Australian Motor Show RIP

The Melbourne motor show – more correctly known as the Australian International Motor Show – has officially been axed, within three months of the date its doors were to open

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Sydney’s show in 2014? The odds on it happening just lengthened considerably. And the move (of necessity) from Darling Harbour to  Homebush Bay in 2014 won’t help.

Both shows did a deal after 2008, agreeing to host the Australia International Motor Show in alternate years to reduce exhibitor outlay. 2008 was the last year in which Sydney and Melbourne hosted shows in the same year – after 2008, Melbourne got odd years and Sydney hosted the show in even years.

Motor shows in Australia have been looking almost as sick as Australian car manufacturing – Sydney saw a peak of 320,000 attend the show in 2001, but last year only 135,000 visitors turned up (and 2010 was even sicker, with just 124,000 punters attending). Same story in Melbourne: peak of 257,000 in 2004; just 160,000 in 2011.

Adding insult to injury, car brands have been running away from both shows. Last year in Sydney, only about half the brands actually on sale in Australia exhibited at the show. Of course, this proves that if you don’t get the cool brands, you don’t get the punters through the door.

Premium brands like Audi, BMW, Porsche and Mercedes-Benz derive little benefit from the great unwashed climbing through their cars for 10 days of the show, yet it costs them something like $2 million apiece to hire the floor space, build their elaborate stands, air-freight some show-stopping car from the mother- or father-land, and man the stand with suitably glamorous types from suitably glamorous agencies.

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Prestige brands reckon they get a higher return on investment by spending those big bucks in direct marketing initiatives aimed at the well-heeled instead. (In 2008, Mercedes-Benz hired the Mt Panorama race circuit for a week and did exactly that … for less than the cost of attending the Sydney show. Apparently the company did very nicely out of taking the invited rich for hot laps instead.)

Unfortunately, however, it’s just not as cool for everyday punters when all they get to clamber over is Toyotas, Hondas, Subarus, Hyundais and Mazdas – a key reason why attendance figures have jumped in the express elevator and hammered the button marked ‘basement’ since the early 2000s.

Two kinds of people go to motor shows: car perves and actual buyers in the market now. As far as the car industry is concerned, the former group might as well be vermin. The car industry is myopically focused on selling a car now. Right now. If the industry tries very hard, it can see as far forward as the end of next month. So, Shazza and Dazza climbing through a C 63 AMG might view the experience as somewhat more entertaining than a visit to Centrelink (especially if they can ‘souvenir’ a gear knob or somesuch) but they don’t really constitute an asset as far as the car company exhibitor is concerned. (It’s amazing how much souveniring actually happens at motor shows…)

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The biggest losers here are those in the second category: ordinary punters who are actually in the market now, looking to spend some cash, but unsure about exactly which car to buy. For tem, motor shows are like going to Bing Lee for a new TV – they’re all under the one roof. Motor shows were the perfect place to get hands-on and shop comparatively between, say, the Corolla, the i30 and the Mazda3, and maybe even discover one of the 30-something other competitors you hadn’t considered (and maybe didn’t even know existed). And at a Motor Show you could do that in a much less high-pressure environment than visiting three or more different dealerships.

There’s always the internet if you want to compare different cars and download the brochures as PDFs. Incidentally, the internet is the medium show organisers blame on declining attendee numbers … they wouldn’t want to offend potential customers by claiming their non-patronage was driving patrons away. For punters, however, going online, however rich the experience, and however accessible, just doesn’t compare to actually getting your hands on the car and your bum in the seat. In future, when you want to do that, you’ll need to visit the dealership … and we all know how pleasant that can be…