollars-plus. As you can imagine, it’s not cheap building and staffing something glamorous to hold peoples’ interest where everybody is competing for attention. All the car companies have staff who do nothing but auto shows and events. These people know each other and do the circuit of seven Canadian auto shows year after year. They’ll tell you all the great features they build into their displays but won’t tell you how much they spend. Let’s see if we can figure it out.

Firstly, there’s rent for the bare space at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. A mid-size display like the Mercedes-Benz setup is 16,000 square feet and Mercedes is paying $8.65 per square foot. A large one like the Chrysler display is 32,000 square feet. So do Chrysler’s math: 32,000 times $8.65 is $276,800. The rule of thumb is that rent is a quarter of each auto maker’s total budget which, in this case, would make Chrysler’s overall cost around $1,107,200.

“The cars are the stars,” says Erica Sartori, manager of shows and events for Chrysler Canada. “We have found that 60 per cent of the people who come to the auto show will be in the market for a new vehicle within the next six months and we’re there to sell.”

Chrysler will have 47 vehicles at the show, including 10 Fiat 500s that will be hanging on the wall in an interactive display. Chrysler will also be pushing the new Dodge Dart that’s not even on sale yet. There will be a lounge built around the Dart for a live show, videos, music and touch screen displays. And yes, built into the booth are “back rooms” where you can go and haggle with a sales rep.

Mercedes-Benz, of course, wants a classy, up-market appearance. “Well, it can’t look like a parking lot,” sniffed one Mercedes official.

Merc will have 32 vehicles on display, including one that is being flown over from Germany – a C63 AMP Coupe that they couldn’t get on the boat on time. The display will be the same as last year’s new, expanded one with silver, black and white and aluminum finished walls. “We carry over 80 to 90 percent of exhibits from year to year,” said Arden Nerling, manager of events and auto shows for Mercedes Canada. “This is a selling show and a lot of thought and discussion goes into displaying the vehicles and the option packages that people want to buy.”

The big dog at the show will be General Motors with 55,000 square feet. I ran my budget formula past Peter Cornu, auto shows and events manager for GM Canada and he replied, “I can confirm that this is a multi-million dollar show for us. 450 people will have worked on it before it’s over.”

GM will be at all seven Canadian auto shows this year juggling nearly 50 tractor trailer loads of exhibits and equipment. “When people go to auto shows they see cars; I see infrastructure,” said Cornu, adding that the big, new Cadillac display will be a knockout.

Toyota is showing up with an all-new booth of 27,000 square feet. Marketing manager Jeff Powell wouldn’t comment on what it cost but says that the new booth highlights the Prius family of hybrids along with a separate Scion space – which includes the new FR-S sports car.

Auto shows are an expensive proposition but they do generate excitement and allow car companies to get face-to-face with potential customers. But coming on strong are “virtual” auto shows. You will soon see auto events run online that will go live for a limited period of time. These may extend the reach of auto shows to people who don’t want to pay for a ticket. But until that happens, join the crowds and enjoy yourself. Take the time to admire the expensive exhibits built for your enjoyment.

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