SEMA hot rod culture goes to China

The Specialty Equipment Market Association celebrated its 50th annual trade show this week at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Originally named the High Performance and Custom Trade Show, the first event gathered 92 small businesses from Los Angeles under the bleachers of Dodger Stadium in 1967. This year, the SEMA trade show hosted 2,400 international exhibitors and more than 160,000 attendees during its four-day run that ends today.

The trade show moved to Las Vegas in 1977 and has continued to thrive in this desert tourist destination, attracting exhibitors and attendees from all over the world. They come together to celebrate a car culture of “do-it-yourself” performance enhancements and custom styling that are integrated with a wide array of products that promote driving comfort, convenience and safety.

One of the educational events held Monday featured a round-table discussion about selling specialty automotive parts to China. The event brought together small-business owners, government representatives and media from both countries. A Mandarin interpreter helped carry out a bilingual presentation that included representatives of the U.S. Department of Commerce and the SEMA China organization.

China was a bicycle economy just 40 years ago but is now the largest market in the world for automobile sales, passing the U.S. in 2010. During 2015, about 17 million autos and light trucks were sold in the U.S., while more than 24 million vehicles were sold in China.

Modifying cars for style and performance, including motorsports and racing, is becoming a growing automotive market in China. Ford Mustangs and other U.S. automotive brands are popular in the country, competing against Japanese brands such as Toyota.

Off-road driving and road race events are on the rise. One entertainment festival in China combines motorsport racing with concerts and draws more than 700,000 attendees each year. Chinese businesspeople noted that advertising a company’s automotive brand during this music festival can reach a lot of people in the country at one time.

The panel also exchanged ideas about using WeChat, the Chinese equivalent of Facebook, to gather market research on popular preferences and provide a potential marketing channel.

Counterfeiting and production of knock-off copies of automotive products in China also were discussed as a potential barrier to small American companies entering the Chinese automotive market. Authentic American brands that have quality and are available at reasonable prices are still valued by Chinese consumers, who will usually buy knock-off products only if they cannot find them locally or if the original product is priced exceedingly high.

“The best way to avoid counterfeiting in China is to be in China,” said David Borla, vice president of sales and marketing for Borla Performance Industries Inc.

Borla first entered the Beijing market through a Chinese student who sought out his company’s stainless steel exhaust systems after reading copies of Car and Driver and Road and Track magazines. Borla has now expanded sales of his company’s performance exhaust systems into Shanghai, Xian and other parts of the country.

Having a good business partner as a distributor is important when exporting to China in order to protect the manufacturing company’s brand through local vigilance and customer feedback.

American importing companies and automotive parts resellers sometimes face challenges finding reliable Chinese distributors, even though a Chinese company may make competitive products with good quality. The U.S. Department of Commerce does maintain a list of reputable and established distributors for Chinese manufacturers that American importers can reference.

Many of the American small businesses represented at the SEMA trade show started around a hobbyist’s passion in a home garage. Most companies are still family-owned, and many proudly manufacture their products in the U.S.

Doug Evans, SEMA’s chairman of the board, has promoted car-culture experiences to the next generation of enthusiasts through the Car Camp at the SEMA Garage venue, the SEMA Student Program, a career fair and a new Young Guns builders program that debuted this year.

SEMA has gone digital in a big way, offering classes and support to its members for online social media, marketing and commerce. Member services include a SEMA data co-op that supports 490 brands, 4 million part numbers and 59 million vehicle application records.

The SEMA VR Experience showcased virtual reality as a new and evolving marketing tool and compelling new medium. SEMA Garage also featured computer-aided design and coordinate measuring machine scanning systems, 3-D printing and a technology transfer library that can help enable a small garage startup business to create professional product documentation and prototypes for a global marketplace.

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