Virtual events are driving enthusiasm in the automotive industry

Last year, a 1971 Volkswagen Beetle was the winner from the Seattle stop of the Hot Wheels Legends Tour. This year, the competition was held virtually. Photo credit: Mattel

This year, major automotive events — which typically hold thousands of attendees and carmakers from around the world in large, crowded indoor venues — could not continue as they did in years’ past while following social distancing guidelines. But rather than facing cancellation or postponement, many are adapting by creating new ways for fans to engage with automotive brands and one another online.

Hot Wheels Senior Design Manager Brian Benedict was working with his team to plan the third annual Hot Wheels Legends Tour set for March, when he realized the event series would look different this year. To avoid cancellation, Benedict knew the event series would have to pivot.

“We would typically go city-by-city, with around 15 to 20 different events in the series, [but] this year we knew that wasn’t an option,” Benedict said. “The safety of our employees and attendees was our biggest priority.” After gauging interest from Hot Wheels fans, the team decided to turn the Legends Tour into a virtual event series.

“Our fan base still wanted to participate in something fun and different, even if it was from home,” Benedict added. “And, with extra time on their hands, contestants were spending more time on car building [and] were eager to share their work.”

In the car-building competition, which first started in 2018 for Hot Wheels’ 50th anniversary, contestants create a life-size, fully functioning vehicle by hand and their model is evaluated by a panel of automotive design experts. The winners from each event compete in the finale, with the champion inducted into the Hot Wheels Garage of Legends — the brand’s elite collection of the best Hot Wheels models. Only 22 of over 800 Hot Wheels models currently sit in the Garage of Legends.

But perhaps the competition’s biggest appeal is the reward of having the winning car preserved as a 1:64-scale Hot Wheels model to be sold around the world.

“We’re looking for folks who have created a unique, working car that’s worthy of being immortalized in a die-cast car,” said Benedict. “It’s got to have creativity, authenticity and what we call ‘garage spirit,’ meaning [that] someone put their blood, sweat and tears into the model, rather than having it shopped out.” The event attracts hundreds of contestants every year.

When the Hot Wheels team made the event series virtual, they were concerned fewer people would be interested in attending the event and entering the competition. However, the virtual events series has drawn a wider audience than ever before.

Attendees of the virtual event series were able to engage in the judging process for the first time this year. Photo credit: Mattel

“Going virtual has given us a chance to engage with fans all over the country,” said Benedict. “Our audience isn’t limited to people living near the cities we would stop in. Now, anyone who has WiFi can join.”

Benedict says the level of engagement has also improved, and online cameras can provide close-up views of the participating cars, which would normally be crowded with fans and difficult to see in-person.

“This gives attendees a greater appreciation for the mechanics of the vehicles, and the contestants who enter their cars… are able to have their hard work viewed by a national audience,” he said.

Benedict said this visibility also has helped Hot Wheels fans become more involved in the judging process. “The deliberation normally happens out of sight for most attendees [but] now they can… watch the decisions happen in real-time,” he said.

This was the first year Hot Wheels incorporated a “fan favorite pick” element to the judging process that allows attendees to cast their vote for their favorite vehicles.

“It’s things like this that allow people to feel engaged,” said Benedict. “There are still opportunities to see amazing vehicles and have conversations with other fans.”

The series is ongoing through mid-November, and Benedict said the events have received positive feedback from attendees so far.

“We haven’t had to sacrifice engagement, attendance or interest for safety,” said Benedict. “As difficult as it was to cancel the in-person tour, the virtual events have allowed people to come together just like [they would have] in-person.”

As the industry continues to navigate social distancing guidelines, Benedict expects more automotive events to explore virtual options to allow audiences to engage with their community without leaving their driveway.

“At the end of the day, people want to come together as a community — whether [that is] online or virtual.”

The judges look for creativity, authenticity and “garage spirit.” This 1971 Volkswagen Squareback named “Two Cool” has all three. Photo credit: Mattel