Honda embraces spotlight as rivals back away from auto shows

Industry

LOS ANGELES — Like a beacon of light, Honda’s new show stand offered a contrast with the darker displays of some of its peers during last month’s expo here.

That’s on purpose. Honda wants to create a vibrant, enthusiastic atmosphere for visitors to its stand. Not so much for the auto writers who blow in for a couple days, but for the real audience: future car buyers who attend the dozens of shows across the country and use them to add vehicles and brands to their shopping lists, or to scratch them off.

Honda and its luxury marque, Acura, are not pulling back from auto shows like some brands that are experimenting with alternative events that can generate a bigger media bang for their buck. American Honda wants the press coverage, like everybody else, but its real purpose with the convention halls is creating a flagship showroom to sell cars.

“From a consumer standpoint, auto shows are stable and growing in importance,” said Sage Marie, assistant vice president for public relations at American Honda. “From a media standpoint, the dynamic is definitely changing. The way automakers leverage auto shows to deploy news is changing.”

Honda’s custom-built stand is designed to be user-friendly, with lots of light and multiple visitor stations with interactive features. There’s a safety area with a crashed Civic and product specialists to talk about crumple zones and next-generation airbags. Other stations focus on the company’s racing heritage, its eco-friendly models, accessories for its crossovers and its sponsorship of esports, with on-site video games and visits from top players.

The stand also features a parklike atmosphere with trees similar to the ones in the lobby of Honda’s North American headquarters in Southern California and a “living wall” of plants similar to one at global headquarters in Japan.

“Generally, the concept was to be very bright and optimistic,” Marie told Automotive News from the stand during its debut in Los Angeles. “You look around the rest of the hall, and it’s kind of dark and brooding. So, we literally wanted to be like a bright, shining beacon. The main focus of this is to give people an environment to shop for cars.”

While media fragmentation has complicated the marketing equation at major auto shows in Los Angeles, Chicago and other markets, the expos remain attractive venues for millions of would-be shoppers, including younger customers who want to touch and feel the autos they have mostly only interacted with online while doing research. The shows are a no-pressure alternative to traditional dealerships.

“It’s fishing where the fish are,” said Marie.

According to Honda’s research, about 70 percent of show attendees across the country are within 12 months of buying a car. And around 6 million people attend auto shows during the course of a year. Visitors come to shop and be entertained, so Honda has presentations at its main stage using augmented reality to show how certain features of its vehicles work — at the L.A. show, for example, as a product specialist walked around the new CR-V Hybrid with a camera, on a big screen, visitors saw the vehicle augmented with digital overlays describing its various aspects.

The new show booth also emphasizes brand immersion. The combination of Honda’s racing heritage, safety commitment, fuel-efficiency leadership and new products could help shape consumer attitudes. Future buyers who were perhaps not including the brand on their shortlist may add it based on the experience.

“If you’re not here,” Marie said, “you might not get added.”

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