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Auto show gears up to tap into sales upswing

The Buffalo Auto Show is ready to turn the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center into the city’s fanciest parking lot.

The event will pack about 275 new cars and trucks into the center from Thursday through next Sunday, drawing thousands of visitors to comparison shop under one roof or just check out what’s new from the automakers. They will sit in the driver’s seat, slam doors, and take video and pictures for reference.

For dealers, the show is as much about what happens away from the convention center, back at their showrooms. They hope visitors will like what they see, make follow-up visits to car lots, and perhaps make deals.

But it all comes back to making the show an attraction, to generate the interest to begin with.

“We try to make it an event,” said Paul Stasiak, president of the Niagara Frontier Automobile Dealers Association, which organizes the show. “But it’s about the cars, ultimately.”

Dealers count on the annual February show to generate showroom traffic in the next month or two, especially when manufacturers pour money into post-show incentives. While a big show like Detroit’s draws international media and unveils new products, Buffalo’s show has built a reputation as a solid regional event that attracts crowds and generates follow-up sales.

Even before the Buffalo show arrives, a couple of factors hint at what the new year will bring: industry sales forecasts, and response to the North American International Show, a top show held in Detroit a few weeks earlier. Both signs were positive this year.

Last year, U.S. auto sales totaled 16.5 million, up 6 percent from the year before and the best full-year total since 2006. This year, some experts believe sales could approach 17 million units, numbers unseen since the early 2000s.

“They’re going to produce more inventory, and they’re going to force more inventory into the field,” Stasiak said.

Last year, area dealers reported new-car sales of 59,965, up 3.2 percent from the year before. (The numbers would be even higher, but sales heavyweight Chevrolet does not disclose its figures.) Car sales are big business in Western New York. The region is home to one of the biggest dealer groups in the country, West Herr Automotive Group, and two of the top Chevy dealers, Joe Basil Chevrolet in Depew and Paddock Chevrolet in Kenmore.

As for the Detroit show, the event drew the biggest ticketed crowd in years, and a Detroit Free Press story hailed this year’s edition “one of the great ones,” with debuts like the Ford GT and Acura NSX.

Local attractions

At the Buffalo show, the attractions will include the aluminium Ford F-150. It was voted North American Truck/Utility of the Year at the influential Detroit show. Volkswagen will also bring its Golf GTI, which, along with Golf variants, was named North American Car of the Year.

Among the other vehicles expected are the new Chevy Colorado pickup, Jeep Renegade Trailhawk, BMW i8, and Z06 Corvette. Also on display will be a Maserati and Lotus – both of them added Western New York dealers last year.

With square footage in the convention center at a premium, the show allocates floor space based on a three-year average of new-car registrations. Visitors will find some of the big-name brands parked in different spots than they are used to on the second floor, to give the layout a different look, Stasiak said.

Paddock Chevrolet’s dealer principal, Duane Paddock, said the Buffalo show “kicks off the spring season. As much as it’s not spring, it springs us into spring.” The show gives people a place to get out of the weather and check out new cars and “gadgets” inside the vehicles, he said.

While the U.S. has a few dominant shows, like New York, Detroit and Los Angeles, Buffalo’s show stacks up well against other “second-tier” shows, Paddock said.

Paddock said Chevy likes the quality of the Buffalo show, which he said makes a difference when the car company is deciding where to display a limited number of new vehicles available for shows.

Only a few shows around the country get to show off concept cars. A show like Buffalo’s is more practical, exhibiting vehicles either available in a showroom or that soon will be.

New features

Dealers and carmakers try different things to stand out from their competitors at the Buffalo show. Toyota this year will allow show visitors to take test drives around downtown, using a special entrance and exit at the convention center.

Area Ford dealers and the car company are creating a small theater for its F-150 display. The high-tech display, complete with lasers and music, will make it appear as though a truck is moving through rain and snow.

“This is the type of display that you typically only see at major international auto shows,” said Frank Downing Jr., president of Towne Automotive Group. “It has never been done in Buffalo.”

Karl Brauer, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book, said auto shows still have their place for consumers. Shoppers can see lots of cars in a no-pressure environment, without driving from place to place and using up gas. “Auto shows are just a great way for a full-spectrum view of all the vehicles out there,” he said.

Even with U.S. auto sales surging recently, Brauer said lots of people are still driving around in older cars. An auto show, he said, just might be the place where they discover a car they fall in love with and decide to buy.

The average age of cars on the road is still about 10 years old, he said. “The sense is there’s still a lot of untapped buyers.”

Some visitors use the show to make contacts with dealer reps for follow-up trips to the showroom. Others prefer to browse in anonymity.

“It’s still a casual buying experience,” Stasiak said.

Even though customers can do lots of research online before stepping into a showroom, Stasiak said auto shows remain relevant. “The good thing for us and car shows is, people still want to see the cars,” he said.

Brauer agrees. “There is a lot of information you get online,” he said. “But cars are an emotional element, more so than even houses for some people,” he said.

Shoppers still want try out the seats, see how the gauges are laid out, and decide if the real thing lives up to the pictures, he said.

Truck town

While Buffalo’s show always comes at the same time of year, the circumstances change. In recent years, dealers had to try to pump up interest amid a recession, or cope with high gas prices that brought fuel economy to the forefront. This year, one storyline is local gas prices dipping to about $2.50 per gallon, down more than $1 from a year ago.

“I think you’re going to watch people buy bigger trucks for a short period of time and not think it could go to $4 [a gallon] again by year’s end,” Stasiak said. Even so, Stasiak said, Buffalo has been a consistently good market for trucks and SUVs, as consumers think about the best vehicles for navigating winter.

Stasiak said the show can help generate business for dealers even from people who don’t attend it. Consumers know this is a time of year when many dealerships have incentives to offer, he said.

Buffalo’s show has always been a combination of new cars and special guests designed to draw a crowd. For instance, this year’s edition will include appearances by ex-Bills Darryl Talley and Cornelius Bennett. Even if some visitors come mainly to meet sports stars, organizers hope those visitors might linger and see some cars, too.

Trey Barrett, auto show coordinator for the NFADA, says the event creates a spinoff effect for downtown during its four-day run, whether it’s more meals served at restaurants or more hotel rooms booked.

“The more reasons you have to come to the auto show and patronize downtown Buffalo, the better it is for everyone,” he said.