EXHIBITIONS: Shows on the road - When David Sumner-Smith toured the stands at this year’s London Motor Show, he heard rumblings of discontent from exhibitors about its facilities, status and value for money

The London Motor Show at Earls Court might be a valuable public relations exercise, because of the easy access for celebrities and the press, but it is not a great hit with the manufacturers. The restricted space cramps the stands and there is a general feeling that the event is in the minor league compared to the big international motor shows.

The London Motor Show at Earls Court might be a valuable public

relations exercise, because of the easy access for celebrities and the

press, but it is not a great hit with the manufacturers. The restricted

space cramps the stands and there is a general feeling that the event is

in the minor league compared to the big international motor shows.

The original Earls Court Motor Show took place 60 years ago, when male

ticket holders for the first day were allowed to take a female guest

free of charge to advise them on which car to purchase. Important

British cars such as the Morris Minor, Jaguar XK120 and Mini have made

their world debuts there in subsequent years, but it has never attained

the status of a top-line industry event.

For many years, the problem lay in the active participation of motor

dealers using the event as an opportunity to sell cars. ’It was an

amateurish, low-cost show with dealer sales people staffing the stands

and an incomplete list of exhibitors,’ recalls John Evans, head of

corporate communications with Mercedes-Benz.

This sales emphasis was at odds with the manufacturers’ ambition to turn

it into a prestige exhibition. But the tide only turned in 1993 when the

event won the support of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders

and P&O Events changed the name from Motorfair to The London Motor


Growing success

’It is more professional now and more expensive,’ says Nick Berry,

marketing development manager at Volkswagen, ’but there is still a

strong regional focus on London and the South East.’

The biennial show’s appeal has grown significantly in the years since,

with ABC-audited attendance of 425,557 in 1995 - up 17% on the 1993

event - and further growth anticipated this year. It alternates with the

British International Motor Show held at Birmingham in even years, which

attracted 623,000 visitors in 1996.

Neither exhibition ranks among the real landmark events for the motor

industry, which attract a million visitors or more. The sheer cost of

events on this scale prompted members of the Paris-based Organisation

Internationale Constructeurs d’Automobile (OICA) to agree that no

country should stage an international motor show more frequently than

once every two years.

The organisers of the Detroit Motor Show try to get round the rule for

their annual show by only describing it as ’international’ on alternate

years. But the only official exception is the annual event in Geneva,

which is well-established as top-quality and on neutral ground.

Even the biggest international motor shows have little direct influence

upon manufacturers’ car launch plans. ’There are a series of stages in a

launch programme, with taster press releases, press launch exercises,

dealer launch events and so on,’ explains Berry.

’A motor show is just the opportunity to put it on high-profile public

display. No major manufacturer ever plans the introduction of a new

model to fit in with a motor show - no matter how important the show

might be.’

Good value

The amount spent by exhibitors at London is modest compared with

landmark events. ’We spend three times more on the Birmingham Motor Show

and six times more on Frankfurt. As for Tokyo, the sky’s the limit,’

says David Farquhar, press relations manager with Suzuki.

A similar strategy of concentrating on one’s home market is adopted by

Mercedes-Benz. ’Compared with Earls Court, our budget is two or three

times higher for the Birmingham NEC, and 15 or 20 times bigger for

Frankfurt, where we take an entire hall. We are German, after all,’ says


The official cost of floorspace is pounds 97 per square metre, with

stands typically occupying 300 to 1000 square metres. The build cost for

displays is at least three times as much, with operating costs on


Exhibitors are sheepish about the exact amounts spent on The London

Motor Show, although they agree that few will see any change from half a

million pounds. ’We save a bit by using new cladding on an existing

structure, but the costs of staff and accommodation are very

substantial,’ says Evans.

’We took extra space this year for the launch of Land Rover Freelander

so we had two-and-a-half stands-worth for our four brands,’ says Terry

Donovan, marketing services director at Rover Group. ’The budget was

pounds 1.2m to design and build, plus half again for operating


’We have spent more than pounds 500,000 this year on the whole

operation, but hope to get 15,000 good enquiries which we feel is a good

return,’ says Graeme Holt, press relations manager for Renault. ’Two

years ago, there was a noticeable rise in sales in the London area after

the show. This is the area most people come from, as opposed to

Birmingham, which has a larger audience from all over the country.’

The dissenting voice

However, Hyundai has decided that the cost is too great. ’It costs

pounds 500,000 to get off the starting blocks at Earls Court, which is

4% of our total marketing budget,’ says Ken Lee, marketing director of

Hyundai Car UK.

’The larger players don’t have to spend much more, but being small we

need to ensure we get the biggest bang for every buck. This year we

decided that the money was better spent elsewhere. We boosted sales by

41% by providing extra assistance to our dealers and focusing on local


’If we had a major new car to launch, then Earls Court might have been

worthwhile, because of the media exposure.

