It’s one of the biggest events in Las Vegas, and the annual SEMA Show will put the spotlight on the automotive aftermarket when it opens this week. Headlight.News spoke to SEMA’s marketing chief RJ DeVera to get a sense of how this traditionally performance-focused extravaganza is rapidly evolving along with the auto industry, adapting to the era of EVs, finding a new, more diverse audience and even adding a new consumer follow up, the SEMA Fest, featuring Wiz Khalifa and Imagine Dragons.
His boyish face belies the fact that RJ de Vera has enjoyed a 30-year career in and around the automotive industry. He grew up hoping to either be a car designer or race car driver. Neither really worked out but, as marketing chief for SEMA, the Specialty Equipment Marketers Association, he works with designers, racers and, well, pretty much anyone with a passion for the automobile. De Vera even landed a small role in the original 2001 entry into the long-running film franchise, The Fast and the Furious.
This week, however, he’s focused on one thing: the annual SEMA Show in Las Vegas. Rivaling CES — the Consumer Electronics Show — as Sin City’s biggest event. The extravaganza celebrates the automotive aftermarket, a business that annually generates more than $40 billion in sales in the U.S. for everything from custom wheels to crate engines.
Like the automobile itself, the aftermarket is rapidly evolving, especially as EVs grows from niche to mainstream. And this year’s SEMA Show will reflect that evolution in new sections and displays at the sprawling Las Vegas Convention Center.
Traditionally focused on industry insiders, this year’s show will also debut a new consumer-focused event, SEMA Fest. And it will have feature some big names, including Wiz Khalifa and Imagine Dragons.
Headlight.News caught up with the Phillipines-born de Vera during a recent visit to discuss the evolving auto industry, the role of the aftermarket, how EVs are redefining performance, and what we’ll find at the new SEMA Fest.
Headlight.News: The SEMA Show, like almost all events, was hurt by the pandemic. How bad a hit did it take and what’s happening at this year’s event?
RJ de Vera: The pandemic was a kind of reset we’re just crawling out of. We’re just getting back to 2019 numbers, when we had about 2,000 venders and used 1.2 million square feet (at the Las Vegas Convention Center). This year we expect about 150,000, maybe 160,000 attendees, maybe a single digit percentage behind (2019).
Headlight.News: You’re making other big changes, aren’t you? Give me a sense of what folks who haven’t been to the SEMA Show in a few years might see.
RDV: The show evolves as a reflection of the market. We’ve opened a new hall. We have a new overlanding experience. EVs and alternative propulsion are now a big part of the show. We’ve made the show a bigger spectacle.
We’ve also added a new festival we’ve added at the end of the show based on what we called SEMA Ignited. The SEMA Show was really all about B2B, business-to-business. This is more B2C, reaching out to consumers, inviting folks to become serious enthusiasts and evangelists. It’s now called SEMA Fest, which is, basically, a motorsports, music and car culture festival. We’ve got some really big bands, Imagine Dragons and Incubus, and some people that are tied to the auto world like Wiz Khalifa.
Changing automotive world
Headlight.News: What is happening at SEMA as the industry switches to electric vehicle?
RDV: For quite a while now, we’ve been seeing in the aftermarket a number of companies focusing on EV conversion and the components needed for that. SEMA Electrified started in 2001 and it grew very quickly. This year it’s going to take up 25,000 square feet and there’ll be 15 to 20 exhibitors specifically focused on EVs and future propulsion … ethanol and bio-diesel and synthetic fuels. It’s such a hot topic. We see it in Formula One and Le Mans and we know that will inspire the aftermarket, as well.
Headlight.News: When I was growing up it was easy to customize a gas engine. It’s still possible. But when you look at the future, with electric vehicles, what’s the future of customization?
RDV: A car with four wheels is still a car with four wheels. You can change the wheels and do things with aero. On the performance side, people are still scratching their heads. What will performance mean in an EV world? With Tesla, performance is just a program. You pay more for Ludicrous Mode. I’m not sure the aftermarket has a full grasp of the capabilities of EVs. That’s what we’re working with the aftermarket to try to figure out.
Headlight.News: The bottom line seems to be that things will be a lot more challenging for aftermarket suppliers, and customers, going forward.
RDV: The aftermarket is pretty resilient. They find ways to help people customize their vehicles (but) it’s going to become a lot more difficult for some companies because of the way (vehicles) are evolving.
Headlight.News: We’ll get a big test of what the aftermarket can do when Dodge comes out with its first all-electric muscle car next year (ED: based on the Dodge SRT Challenger Daytona concept). They’re adding a sound generator — dubbed the Fratzonic exhaust — and there’ll be multiple levels of performance you can upgrade using software you will be able to buy directly from Dodge and download over the air. What will that mean for the aftermarket?
RDV: Last year Borla, an aftermarket exhaust company, launched a new product for EVs to give them an exhaust sound. The company is already thinking about future proofing its business. We’ll have gas cars around for a long time but if the future is electric we have to develop and innovate.
Headlight.News: I know that the industry is struggling with the idea of making EVs more passionate. They can deliver great performance. The 0-60 numbers are there. But is simply having an extremely fast EV enough to satisfy the emotional elements that many owners crave?
RDV: I’ll use myself as an example. I’m a pretty hardcore enthusiast. If you love the sight, the sound, the smell of a big-block V-8 or a twin-turbo whatever, an EV, no matter how fast, will never be the same. I drove a Porsche Taycan EV and was really impressed, but not necessarily in the same way as if I drove a Porsche 911 or GT3. I started to appreciate it in a different way. There’s the immediate throttle response, but it’s going to be hard to recreate the visceral sensation, the grumble and the exhaust noise that enthusiasts are passionate about. It doesn’t give you the same emotional experience. They’ve got their work cut out.
Car companies and the show
Headlight.News: It seems like automakers really need SEMA.
RDV: Yeah, to get that passion back. A lot of trends come out of the aftermarket, stuff the automakers hadn’t thought about. It’s our goal to help preserve and prolong this love of the automobile.
Headlight.News: I’m starting to see more women interested in the performance side. It used to be rare seeing more than a few women at an automotive event, but that’s becoming more and more common.
RDV: We’re seeing that more and more, whether it’s drifting or off-roading or SCCA (racing). It’s great to see that diversity, whether female or more multicultural. And we’re seeing more under-40 attendees (at the SEMA Show).
Headlight.News: You’re just a couple months ahead of the biggest show in Las Vegas, CES. Has it had any influence on the SEMA Show?
RDV: The focus on technology, beyond autos, that’s CES. We’re looking at their focus on innovation and learnings from that. We’re strictly automotive aftermarket and they’re more technology focused, right and they’re technology. But there is an interesting overlap.