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Special Report on the Motor Show (3): There's no business like show business: Anthony Lewis reports on a cost-effective way for car makers to demonstrate their wares to the public

AN international motor show is simply a huge car showroom. About 700,000 people usually visit the biennial International Motor Show at Birmingham's National Exhibition Centre.

Two years ago the traditional October date, which coincides with school half-term, was moved to September to try to steal some of the glory from the Paris Motor Show, which alternates with Frankfurt as the main autumn show for continental Europe.

But attendance at Birmingham dipped to 452,704 from a healthy 720,326 in 1988, and 647,977 in 1986, so this year's return to traditional dates has been welcomed by manufacturers, who generally like to have children around.

'All our research shows that people's views of motor cars are formed quite young, so there's no harm in having children there,' says Michael Cornish, marketing director of VAG (UK). 'The motor industry is so important for young people's future and it's also very complex so it's good for them to see it close up.'

Manufacturers will spend about pounds 50m between them on their stands, but despite the expense of staging the show it is still a cost-effective way to show their wares. 'It's an opportunity for us to flag where we are going and to project our technology,' says Mr Cornish.

His view is shared by Paul Thomas, product marketing manager with Ford. He says: 'When we showed our Escort Seeker, the leisure and camping styling exercise, two years ago, the reaction was tremendous. A motor show is a good sounding board for ideas, we get very good feedback.'

Like Mr Cornish, Mr Thomas believes that a motor show is a good place for a company to signal its direction - Ford's links with Formula One motor racing and rallying will be apparent to visitors to the stand.

Some may mourn that the days seem to have gone for ever when new models were saved to be unveiled to an eager public, and even more eager press corps. 'It's much harder to keep a new car under wraps these days,' said Mr Thomas. 'We do extensive testing, putting cars out to high-mileage fleet users for example, and we take a European and often global view of our new products so to target any one show is difficult.'

Marc Raven, marketing operations manager for Citroen UK. says that as a shop window, a motor show is 'a lovely way of displaying your wares in front of everyone.'

He believes that from a customer's point of view shows can also be very time saving. He says: 'They can make a direct comparison with other manufacturers so it's important for us to make a positive image to potential customers.'

But he thinks a show in April or May could be better than the traditional October slot. The autumn dates for the Frankfurt and Paris shows mean that customers can order their cars for the new year, which is the traditional peak selling time for most of Europe. 'A spring show would mean hitting our August peak, which commercially would make sense.'