What Went Wrong With the Atlantic City Car Show?
The problem is, it should be good. The Atlantic City Car Show, a massive event set before the east coast car season even begins, should be a smash hit. It has been in the past. But the last few years have seen a decline in one of the most anticipated New Jersey car shows of the year, and that’s a shame. It’s also a lesson. As we delve deeper in the reason behind the show’s less than success, we might also find the answer to the ever important question – what makes for a good car show?
It is important, first, to mention the environment surrounding this event. Atlantic City is no longer the bustling metropolis it was when I skipped school to attend the show as a kid, more than a decade ago. AC is a shell of the bountiful sin of iniquity it once was, half-empty casinos and parking lots, the stench of the ocean marsh and the chugging of hot, black smoke into the atmosphere, it is a dichotomy of the rich and the poor, the old and the new. Where money once ran rampant, many of the hotels have been stripped of their neon and their names, and the Las Vegas lite is much lighter than it ever was.
There are many reasons for this – some political, some social, some nothing more than a witness to history. The laws regarding online gambling made it more difficult to entice customers to brick and mortar businesses. Businessmen came and went, and the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy is a lingering black stain on many coastline towns across the state, even more than three years later. There are very real, just difficult truths that would impact any event, and it’s important to note them, before digging into the depths of why The Atlantic City Car Show just isn’t doing it.
“If this event was during the car show season, no one would go.”
He’s right. The only reason that Atlantic City is even still drawing a crowd, is because it relies on the desperation of east coast car enthusiasts who need a show during the long, cold winter months. It’s a salve to the February blues, and that’s perfectly okay. But the show should be able to stand on its own, and it should be the kind of event that isn’t only picked because it’s the only option. Given its past history of success, and the bare bones that still remain, AC should be a destination, but year after year it keeps falling short.
One of the reasons for this is the Vendor Issue, capita Vl, capital I. In an event space as overwhelmingly massive as the 500,000 square foot AC Convention Center, empty space is an obvious thing. This year, when we walked through the door, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the room looked a little fuller and a little more complete – until I realized that a large chunk of the long end of the room had been cut off from view, closed in with black curtains to give exactly the illusion I was experiencing. And why? AC is a great show for vendors – in fact, it’s part of the reason everyone goes. But where vendor tables used to spill far out into the hallway and down the front room, they just…don’t. And that’s because it’s way too expensive. According to one vendor, the weekend vendor spot cost him nearly $500 – on its own a healthy sum. Now factor in the cost of two or three nights staying in the city, plus the exorbitantly priced food and travel, and if you’re not clearing a least a grand, you’re not even making even. What’s the point of coming?
I don’t blame them. One things, as showgoers, we often forget is that vendors are small businesses. They are mostly independently owned and run, tables worked by family members or friends, and a main source of income. If a show costs more to attend than you might make, it’s off the list, no questions asked, and we need to support them in that choice. Now, if the AC event were bringing in attendees by the droves, I might be more inclined to support a $500 a table vendor, but it’s obviously not. The value of a spot just isn’t worth it, and that takes a huge chunk out of the reason to go. Vendors are fun and they used to be such an important element of the event, but now it’s just not in the budget.
I’d argue that neither is attending. The show isn’t cheap for the people going either. At $25 a head, you take it off the table as a family event, especially since they don’t offer discounts for students, seniors or military. Coupled with the overly priced food in the facility, parking and, likely, dinner after the event and the whole day turns out your pockets.
There’s also the middle of the day issue, that we seem to run into year after year. About halfway through the afternoon, your legs are done with a slow meandering over hard concrete (this is a genuine complaint and I am sticking to it. I walk an average 5-6 miles a day, but that convention center floor is a real sonuva…) and the smell of exhaust is everywhere. Don’t get me wrong, that scent of aged leather and exhaust fumes and oil, that’s the cologne of my childhood – but I’m not usually smelling it in an enclosed building. Part of the issue is that they moved the auction to the center of the room, with an idling row of classics that stretches the far wall and adds to the sleepy juice of the air quality.
And I don’t think that was a good idea. The auction isn’t open to the public – those tickets cost extra – so we walk past the one big entertainment of the day, meandering slowly to the far end of the center, which seems to stretch for miles out before us, a vast wasteland of concrete floors and idling engines. There’s nothing at the other end of the center, and by the time you do reach it, the seating and food court back at the front of the hall seem too far away to even contemplate. And that’s a little silly. For one, the auction would be better suited to the end of the room – that’s where it’s been in the past and that’s where it should stay. But more importantly, as dad put it, I don’t feel like I’ve achieved anything by walking all the way across the room. Of course, the cars are wonderful and enjoyable, and it did feel like a substantially sized number of them. But they straggle off towards the end of the line, and there’s always large rows missing, caught up waiting for their turn on the auction block.
It’s a waste of space. There is more than enough room to put a live band or space for a kids’ area or a firetruck. The show simply fades off, feeling a little…unfinished, as though they didn’t quite get to that part before the doors opened.
All of this is to say, the Atlantic City Car Show needs simple fixes, back to the basic fixes. No, we’re not going to somehow rehabilitate the city’s economic situation or bring back the lost jobs. But the show itself doesn’t need that sort of overhaul, it needs to think small and smart.
Cut the costs. If more vendors can afford the trip then more will fill the long, empty stretches of room. This is for attendees too – make it an affordable family day out, with more food options and entertaining things for kids. Face painters and magicians are a nice welcome gesture to the families attending, and always bring more traffic through the door. Plus, they fill up space. As do local bands or performers. Give showcase to kids starting out and it won’t cost a lot, but it will add much. Fill the space and the noise. Make us want to walk to the other end of the room.
I can’t begin to count the number of car shows I’ve attended, and Atlantic City has always been a special one for me. I would play hooky and dad and I would take the long drive to the show, freezing as we ran through the underground parking lot once we arrived. It’s a day of daddy/daughter memories, cutting up the cold darkness of the show-less winter months, and it makes me a little sad to see that it’s just not as good as it used to be.
But there’s hope for this show, if they’re willing to change the rules they’ve set for themselves, just as there is hope for every new event and old event that needs a new look. Car Shows don’t have to fit within a box. Each one has their own thing, their own style and events and theme. Atlantic City just needs to find it again.