NADA 2015: I Was At a Convention Full of Auto Dealers and Lived to Tell the Tale

Satish Kondapavulur
by Satish Kondapavulur

Last week, I snagged a press pass to the 2015 National Automobile Dealers Association Convention and Expo in San Francisco. That’s right, San Francisco, one of the least car-friendly places in the country, if not the world. Dealers would have to rely on buses to get to their hotels and a few landmarks. They would have to use public transport to go shopping. And they would have to contend with an area of the country trying to “disrupt” their business model with the likes of Tred and Tesla, both of whom didn’t have exhibits at the event.

It was a place where numerous dealership owners and managers would network with other dealers (), attend meetings with car manufacturers (“When is Volkswagen going to give us a 7-passenger SUV?”), learn in workshops how to generate greater profits and retain customers (“So I can’t just keep ‘em waiting at my desk for an hour?), purchase new equipment for the showroom and service bay (“How ‘bout three-thousaand for this ‘ere turntable with zero-percent financin’ for eighty-somthin’ months?”), and see Jeb Bush possibly announce his candidacy for president (“He’d better be better than Dubya.”).

Numerous people who’ve dealt would consider a venue full of car dealers the worst place imaginable. They might think it was entirely possible to walk out the convention center doors having bought a Lincoln MKS, a Scion iQ, a Cadillac ELR, and definitely a Dodge Avenger, all on 84-month loans with a 17.5% interest rate. They might think I had to wait hours to get anything done, like picking up my press pass or getting lunch, much like going through the finance room or waiting for the oil change.

Instead, since they’re far from home, dealers do their own activities, away from the customers. They could be doing anything from walking Fishermans’ Wharf to buying new service bays to learning about federal mandates on dealer advertising to getting their heart checked to taking a nap in their hotel room due to the jet lag.

One important activity that NADA holds are workshops for the dealers, which deal with sales strategies, customer retention, marketing plans, financial practices, employee motivational, and service bay optimization, among numerous other subjects. Usually, these workshops are helmed by people who either work for or owns an automotive consulting firm in the field that the session focuses on. For instance, a workshop on digital wholesaling of cars was given by a man who worked for an auction company while a workshop on “building a winning sales team” was helmed by the owner of a sales training firm.

I was really looking forward to shadowing some of these workshops to inform readers about new sales, marketing, service, and finance strategies to be employed the next time they set foot in a dealership. I was going to find out some new strategies that dealers were undertaking to improve their sales and profits. I would help The Truth About Cars live up to its name. Unfortunately and somewhat predictably, press people were not allowed into these sessions. (The reason given to me was that dealers might become uncomfortable with a member of the press in the room and not voice their honest opinions.)

Though I wasn’t admitted into workshops, I was surprisingly allowed to take part in the “NADA Lifestyle Experience,” intended for the spouses of dealers. The organizers provided activities like complimentary manicures, chair massages, COPD/lung function screenings, and having Bloomingdale’s exhibit the newest spring fashions. With the unforeseen free time I had, I took part in the video games portion of the activities where I set the highest score on the first try. Granted, I was easily the youngest there by at least ten years, and I stood out since nearly everyone else were dealers’ spouses. I didn’t set foot in those areas again.

As for the dread that dealers may keep on selling cars during the convention, have no fear. The shoe is on the other foot at the expo, as vendors showcase their products and services for dealers, enticing them to their booths with the promise of gift cards, free tablets, and in one case, entering a contest for a Rolex Submariner. Most of these exhibitors consist of finance, insurance, marketing, classifieds, servicing equipment, IT services, and accessory providers among others. I wouldn’t have been surprised if there were over a thousand exhibitors, all gunning for a shot at a dealer’s business.

Many of these vendors’ displays are immense. When I first walked into one of the exhibition halls, the Hunter Engineering Company (I only mention Hunter in detail since I have their flyer) had a full replica of a service bay on the convention center floor showcasing how quickly inspections could be performed on a car utilizing their equipment and sensors. Chrysler and Bosch had even larger service bay replicas with multiple cars and constant demonstrations of their products. It was clear that companies wanted a piece of the dealer service revenue.

Meanwhile, the companies that took care of finance, insurance, marketing, classifieds, and other products had mini-structures (some were two stories) constructed on the floor of the convention center. Companies like Reynolds and Reynolds, Ally Financial, and Autobytel were in that category, attempting to do as much business as they could, with structures about half the size of Formula 1 team hospitality structures. These companies had dedicated conference and waiting rooms as well as large television screens explaining what their firms did. Some firms even hired athletes like Joe Montana, Steve Young, Jerry Rice, Dan Fouts, and Reggie Jackson to bring foot traffic to their structures.

After seeing all the business and meetings that occurred during the two days I visited the NADA Convention, I’ve seen how significant auto dealers are to the American economy. Other than the manufacturers and dealers whom we encounter directly when buying or servicing a car, I saw the countless other businesses both small and large that are an integral part of your automotive research and buying experience.

And most importantly, I managed to get out the doors of the convention center with my bank account intact and no ELR appearing in my driveway.

Satish Kondapavulur is a writer for Clunkerture, where about a fifth of the articles are about old cars and where his one-time LeMons racing dreams came to an end, once he realized it was impossible to run a Ferrari Mondial. He’s probably the only person in the world who’s driven both a Bentley Continental GT and Chrysler 200 around Laguna Seca.

Satish Kondapavulur
Satish Kondapavulur

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11 of 28 comments
  • Lie2me Lie2me on Jan 29, 2015

    I've been to many trade shows in my life and after reading this I came away with the conclusion that, "Yep, that's a trade show"

    • Luke42 Luke42 on Jan 29, 2015

      Same here. Same story, different industry. I've done booth duty in these shows for my field.

  • Seth1065 Seth1065 on Jan 29, 2015

    perhaps Steve Lynch could chime in , what happens when the staff returns to the dealership? Anything or same old same old?

    • See 7 previous
    • Krhodes1 Krhodes1 on Jan 30, 2015

      @Lie2me If they only take pictures of three wheels, the missing forth will be the one with the gigantic ding in it...

  • Stephen Never had such a problem with my Toyota products.
  • Vulpine My first pickup truck was a Mitsubishi Sport... able to out-accelerate the French Fuego turbo by Renault at the time. I really liked the brand back then because they built a model for every type of driver, including the rather famous 300/3000GT AWD sports car (a car I really wanted, but couldn't afford.)
  • Vulpine A sedan version of either car makes it no longer that car. We've already seen this with the Mustang Mach-E and almost nobody acknowledges it as a Mustang.
  • Vulpine Not just Chevy, but GM has been shooting itself in the foot for the last three decades. They've already had to be rescued once in that period, and if they keep going as they are, they will need another rescue... assuming the US govt. will willing to lose more money on them.
  • W Conrad Sedans have been fine for me, but I were getting a new car, it would be an SUV. Not only because less sedans available, but I can't see around them in my sedan!