NADA 2014, An Auto Reporter's Reflections

NEW ORLEANS -- The National Automobile Dealer Association meeting is over, and the crowds are heading to Metairie to cross their fingers that flight schedules are as smooth as this year’s conference was. Certainly from a reporter's perspective, it was a smooth flight notwithstanding the bump or two on the video side of things.

It's certainly a much more relaxed environment for automakers: a congenial place for dealers to press the flesh, and a great place if you're an auto reporter. Dealers have a contentious relationship with OEMs, to be sure, but if you're an OEM your franchisees are  your biggest fans, or the biggest fans of your products. They want you to win. And dealers, whatever you may think of them if you're a consumer, are an optimistic crowd. People who like to sell for a living are generally optimistic. You kind of have to be in that business.

The optimism -- the ability to turn on the charm -- was on display for anyone who listened to Forrest McConnell, the third-generation Alabama Honda car dealer who is this year's NADA president. Walking on stage before he spoke, he seemed shy. He's small and has the look and expression of someone who you'd expect to be nervous and generally reticent. Then he spoke, and there, suddenly, was the cheerleader -- the car sales guy -- selling NADA as if it were that last Accord of the month, the one that puts you over the top. NADA, he said, has "got your back." Polished, a little schmaltzy with a southern drawl, he talked family values, and the integrity of the businessman. He sold me, and I don't even sell cars.

And marketers from the carmakers were there to sell, as well. Because the dealers are both their customers and their compatriots. It was a fair-weather atmosphere (even though the weather was not) with lots of hugs, and everyone pretty much falling  into the "hail fellow well met" category. And it helps that this year it's in New Orleans, where there are libations for every occasion and pretty much everyone's a potential hail fellow well met.  

Oh, and the press room is pretty much empty --  pretty much all the time. No problem finding a place to sit. By contrast, everything about the average international auto show has the feel of a back alley cock fight, except with great light shows, parties, products and — again— libations. But that's on the surface. Underneath, it's bitterly competitive on both sides of the equation. Reporters, toward the end of the day, are ready to fight, and marketers — don't schedule a meeting at the end of the day — are wan and exhausted.  

Probably a better choice to be a little hung over, wondering how you got the colored beads around your neck and the feather Mardi Gras mask on the pillow next to you.

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