But unlike Birmingham, it’s not an international show, and I don’t think

we will have missed more than a handful of potential sales.’

To some specialist manufacturers with limited or non-existent dealer

networks, the sales initiated at The London Motor Show are critical for

the subsequent year’s trading. The stand for TVR sports cars of

Blackpool, for example, is staffed by representatives from 22 of its 26

dealerships, who ring a bell every time a sale is agreed.

Although the company usually achieves greater success at Birmingham, it

expects London 1997 to match its record year of 276 motor show car

sales, which is almost 20% of the 1450 hand-built sports cars the firm

expects to sell in the UK this year.

Few other companies can be so precise about the sales impact of The

London Motor Show, but most still consider its attraction to be


’In many ways, it’s the ideal marketplace for comparative car buying,’

says Suzuki’s Farquhar. ’But few motorists will ever buy without taking

a test drive, so it is best regarded as a place to gather sales


We supply those every day to the relevant dealers, but experience shows

that they can take up to a year to convert.’

Preparing the ground

Mercedes-Benz always expects to take many thousands of sales leads, but

concedes that it is difficult to evaluate the show’s impact. Companies

of all sizes are agreed, however, that a presence at the show is most

effective when they have a significant new model to attract visitors

onto the stand.

’It is part of the purchase process for many car buyers,’ says


’For some people, the decision to purchase might be a year away, while

others are actually putting a short-list together.’

The position of the stand is extremely important. ’Placement is a key

issue,’ says Mercedes-Benz’s Evans. ’You try to improve your lie every

time the show takes place in order to be in a prominent place next to a

major aisle.’

The prime frustration voiced by exhibitors is the sheer lack of space

available. ’At Birmingham, we take 2500 square metres, but at London we

have to make do with 1450,’ says Donovan. ’Like everyone, we have to

squeeze in and suffer. There is less space between the cars and more

problems for visitors.

’It is a shame that some of the millennium money doesn’t go towards a

major exhibition centre in the capital city. It wouldn’t take much to

make the London Motor Show as important as Paris.’

Really motoring

More likely, however, is a change in style for this and other motor


Evans thinks that stands will become more interactive, with displays of

satellite navigation and activities such as virtual driving.

Berry agrees: ’As well as Internet terminals, motor show displays will

quickly come to incorporate multi-media technology. It all adds up to

better value for money for the show visitors.’

’Shows will become more exciting and innovative in future,’ predicts

Philip Jones, head of exhibitions at the Society of Motor Manufacturers

and Traders.

’They are a form of entertainment and as such are in competition with

theme parks and other attractions where you take a day out. Stands will

become more participative and active - and that means bigger



International launches of new cars were restricted to a handful of

specialists at the show, but new marketing initiatives were given a high

profile by Daihatsu - the city-car offspring of the giant Toyota


Led by 36-year-old managing director Paul Williams (above), the

Inchcape-owned UK importer has broken new ground with a ’virtual

dealership’ covering most of London.

Telephone enquiries to 0800 396 396 are handled by salaried sales

consultants who take the relevant model to the motorist’s home or

workplace at any convenient time - thereby avoiding the need for

showroom premises. Any subsequent servicing or repairs are handled in a

similar manner, with an identical courtesy car being delivered when the

customer’s car is collected for work to be done in workshops in a

low-price location.

The show saw the launch of another innovative service from City


Named ’Seasons’, this involves a link-up with Avis and General Accident

and allows customers to use rental vehicles of other brands when

required for long journeys, moving house or other needs.

’No single car suits everybody all of the time,’ says Paul Williams.

’Dealers shouldn’t just sell cars. We want to move towards providing a

complete transport solution.’


MONTH           LOCATION         ATTENDANCE     FREQUENCY           NEXT

                                     (000s)                        EVENT

January         Los Angeles             700     Annual              1998

January         Detroit                 723     Annual              1998

January         Brussels                726     Biennial            1998

February        Amsterdam               455     Biennial            1999

March           Geneva                  650     Annual              1998

April           Belgrade                n/a     Biennial            1999

April           Stockholm               200     Triennial           2000

April           Seoul                   693     Biennial            1999

April           Turin                   690     Biennial            1998

May             Barcelona               824     Biennial            1999

June            Oporto                  300     Biennial            1999

June            Beijing          First show     One-off             1998

August          Moscow                   90     Annual              1998

September       Frankfurt               850     Biennial            1999

October         London                  425     Biennial            1999

October         Birmingham              623     Biennial            1998

October         Paris                  1000     Biennial            1998

October         Bucharest               n/a     Biennial            1999

November        Tokyo                  1523     Biennial            1997

November        Athens                  n/a     Biennial            1999

Source: Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders exhibitions



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