The Future of Face-To-Face and Our Essential Industry

Monday, April 05, 2021

Paul McCarthy Headshot

By Paul McCarthy, president and chief operating officer, Automotive Aftermarket Suppliers Association (AASA)

I’ll start with the first big question: yes, there will be an AAPEX in 2021.

Virus permitting, we’re seeing many promising signs for a trade show in November, which is great news for the aftermarket.   

Based on what we are seeing in terms of vaccination in the U.S., there is considerable reason for optimism.  

Medical, government and Las Vegas guidance is that we can expect to be able to conduct a large show in November with reasonable safety guidelines. There have already been several successful trade shows held in the U.S., and market research feedback from attendees and exhibitors at those trade shows, despite appropriate social distancing, have been very positive.

In addition, here are a couple interesting factoids from a survey by our friends at Freeman: 

  • Trade show attendees are more than 20 percentage points more likely to get a vaccine than the U.S. population as a whole. And the number of Americans intending to get the vaccine is increasing across the board. 
  • And most importantly, 85% of respondents said in-person events are irreplaceable because of their ability to drive more meaningful connections and networking opportunities that create partnership and innovation. 

We are lucky with the long-standing timing of our industry “homecoming.” AAPEX in November allows more time for vaccination and our society to learn how to safely re-engage in in-person business. We have heard from other industry trade shows that are envious of AAPEX’s position on the calendar.

Aftermarket need for face-to-face interaction
With the vaccine, our essential industry has an opportunity to reconnect and solve problems, and aftermarket companies have told us we need to take it.

I have been hearing positivity from most AASA members about value of AAPEX post-COVID. I am hearing a need to re-connect with customers; a need to reconnect as an industry. We all know the aftermarket is a relationship business.  

That said, we also all know that for suppliers – the exhibitors – what matters is whether the right customers, executives and buyers, and of the right level, will be at AAPEX. Recent discussions with customers have highlighted strong pent-up demand for face-to-face interaction and AAPEX. Here are a few quotes I collected from leaders at major customers:

  • “We need face-to-face with our suppliers”
  • “We need to regain those lost relationships”
  • “We loved our face-to-face with suppliers and we miss it”
  • “You miss something when you’re not in a meeting, especially key strategic relationships”
  • “AAPEX is so important for relationship management and partnership, as well as to find new products”
  • “AAPEX probably matters more this year than it ever has” – this may be the best summary I heard, from the CEO of a major customer.  

Industry needs AAPEX to problem-solve and increase innovation
The issues that have arisen in a year without industry face-to-face interaction – the gaps to bridge – are real.

The No. 1 issue identified by customers was a decline in communications across the value chain in this time of social distancing. We’re hearing them say, “The biggest issue right now is communications” and “We aren’t having the right discussions.”

We saw the impacts in our recent “Channel Excellence Award,” which is designed to recognize achievements in collaboration and innovation between suppliers and our channel partners, in order to drive growth together. Our finalists and our joint winners at SMP and NPW exhibited impressive and exciting results and creativity that the industry can learn from. Nonetheless, the feedback from our panel of judges – who represent experts at all steps of the value chain, from suppliers to shops – was that submissions clearly showed COVID had impacted the ability of the industry to find innovative solutions. Maybe there is some need for humans – one of the most social of animals – to physically be together.

As one customer put it, “In the pandemic, we lost innovation and collaboration. We need it going forward.” 

Given the enforced isolation we have all experienced this last, difficult year, this hits the mark of why we need a vibrant AAPEX in 2021. For human interaction, for relationships, but even more for business success. We need AAPEX to show up in innovation and in improved top- and bottom-lines in 2022 and beyond.

In addition, AAPEX offers significant opportunities to connect with and influence shops, including through training opportunities and Joe’s Garage. Distributors have noted the need for suppliers to dramatically increase interaction with shops post-pandemic, saying: “Face-to-face still matters – techs don’t get as much out of Zoom;” “The pandemic has forced us to scale back interaction with the end customer; they have a plan to get involved again;” and “Suppliers need to do a better job of staying in touch at the shop level.”

Industry needs its “homecoming”
Our industry has been essential. We had brave front-line workers in factories, in warehouses and in shops. The aftermarket has helped make sure that essential workers could get to work, emergency workers could get to hospitals and food could get to grocery shelves.

The New York Times called our vehicles “the ultimate PPE.” And through this time of social distancing and lockdown, we gave folks some access to safety and mobility, to freedom, and sometimes, to human connection.

It has been difficult to see family, friends and coworkers, ill, struggling, or lost.  

It has been a tough year, operationally, to be an aftermarket company. It is also amazing how well many aftermarket companies have held up through this time of challenge, and how resilient aftermarket demand has been.

Our parts, tools, chemicals, diagnostics, accessories and technologies have given something valuable to Americans and to customers around the world during this pandemic – and coming out of the pandemic, the value of our essential industry is increasingly apparent and appreciated. 

Our industry needs to acknowledge that and we need to celebrate it at our “industry homecoming,” AAPEX. And we need to get together, so we can work together to solve the problems this time of change has uncovered and ensure a prosperous future for our industry.

Personally, I cannot wait for AAPEX to simply see all my friends in our industry. So many people I’ve missed. I look forward to seeing you – and not through a screen. 

AAPEX 2021 registration will open in early May. If you’d like us to notify you when it’s open, please complete this short form.