Driving Force

Motor shows are a highlight of the exhibition year, their history of success a result of complex behind-the-scenes planning. Ian Russell looks at the challenges the event organisers face

Between October 20 and 31, about 400,000 people will attend the London Motor Show at Earls Court, according to P&O Events, to see the latest cars showcased in a glamorous and exciting setting.

For the exhibitors, it marks the end of a year of meticulous planning, design and preparation, which probably started before the last stand had been dismantled at Birmingham’s British International Motor Show.

However appealing motor shows are for visitors, they are not guarantees of success, and exhibitors have to follow certain guidelines to benefit from this high-profile opportunity.

Setting clear and measurable objectives early on enables the exhibitor to identify the real opportunities presented by the event, both in marketing and business terms.

At the 1998 British International Motor Show, Nissan focused on a clear aim, to communicate its brand and product values of durability, quality and reliability (DQR). To achieve this, the company designed and built a stand to show various “real life” testing procedures, providing visitors with an interactive journey through some of the “beyond belief” tests that every Nissan prototype vehicle undergoes. It communicated the message in an imaginative and creative way.

Motor shows are among the most high profile and sophisticated events on the exhibition calendar, and attract the close attention of motor manufacturers’ most senior personnel. For the project champion within each company, exhibiting at a motor show is a complex and challenging project; not a job for the faint hearted.

Having the support of the right people from the start can make the project more efficient and easier to work on. A project manager, sourced internally or externally, who has previous experience of motor shows, can be invaluable. He or she should be well versed in the politics and practices peculiar to each event; know the best suppliers; and how to get the best deals.

The project manager should also mediate between client, contractors and suppliers, ensuring smooth communication between them all. Project managers ensure that everyone understands what needs to be achieved, deadlines are met, and ultimately, is responsible for the success of the event.

One of the most time-consuming areas of a project manager’s job is ensuring that every one of a never-ending list of small tasks is completed, whether it is organising the stand’s fittings and furniture, or deciding what brand of coffee to serve.

High profile

Working with show organisers has a number of advantages. Each show organiser produces comprehensive manuals covering marketing opportunities as well as guidelines for building stands and, more importantly, health and safety issues, which must be adhered to. Liaison with the organisers can increase an exhibitor’s profile at the show and will also ensure that key deadlines are met.

A motor show often marks the high point of a marketing year, but it should not be viewed as a separate entity. To be most effective it should be an integral part of the total marketing mix, as John Lefley, director of public relations at Volvo Car UK, explains: “A motor show is treated like any other event in our calendar and forms yet another part of the marketing activity. As niche suppliers, we do not see it as the pinnacle of our year as there are more targeted ways of reaching our market. However, the sheer magnetism of a motor show exposes thousands of people to the brand and generates a great deal of publicity for new cars. It offers a huge potential for face-to-face contact with existing and potential customers, which is key to our success.”

A motor show also enables many elements of sales and marketing to be put into effect.

BMW (GB) national events manager Ysabel Vazquez says: “We regard motor shows as a specialised marketing tool. The London Motor Show represents one of the few opportunities we have to bring the BMW brand experience to a nationwide audience, in a live and interactive format. Face-to-face communication is the most personalised tool we have and it gives potential customers and current owners the chance to interact with BMW staff and products first hand. It is also an opportunity for us to preview future products and services to customers, enabling us to gauge their reaction prior to launch.

“Motor shows definitely affect sales. We usually sell an identically specified model of each car on display. In the longer term, we measure and monitor all sales that result from enquiries. Some of these can take up to 18 months to convert to sales, but that is the nature of buying a car. What is harder to measure is the effect we have on visitors’ overall impression of our brand and products. This more intangible benefit is just as important to us as short-term sales.”

Lateral thinking can also produce results, using the motor show as the central focus and organising complementary fringe activities.

