Early February 2020, the India Exposition Centre and Mart at Greater Noida is packed for the Auto Expo. Persistent news of a viral outbreak in China is doing the rounds. The news has become so serious that a last-minute decision has been taken to ‘ban’ delegates who have just travelled from China. This, despite two Chinese exhibitors — the Shanghai Automotive Industrial Corporation, SAIC, owners of the MG brand, and Great Wall Motors, who had expected to launch in India in mid-2020 — taking up expensive floor space.
But we still have little clue what the outbreak is all about. Some mediapersons are wearing expensive N95 masks, others carrying precious bottles of hospital-grade hand sanitiser in their backpacks. And there is this tremendous sense of foreboding that something potentially big is about to happen.
Of course, you do not need me to remind you of what happened next. But here is a short recap. Covid and a border skirmish in Eastern Ladakh put paid to Great Wall Motors’ plans in India. The Auto Expo 2020 went down in history as the last large automotive show before the world shut down.
In the time since, the automotive industry in India and the world has gone through quite a newsy period. The industry first decided to shut down and cancel all orders for semiconductors and then discovered that everybody wanted a new car and that they couldn’t make them. Even as semiconductor supply issues and automotive production has stabilised after the pandemic, demand is still through the roof. Average waiting time for popular models such as the Kia Carens is in excess of six months, with the likes of Mahindra ScorpioN’s select variants stretching over a year. The entire two and three-wheeler industry at the same time is increasingly pivoting towards electric vehicles and now major Indian firms like Hero MotoCorp, Bajaj and TVS are also players in the electric game.
So you’d suppose that the Auto Expo, which is making a comeback in 2023, between 11 and 18 January at the same India Exposition Centre would be a huge success. But according to this story in The Times of India, the Expo has seen tepid demand from participants. In fact, the report highlights that most two-wheeler makers have decided to avoid the flagship event.
And the story is not much different for car makers as well. The entire Skoda Auto-Volkswagen group is avoiding the show, as is Honda Cars, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and even Mahindra. While Maruti-Suzuki, Hyundai-Kia and Tata Motors are participating along with some newcomers like China’s BYD Motors, the large-scale shunning of the Auto Expo even by carmakers who are doing well in the market and with new models to showcase, such as Mahindra, is surprising.
Rajesh Menon, Secretary-General, Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM), would not like to get into the specifics of such reports but is hopeful that there are still two-and-a-half months to go before the show and that the industry association is still engaging with their member-partners to ensure turnout.
But carmakers have a different opinion altogether. The head of Public Relations at a large manufacturer said quite clearly that the RoI (Return on Investment) from a publicity standpoint at the Expo is ‘not worth it’. “I would rather spend that kind of money on doing a big event of my own at a nice location where people don’t have to drive 40 kilometres on a cold January morning.”
Two-wheeler manufacturers are even more damning: “It is a car show, and we get lost in the media clutter,” says the communications chief of a large two-wheeler manufacturer.
Other manufacturers, who did not wish to be named, commented on the state of the automotive media in India recently with sites burgeoning by the year and how the Auto Expo has become more about quantity rather than quality.
Carmakers have a lot to showcase at a big event like this, but a combination of factors, including the inconvenience of Greater Noida for both exhibitors and the media, the cold January weather and diminishing publicity returns, is ensuring that Auto Expo 2023 is in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
A return to central Delhi’s Pragati Maidan after its reconstruction might help the Expo. There has been a gradual disinterest in large auto shows by carmakers across the world as the industry goes through a fundamental change and global geopolitics has it in its crosshairs.
@kushanmitra is an automotive journalist based in New Delhi. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)