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The Buffalo Auto Show is a spectacle in itself, offering flashy cars and trucks, an escape from the winter blahs, and sports celebrities to meet.

For dealers, though, the show is only a starting point. They count on the annual February event to jump-start consumers’ interest in buying, and they prepare for a carryover effect in their showrooms.

“We do market the show as a launch to the selling season, and our dealers embrace it because they know they can afford to put a few more dollars into the show, into a trade, or to put a deal together, because what they sell in February, they earn back in March or April or May,” said Paul Stasiak, president of the Niagara Frontier Automobile Dealers Association. The NFADA organizes the show, which starts Thursday morning and runs through Sunday night at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center.

As usual, the convention center will be packed with about 300 cars and trucks. The collection will include a 2015 Ford Mustang preproduction vehicle, a 2015 Chrysler 200, a Chevrolet Corvette Stingray coupe, and a host of other vehicles ranging from the practical to the fanciful.

The show is getting underway as U.S. car sales continue to strengthen from the depths of the recession, and industry forecasts are pointing to another robust year.

A notable change this year is the Buffalo show’s length: four days, instead of the usual five. The four-day format should give manufacturers more time to set up their exhibits in Buffalo after leaving auto shows in other cities, and eases staffing demands on dealerships whose employees are at the show to answer questions, Stasiak said.

Buffalo’s auto show is not a top-tier show like Detroit’s, where new products are unveiled with international media attention. But regional shows such as Buffalo’s have their own place, by connecting with consumers and spotlighting the kinds of vehicles they are likely to buy.

Stasiak said Buffalo-area dealers are very effective in generating post-show sales, an outcome that the manufacturers pay attention to. “Our dealers get much more aggressive on trades,” he said. “The manufacturers in most cases allocate some more attack money around our auto show window. They know it’s an exciting time, they know it’s a competitive time and they react with in-kind programs or opportunities.”

Even people who don’t attend the event have come to expect that when the show rolls around, there are deals to be had at the dealerships, Stasiak said.

If dealers are successful with post-show sales, they can benefit in the ensuing months, he said. For instance, when manufacturers decide where to allocate a limited number of hot new vehicles, more of those vehicles are directed to the markets with the best results.

The Internet makes it possible for consumers to learn a lot about new vehicles before ever going to a showroom. But Bill Visnic, senior editor with Edmunds.com, said online research is still no substitute for touching and sitting in the vehicles, and seeing if they live up to your expectations – an experience that auto shows offer in a “casual” setting. “You can sort of let people shop without necessarily shopping.”

Visitors to a show don’t have to focus on just the one or two brands, the way they do when visiting a dealership, he said. And there is something to be said for being able to browse lots of choices at this time of year in a climate-controlled atmosphere.

Edmunds.com research shows from the time someone begins actively shopping for a new vehicle, the process usually takes about three months, Visnic said. Many of the people strolling through an auto show are probably somewhere in that three-month time frame, and the event helps them narrow down what appeals to them and what doesn’t, he said.

“It’s a tremendous advantage if you are in the early phase of the process and you don’t really know what you want,” Visnic said.

Other visitors might have a longer-range timetable for buying a new car. And still others might just be there as car aficionados checking out what is new.

Dan Fabrizio, president of Autoplace Nissan, said consumers at an auto show might come across a brand they were not thinking about. And the show can create connections between customers and dealers that might not usually happen. For instance, employees of his Clarence dealership might end up talking to someone from Orchard Park at the show, he said.

Frank Downing Jr., president of Towne Automotive Group, said the show gets enthusiasm going in the industry after January, which is typically a slow month. “March is usually one of the busiest months of the year.”

Ford Motor Co. this year is treating Buffalo as a “Tier II” show, a step up from last year’s status that brings with it upgraded displays, Downing said. (Even so, Buffalo’s show is not expected to get a 2015 Ford F-150, which has received attention for its aluminum body.)

Downing said he measures a Buffalo Auto Show’s success based on sales that are made after the show, as well as input from his salespeople about the attendance. “You get a good feel for the market just by talking to people at the show.”

Compared to many auto shows, Buffalo’s has a relatively small amount of room to showcase everything. The NFADA allocates floor space based on the brands’ rankings in a three-year running average of new-car registrations in a seven-county area, Stasiak said.

Visnic said the limited space that regional shows have can actually be a strength: the focus is on exhibiting the cars, which is what visitors are really there to see.

Why does Stasiak think Buffalo-area dealers’ do so well with their post-show sales? His theory is that people in Western New York are exceptionally dependent on their cars to get around here, compared to many parts of the country.

“They want to make sure their transportation’s solid, maybe at the expense of other things,” Stasiak said. “And we’re a coupon clipping community, and around the show there’s a lot of ‘coupons.’ Those two factors influence our success rate.”

While the show’s primary objective is to stimulate interest and sales, Stasiak said the NFADA includes other features to broaden its appeal. This year’s celebrity guests include ex-Yankee star Reggie Jackson, NASCAR team owner Richard Childress, ex-Buffalo Brave Ernie DiGregorio, and ex-Bills who were part of the offensive line known as the “Electric Company.”

“We try to market the excitement of the event, not so much just the event,” Stasiak said.

email: mglynn@buffnews.com