BMW (GB) used the Birmingham motor show to reinforce its relationship with existing customers, inviting eight, seven and high-value five series owners to a BMW Motor Show Experience. Guests arrived at a nearby stately home and were welcomed with coffee, before being chauffeured to the NEC, where they had the use of an exclusive VIP entrance. At the show they could enjoy the hospitality provided on the BMW stand throughout the day, and lunch in a private suite. When they wanted to leave, they were driven back to the stately hall to collect their cars.

Unique approach

Using a venue away from the NEC gave BMW the opportunity to communicate its core product and brand messages in an informal setting, while still using the motor show as the main attraction.

Part of the exhibitors’ responsibility is to satisfy the audience’s expectations. This is no simple undertaking as the audience is diverse. Initially, motor show visitors fall into four main categories: fleet buyers/managers, trade, media, and the general public.

Each section can be broken down even further, for instance, the general public includes visitors who just want to be entertained for the day; “tyre kickers” who want to lift car bonnets and talk camshafts with the experts; or car owners who are looking for reassurance that they have made the right decision.

Both UK motor shows are on a par with major British tourist attractions, including London Zoo and Alton Towers, in terms of visitor numbers for the same period of time. This sheer volume of visitors calls for sophisticated and sympathetic management to guide the ebb and flow of people on and around the stands. This is particularly relevant for exhibitors of high-profile new vehicles and aspirational prestige marques, so access policies should be decided early on.

One of the biggest pitfalls of stand design is that the finished structure looks fantastic, but is totally impractical.

It must be robust enough to withstand two weeks of heavy use. Stand designers and constructors need to assess its potential weaknesses and draw up contingency plans, to avoid costly emergency repairs during the show.

Lefley, at Volvo Cars UK, says: “The success of the motor show for us is not determined by the size of our stand, or the level of entertainment we provide, but the quality of the people who represent our company at the event. We recognise the importance of in-depth training, selecting the right people and working together as a team. They are the people who represent the face of the company and who talk to our customers, qualify leads, and need to understand the expectations of every visitor to the stand. Their power and influence on potential and existing customers should never be underestimated.”

The first task is to decide the number of staff and the balance between employees and contract staff. The next step is to source the right people from internal and external sources. Many motor manufacturers already have temporary staff who they use regularly throughout the event season. They have the advantage of already understanding the brand and having product knowledge.


Training is an important element of staff preparation. It should enable them to understand the client’s objectives; communicate the company’s brand values; project the right image; set the tone on the stand; provide the right level of information on the product; gain an insight into the customers; become adept at successful customer interaction; recognise potential new customers; and qualify new leads.

Well-trained staff are adept at identifying time-wasters – those people who agree to take a future test drive, although they have no intention of doing so. These are leads that go nowhere.

Lefley says: “Any motor show shouldn’t end the minute the doors close and the stand is dismantled. We pass on a number of well-qualified new leads to our dealers. Many of these will be converted into sales. No one should underestimate the value and power of leads from these events.”

Although it will probably be the last thing they want to do, the project champions should immediately carry out comprehensive post-motor show evaluation and analysis. Part of this research should involve the dealers, whose feedback on the quality of the leads passed to them will help determine the effectiveness of the qualifying process at the event. The results of this evaluation and independent research provide a useful source of information for the next motor show.

Ian Russell is chairman of TRO. The TRO Group is a marketing services and communications group and has been involved in both the London Motor Show and British International Motor Show for 18 years.


ITV renews Formula One coverage in £80m deal

Marketing Week

ITV has held on to the lucrative Formula One motor racing TV rights, despite competition from the BBC. It has signed an &£80m deal which will run from 2002 to 2005. Under the terms of the contract, ITV will continue to broadcast all Grand Prix races live on Sundays and qualifying stages on Saturdays. Highlights […]

FCUK seeks damages after Tories agree to drop name

Marketing Week

Fashion retailer French Connection is to continue to pursue costs and damages from Conservative Future, the party’s youth wing, after it agreed to drop its new name “cfuk” last week. French Connection had begun court proceedings against the Conservative Party for breach of copyright against its own registered trademark “fcuk”. Conservative Future, which replaced the […]


    Leave a comment