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"To See or Not to See" Reflections on the Frankfurt Auto Show IAA 2013

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By Henny Hemmes
Senior European Editor
The Auto Channel

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THE HAGUE, September 12, 2013. The Frankfurt Auto Show has always been a huge exhibition. Way back in the early nineties, the Frankfurter Messe covered 200,000 square meters (2150 sq. feet). You had to walk a lot if you wanted to see all the news. At that time, there were already so many members of the automotive media that I often had to fight my way through the crowd. Every other year several colleagues and I who worked with me at my Dutch car magazine were happy to go to the German show and split the work among themselves. After the scrums and impossible crowds at the 1999 IAA I decided not to go back to that nutty scene in 2001. The IAA (Internationale Automobil Ausstellung) takes place every other year; organized by the VDA, the association of the German automotive Industry, which also organizes a show of commercial vehicles in Hannover in the even-numbered years.

If you remember 2001 was the year of the terror attacks in the U.S. casting a dark shadow over the show which went ahead because, according to the president of the VDA: “We cannot permit terrorist forces to take away our freedom of action.” In solidarity with the victims and their relatives and friends, all show elements and loud music were cancelled during the media and public days and there was no official opening ceremony. More than 800,000 people visited the sober show. In 2007, the exhibition space had been increased by 10 per cent, while nearly 1 million people visiting the show.

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Two years ago, I went back to Frankfurt and was stunned by the enormity of the Messe, that had been developed into a modern building with eleven (!) interconnected exhibition halls, main entrances on either side of the structure, a couple of media rooms and many offices. Statistics say that in 2011 over 12,000 journalists reported from the IAA on 183 world premieres, including The Auto Channel, of course!

The central open space was covered by a huge temporary building with an integrated 400 meter long indoor track built by Audi. There were rumors Audi had spent around 50 million euro to build it. Mercedes also had a roadway in its huge hall. Two years earlier, BMW was the first to have a track to show its cars in action and this time used the set up again for a rolling show of its brand new electric i3. The huge pavilion is located in Hall 11, the ‘other main entrance’, where people arrive by bus from the parking structure. They have to go through the building to get to the other halls, so you cannot miss the BMW Group’s news, neither from Rolls-Royce and Mini on both sides of the hall.

Also Daimler used the set up of 2011. During the pre night event, some 20 Smarts Fortwo drove around the track that is elevated above the main stage.

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It also was no surprise to see the four red Audi-rings again on the custom built pavilion. This time, the 3,400 square meters of floor space is meant to make visitors aware of urban mobility. Skyscrapers and city districts are attached to the ceiling by nearly 60 miles of cable, displayed by projections and 11.2 million LEDs, in order to connect the ‘hanging cities’ with the Audi models on the floor. Impressive indeed, but also over-the-top! It probably has to do with the competition of the German car manufacturers. To be the best, translated in: to be the most impressive.

The question is where do I go during a world premiere packed media day? As I filed the IAA Show Preview the day before the IAA opened its doors, I already knew what to expect. Even then, it is hard to figure out what you want to see. But more importantly , what you may be able to actually see. It is important to prepare a ‘route’, ignore one hall and concentrate on another that has several car manufacturers under one roof.

Believe me: time flies and I had to keep an eye on my watch in order not to talk too long, take too much time to drink coffee and even ending up without having lunch. Like me, also visitors of the show will have to make choices, or they can come back another day…

Compared to Frankfurt, the shows in Geneva and Detroit have a much more efficient set up. Geneva has expanded into a building on the other side of the freeway. But the media hardly had interest in the displays there and no car manufacturer has ‘moved’ over.

At this very moment, the NAIAS in Detroit is expanding the structure. I am not convinced about the necessity. Cobo Hall offered an efficient show and reporting from there has always been easy. Last January it was even easier, since the Media center had moved to the easy accessible and huge ‘basement’, but that was an elegant way to cover the fact that less exposition area was needed by the car manufacturers and big suppliers.

The Los Angeles auto show…? Not bad either, even though the Convention Center is much larger than the exhibition areas of Detroit and Geneva. I like it that you can take a short cut between the two halls going outside in the November sunshine and I like the light and spacious stands.

Wherever an important auto show is organized, for the media and the public, it will be business as usual. Over the past years, practically every world premiere will be announced in the weeks or days before the start of the show. Checking them out will be much easier in LA, Detroit and Geneva than in Frankfurt, where you really have to make choices: which cars to see or not to see.