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SEMA: The Show Must Go On

Published on Sat, Apr 25, 2020

By: Don Taylor

LACar guest editor, Don Taylor, here gives us his thoughts on how the most important automotive industry aftermarket event of the year can safely go on … even in these challenging times!


For just about everyone in the automotive industry, the SEMA Show is the largest gathering of the tribe, and the annual confirmation that all is well in the auto enthusiast world. More importantly, it is a place of business, where transactions are made to keep the wheels turning in the aftermarket industry. Hopefully by November things will be enough “back-to- normal” that “The Show Must Go On”. The SEMA folks are planning on it and I know everyone in the business of automobiles is as well.

But things will be different this time around. When we get the “Back To Work” signal, all will not instantly return to exactly the way it was. There will still be the lingering concern, and the real danger, of a potential rebound-infection problem.

While there is talk of some racing events being resumed with no live attendees, or with spaced-out attendee seating, the SEMA Show is primarily indoors, with no way to enforce “social distancing”. In any year, SEMA is one of the largest trade events, and the second-largest in Las Vegas, with 160,000 plus attendees. This year it will be a real trial run for the practices that may be adopted in turn at the PRI Show, CES, and the winter’s public auto shows.

It will be a real test indeed when you consider that participants will be coming together from around the world. Let’s face it, many folks in our industry are in the more senior, higher risk category, and who likely should be more concerned.

So how might it be pulled off in light of the current fears? I got to thinking how that just might happen.

The biggest challenge will be controlling both airborne and contact transfer of the virus, with an audience looking to view the offerings of 2,400 exhibitors.

Since 9/11, at SEMA we have seen closer checking of ID on attendee badges, and more recently, bag inspection lines at the hall entrances. Added to that may be quick, non-contact temperature checks of visitors’ foreheads, as is done at some airports.

Once inside, attendees can be asked to be aware and thoughtful of others, but how do you create a safe environment when keeping a six foot distance to other attendees is not possible?

As the wearing of protective masks in public has become more commonplace, expect mask-wearing at SEMA. Perhaps it will merely be ‘recommended’ at that point, or a rigid requirement by SEMA for everyone.

If required, I could see SEMA-issued masks handed out at registration, stamped with an identification barcode/QR, plus the name and category of each person. Masks, hand sanitizer and other appropriate safety and cleanliness tools could replace the ubiquitous bags, pins, magnets, and other cool give-aways. Your mask would become your show credential, and needed for entry. And, to lessen the mystery of “who’s behind the mask?”, the attendee’s face could be printed, from the attendee’s submitted photo, directly onto the mask to allow friendlier “face-to-face” interaction.

While, masks will offer a certain degree of protection from air-transfer of any virus potentially present, the other danger is transferring it through touch. At SEMA, many vehicles already have Do Not Touch signs, but they are mainly unnecessary as the car world’s moral code already calls for not touching another person’s vehicle.

But we would still be typically touching the give-away pens, decals, paper pads, luggage tags, lip balms, brochures, and bags. Maybe it is time to eliminate the use of bags and the collecting of stuff. The show could become look-only, with no item collecting, except maybe for those little hand-sanitizer bottles.

Still, there are parts and accessories begging to be touched. The answer to that?

Touch all you want, while wearing protective, disposable gloves. And that introduces a new advertising opportunity. Instead of offering bags with their names to be seen, exhibitors could hand out eye-catching promotional gloves. Also, and this seems like a natural for a welding company, how about offering a clear face shield to supplement one’s issued mask?

With the world’s mask, glove, and face shield producers currently geared up for high production, and the need for their products’ medical use hopefully in decline at that point, they may welcome the business of producing protective promotional items.

A number of automotive and accessory companies have also produced specialized items for the COVID battle, and they might be encouraged to show how they addressed their social duty. For example, in its booth, Ford could show the respirators they built to meet the demand in hospitals. Likewise, in their space, GM could exhibit its ventilators and show how they work, plus display a Silverado ambulance conversion with lights flashing. Stepping it up a notch, Ford could bring in one of the original JEEPs that the company manufactured to win another epic war, WW2. In response, could GM show an M-5 tank, and so on. But better check the strength of the LVCC floors first.

Nothing can replace seeing 1,500 vehicles in the flesh, and the in-person energy of so many attendees. The SEMA Show would not be the same if it only existed in the virtual world, video streamed on Zoom. But looking ahead, perhaps the Sessions could be Zoomed, and, some “attendees” may use remotely controlled robots, with cameras, that can be guided down the aisles, streaming back images of the booths the controller wants to visit, and facilitate live chats with exhibitors at the show.

Trade shows are so critically important as a business tool, especially in an economy looking to restart. And SEMA is so critical for the automotive aftermarket industry. While regular auto show attendance has been dropping off, SEMA has been growing.

The SEMA Show is a unique experience that allows all to get together, so everyone can tell stories, be seen, feel part of something bigger, make deals, and in that process build a road forward from where we are today. This year we’ll need that more than ever.

Editor’s Note: Don Taylor (that’s him, modeling two of his modest suggestions) is a battle-hardened veteran of the automotive business and has (repeatedly in fact) attended every type, manner, edition, pop-up, sideshow, frontshow, junket, gathering, tent meeting, and sort of automotive event imaginable.  And, while the SEMA Show is not open to the general public, LACar staffers and guest editors like Don, make the ammual pilgrimage to Las Vegas to get an insider’s preview look at upcoming trends in an amazing variety of automotive aftermarket products and report the marvels seen there back to our readers.

As Don will tell you, “SEMA” is the place where people from every segment of the automotive industry gather to meet, greet, compare notes, attend seminars, make deals, confer, converse, and generally celebrate cars and car stuff.  Yeah, right.  It’s tough duty, but somebody has to do it… and Don (hell, we ALL do) really wants to see the show go on. – DS

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