Toronto: A case study in race promotion

IndyCar, IndyCar commentary — By on February 26, 2013 3:29 pm
Twitter5Facebook2Google+0LinkedIn0Email

One of the most common concerns among IndyCar fans over the past few years has been that some race promoters don’t appear to be doing much to advertise their events in nearby population centers.

The Toronto race is a prime example. Since the company now known as Green Savoree Racing Promotions took over the event in 2009, loyal fans in the area have complained of a lack of advertising and activism. Recent years have seen the city’s open-wheel race weekend, once a marquis event of the summer months, become a relative ghost town.

I was at the Canadian Motorsports Expo on February 9th and 10th. This is a motorsport-focused trade show that’s attended by a small but very focused group of local race participants and fans. The show is held in a hall at the International Centre, a convention center in a suburb of the city across the street from the international airport.

I also attended the Canadian International Auto Show with my family on February 23rd. Its run spanned from February 15th to the 24th, and it takes up both buildings of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre in downtown Toronto. Every auto manufacturer that sells in Canada rents a massive amount of floor space to display new models, prototypes, and emerging technologies. On the day I was there, the place was absolutely wall-to-wall people.

Canadian Motorsports Expo. Upon reviewing the program for this year’s CME, my first observation was that this year’s show was very tintop-oriented. Previous years have seen Jacques Villeneuve, Paul Tracy, Dario Franchitti, and James Hinchcliffe as headliners on one day of the weekend and a NASCAR star on the other.

This year, both headliners came from the Sprint Cup ranks (Michael Waltrip and Kyle Busch, for those interested).

To be fair, it’s impossible to ignore that the NASCAR stars have consistently been this show’s bigger draws. I vividly recall the autograph line-up being longer for Matt Kenseth than it was for local superstar Paul Tracy in the same year (and I also vividly recall the depression that set upon me at the realization). The crowds at this year’s Q&A sessions were both standing room only, a stark contrast to the half-empty room that James Hinchcliffe spoke to last year as I helped fill time by offering up questions asked on Twitter.

Whether there are any open-wheel fans still around in the Toronto area is an open-ended question, but one thing is clear: if they do exist, they don’t come here for some reason. It’s hard to blame the show for knowing which side their bread is buttered on.

So, it was only marginally surprising to discover upon arrival at the show that the Honda Indy Toronto didn’t have a presence — not even so much as a table with a few brochures on it.

I asked the show’s director whether he and the folks at the Honda Indy Toronto had been in contact. He said that the show had reached out to them but that they had never heard a thing back. It certainly wasn’t that they weren’t welcome, he was very careful to add.

I decided to reach out to the Green Savoree folks to get their side of the story, and I heard back from Charlie Johnstone, the newly promoted President of the Honda Indy Toronto.

“When we commit to an event,” he said, “we want to ensure we have the time and resources to truly add value for the consumer.

“We’re focused on maximizing our overall brand exposure and partnered with our title sponsor, Honda Canada, at their display at the largest auto show in the country – the Canadian International Auto Show. The Auto Show simply provides us significantly greater exposure to a much broader consumer base.

“While ideally we would like to have committed to both events, we have limited access to the Official IndyCar DW12 show car. Given the close timing of both shows, we are obligated to choose.”

On the one side, it’s possible to conclude here that the HIT folks took a look at the CME program, concluded that the show had become too stock car–oriented to be of value to them at this stage, and actively opted out after calculating that the cost of securing a booth wasn’t going to guarantee sufficient return.

But the other hand, there are plenty of people who would argue that the Honda Indy Toronto never properly activated their opportunities at the CME in the first place. Having a show car there is nice, and the DW12 did seem to garner some interest last year. But when people walk away with nothing in hand — if not event tickets themselves, then at least a promotional coupon code to use at the website to purchase tickets later — they forget very quickly.

Canadian International Auto Show. My visit to this show was with my partner and my two-year-old daughter, so full disclosure is only fair: I spent more time making sure she didn’t smack dents into a show car with her water bottle than I did looking at the displays. We also squeezed our visit in between nap time and dinner time, so we were only there for a couple of hours, and it’s really necessary to have a full day at a minimum to be able to absorb all that this show has to offer. In this situation, though, I think that only makes my perspective similar to that of the vast majority of attendees.

This show has two gigantic display halls and numerous side displays. We found plenty of old hot rods, a bunch of touring cars, several Le Mans Prototypes, and a Ferrari F1 car — but I never did find the Dallara IndyCar show car.

Does that mean that everyone missed it? Absolutely not. We ran out of steam before we went through the second great hall thoroughly, and I was so exhausted by then that I (to be quite honest) forgot to keep an eye out at the Honda display. There had to have been six digits worth of people passing through the show over its 10-day run, though, and I have no doubt many more eyes saw it there than would have at the CME.

Would they have known what it was, though, and taken enough interest in it to act on it? That’s a harder question to answer. Just because you have a captive audience interested in passenger cars doesn’t mean you have a group of people interested in seeing an IndyCar race around city streets.

My conclusion: Green Savoree was possibly negligent in not having a presence at both events.

I say possibly because if there’s a piece of paper somewhere that shows the cost of booking a space at the CME, the expected attendance numbers, the lack of other open-wheel presence, the anticipated percentage of that crowd that would buy tickets, and the resulting lack of return, then that’s hard to argue with.

The CIAS was Green Savoree’s top priority, and it should have been. But if their primary motivation for not showing up at the CME was simply not having the show car available, then that was a major oversight. The DW12 wouldn’t have been new to very many CME attendees. On the other hand, there’s a double-header race weekend coming up in this town in 2013 that needs promoting.

A small space at the CME with a table, two chairs, a banner advertising two big races on one sunny July weekend, and a two-week coupon code for 10% off online ticket purchases would have been all that was needed to head home with some sales at the end of those two days. Even with the show being so heavily focused on cars with roofs this year, I’m convinced that the double-headers would have been enough of a hook to make a presence at the show worthwhile.

Double-headers may not mean much to someone walking through the CIAS deciding whether his next car will be the Volvo sedan his wife wants or the Audi S5 Cabriolet his mid-life crisis wants – but they would mean a great deal more to the dedicated race fans the CME attracts, and there might not be another good venue for reaching all of those people in one place before July.

In short, another opportunity to drum up interest in the Honda Indy Toronto has been lost.

Unfortunately, in this town, that’s nothing new.

Twitter5Facebook2Google+0LinkedIn0Email
Tags: , ,