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CIAS 2021: From Real to Surreal

For 2021, CIAS adopts a virtual format, but it will remain a completely enveloping and visceral experience. Photo: CIAS

The 2021 Canadian International AutoShow will be a one-of-a-kind virtual experience firmly rooted in reality.

When it comes to large events, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything. In order to prevent community-spread of the disease, it is simply not possible to hold large physical conventions or expos, meaning that automotive industry staples such as the Canadian International AutoShow (CIAS) will, moving forward at least, adopt new and diverse formats.

As the largest auto show of its kind in Canada and increasingly, one of growing prominence on the world stage, CIAS has undergone a transformation and for February 2021 will be relaunched as a virtual event. Recently, Autosphere.ca had an opportunity to chat with Dave McLean, Director of Marketing Services for CIAS about what’s coming and what we can expect in 2021.

AS: With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic this year and a shift to virtual events what did you feel were some of the most important things to consider when planning for the 2021 CIAS?

DM: One of the key things was making sure this truly was a virtual event. We have seen some events claiming to be virtual but what they’ve essentially done is create a website and use a digital purchasing platform that is open for 30 days. For us, it was important that we create a true virtual event that’s open online from 10.00 am until 10.30 pm each day (the same hours as the physical show would be) and that we were able to provide content that will excite consumers.

AS: In consultation with OEMs, vendors, key stakeholders and also TADA dealer members, were there any other considerations that came up in terms of planning the event to ensure it was successful and ground-breaking?

DM: I think a primary consideration in terms of planning an event like this is how do we get the consumer audience and the automotive enthusiast audience—those people in the market for a new vehicle—excited about the purchasing experience? Another is how do we present the auto industry and all of its diversity and by giving people exposure to that, really create that wow factor that both excites consumers and reminds them why and how they fell in love with cars.

Another factor is that because we start planning CIAS a year out, it’s also important to consider the moral and social obligation we have. Even if the government permits hosting large events again with thousands of people, we need to be certain if our audience is comfortable with it. When people start returning to some semblance of normalcy, an auto show is probably not one of the first things they will want to explore. Instead, it’s something they will likely build up to, so for us, it needs to be absolutely right, because our partners in this event—including the OEMs who invest millions of dollars—so we have to make sure that whatever format we choose, it will be a sound business decision.

AS: Traditionally, a big part of the AutoShow for OEMs and particularly dealers, is the ability for the public to physically sit in and sample vehicles. And because car buying still tends to be a visceral experience, how do you intend to approach that to generate excitement and help ensure dealers are able to still get the inquiries and orders following the show?

DM: Because in 2021 we aren’t able to provide that immediate opportunity to sample the vehicle in the same way you would with a physical environment, there are different ways you can do this. One is to run a concurrent physical event to the virtual experience, where there are vehicles in a warehouse and consumers can connect virtually with a live person who will show them the vehicle. Another is to post an event to sample vehicles on a specific day and connecting with the thousands of people coming through the virtual exhibit, asking them if they would like to attend, whether it is a design studio or test-drive opportunity. Another is to drive them concurrently to a dealer by providing them an opportunity to visit a retailer and sample the actual vehicle. I think one of the greatest values of an auto show—whether physical or virtual—is that conquest opportunity, where you are able to connect a consumer with two or three different vehicle brands and enable them to make a decision. There’s no question that with a virtual event, there is an added step in the process, but it’s important to note that it is not a lesser process. Instead, it’s an opportunity to really extend your brand essence and visibility to really connect with consumers and you’re able to do that in a multitude of different ways.

AS: Given the size and scale of such an event as CIAS, how will attendees register this year and how will you track registrations in order to provide valuable data for the show and also the association?

DM: In a virtual platform like this, especially when we have a critical mass of audience, the data we glean is absolute gold. And it is like gold because there is probably no other opportunity over the course of the next year to capture the data as there will be during the CIAS virtual event. When we talk about the data and the metrics we can apply, we can take a look at how many people visited a particular area of the show, what resonated with them and what our ultimate findings were. As with the physical show, we will require people to register in order to track that information but ultimately, the goal is to get as many people as possible excited about the new car experience and maintaining that level of enthusiasm.

AS: How will moving to a virtual format change the schedule of the AutoShow, as well as some of the experiences and activities on offer during the course of the event?

DM: I think it is important to emphasize that CIAS 2021 will be a virtual event and there will be activities that range from real to surreal. We don’t want to create something that is too surreal and becomes like a complete video gaming environment, but a gaming aspect is still a very important part of the overall content. In the past, we have hosted on-site gaming competitions at the physical show and the excitement around that has continued to grow and even more so now with the move to a virtual autoshow. Overall, we want to make sure we create an experiential event viewed through an easy to navigate virtual, online platform.

AS: For traditional events such as media day, as well as Industry Night and the President’s Preview do you have any plans regarding that which you are able to share at this time?

DM: There’s no question that at this time, we won’t be able to hold our traditional Industry VIP night, which is essentially a party that celebrates the auto industry. When it comes to media day however, this has and will continue to be a very important part of the show moving forward. We will be hosting a virtual media day on February 11. Our media day releases information to readers, viewers and listeners, it releases information about the new car buying experience specific to certain brands, as well as providing information on specific corporate unveilings and announcements. Additionally, on the other side, we need to make sure that we are working with OEMs closely, because we are pioneering with this virtual format and we want to make sure they are able to approach it like they would for unveilings at a physical auto show, where they issue embargos or withhold announcement until the official product unveiling or press conference. One advantage in moving to a virtual format is that it allows us to overcome previous logistical concerns and travel budgets enabling more world premieres and global executive interviews.

AS: Are there any particular aspects (examples might include interactive experiences/concepts) you’re able to discuss that will be on offer at the 2021 CIAS and also why they have been included in the format?

DM: The interesting thing is, that by its very nature any virtual platform is very interactive. When you are at a show you’re walking and absorbing everything around you through a multitude of different senses. At CIAS you have lights, you have sounds—the whole experience is very interactive. From a vehicle manufacturer’s perspective, the opportunity to experience their product as much as you can through a virtual presentation is an experience too. The ability for a consumer to see a particular aspect of the vehicle by clicking a tab and zooming in or seeing a video or presentation already exists and there are a multitude of new virtual and meeting technologies that make this all possible.

AS: As the world and the automotive industry continues to evolve around this pandemic, where do you see events like CIAS heading in the future, beyond the 2021 event?

DM: At this point, we already need to look beyond COVID-19. We were already planning for a virtual aspect to the 2022 CIAS before the pandemic hit and I think it’s important to note that this new format is not reactionary. Like anything else it will evolve and improve over time, but I think it’s important to consider that a virtual platform is designed to complement a physical event, not compete with it and there are a number of reasons for that. One is that it provides OEMs with a compete 360-degree experience, so they can dress things in a physical setting and show what their brand is all about through that physical interaction as well as providing the opportunity to bring new markets and new audiences to the show.

I think if there is one thing we’ve learned from COVID-19, it is that as human beings we all strive for physical and social interaction, we’re hard wired that way. To sum up, 2021 marks the beginning of a CIAS that offers a virtual experience—one that’s firmly rooted in reality.

Categories : Dealerships, Editorial
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