The changing culture of the auto show


A 2013 Dodge Dart is seen at the Washington Auto show February 6, 2013. REUTERS/Gary Cameron (UNITED STATES - Tags: TRANSPORT BUSINESS) (GARY CAMERON/REUTERS)

For Fairfax resident Aaron Carey, attending auto shows is an annual pilgrimage.

A self-proclaimed “car-nut,” he’s been going to auto shows for decades — in Philadelphia for almost 30 years, in Frankfurt once during his service in the U.S. Army in the 1990’s, and, after having recently moved to the area, in Washington.

Over the years, Carey’s reason for going changed. When he was in high school, he used to ogle at the hot new cars he couldn’t afford. As an adult, he took his two young sons, now grown, to impart his love for cars to them. These days, Carey attends the show alone, as much for his fascination with the technology as for research on which car to buy next.

“It used to be more the excitement and seeing new models. Now, I’m looking at the price,” Carey said.

Carey may represent the changing face of today’s auto show goers. In the past four or five years, the demographics of auto show attendees has changed from overwhelmingly male between ages 30 and 52 to include a more diverse range of ages, races, and incomes.

Instead of just “motorheads,” Washington Auto Show producer John O’Donnell said the shows increasingly attract consumers with intent to buy.

Decades ago, going to auto shows used to represent a father-son or grandfather-father-son tradition, O’Donnell said.

“Americans have had a strong love affair with the freedom and mobility a car gives, but people are beginning to view vehicles as nothing more than a means for getting from point A to point B,” O’Donnell said.

This shift is reflected in auto shows themselves.

To appeal to the auto show’s growing female audience — as women often make purchasing decisions for a household, O’Donnell said, they’re increasingly deciding which cars to buy — organizers scheduled celebrity appearances from various a capella groups, Olympic gymnast Gabrielle Douglas and a handful of other female-oriented acts. In past years, the entertainment has been more geared toward men, he added.

Next year, O’Donnell thinks the show may cater more to young adults. Last weekend, he noticed a pattern he’d never seen — large crowds of young people buying tickets around 9 p.m. on weekends, catching the tail end of the auto show, and then heading to bars afterwards. For the 2014 auto show, O’Donnell is proposing an “Auto Show After Hours” event next year — complete with beer and wine — to retain this audience.

But some still come to the auto show just for their love of cars.

Laurel resident Vernon Bacud brought his 3-year-old son and father-in-law to the auto show to cultivate a tradition he didn’t have growing up in the Philippines. Though he originally started going because he’s a car enthusiast, his favorite part is “spending time with family and friends.”

Hagerstown, Md.-resident Dick Martin brought his childhood friend, John Hopkins to the auto show, the first they’d ever attended. When they were growing up — “when gas was 22 cents a gallon,” Martin noted — they used to go to their local car dealerships for brochures, which had pictures of all the newest models.

“You’d have a stack of papers with Chevy, Ford, Plymouth, Dodge, Pontiac,” Martin said. “There wasn’t any such thing as a Volkswagen,” Hopkins said.

Though Martin is a car enthusiast, he said until now — since he’s retired — he didn’t have time to look at cars. “I was too busy. Now I’ve got plenty of free time, and I can go and play.”

Mohana Ravindranath covers IT and small business for the Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication.
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