The Amelia, Villa d'Este, Pebble Beach....if you like classic cars there is a good chance that these names ring a bell depending on where you live. What started in the 17th century in France as a Concours d'Elegance - a showcase of elegance - has evolved into a classic car lover's dream. For some, attending one of these top concours shows has been on their bucket list for a while, while others will be able to check it off this year with their first attendance. So what is it like to be at a world class event and how can you maximize your experience? Over the years I have attended many concours shows and based on my personal favorite - The Amelia - here are 15 tips to guide you through it all.
Tip 1: So you made up your mind and decided that this is the year you will be attending one of the top automotive events in the world. Before you buy your tickets, I recommend to go back to basics, visit the concours show's website and take your time to read through the various pages. What are the event dates? How does the daily schedule look like? Which are the featured marques? Are tickets still available? How many days do I want to go? If you do so a few weeks out, chances are that the organizers will have updated their page with exciting news; perhaps reveal a celebrity guest or announce a special automobile or highlight a major collector attending. Several years back, I selected the Amelia Concours as my first show, as it was easily accessible, with very reasonable gate prices and a lot of side activities, but you may have different criteria depending on where you live. Doing your research first, allows you to see what events take place when. A good starting point on more info and dates can be found on Wikipedia's Concours page.
Tip 2: Once you made sure which show you want to attend, buy your tickets already! There is nothing more frustrating than getting all excited and realizing a few days before you go that tickets are sold out. Don't just assume that you will be able to buy them at the event, as organizers or public safety officials might have put a cap on the number of guests. If you do wait, chances are that you will also pay a significantly higher price at the door. And while these events often discount children or young adults, they remain pricy enough that buying early can save you the cost of a meal.
The Amelia 2018 admission: $95 online, $120 at the gate, $150 early admission
Pebble Beach 2018 admission: $325 before August 1, $375 after August 1
Some concours offer an early entry or VIP ticket that will allow you to enter the show field an hour or two hours prior to the general public. I would very much recommend paying the extra price for this if you are into photography, as you will have a much better chance to take pictures without the crowd around. Some of these tickets might even come with lunch included, so do your homework and determine for yourself if the extra cost is worth it. Keep in mind that at most concours, a significant contribution is going towards a charitable organization each year.
Tip 3: Once you have your ticket, book your hotel room. This is definitely challenging, as some concours area hotels will have been sold out months in advance, and rooms that are still available will come at a heavy premium. When you expand your search area to 15-20 miles out, you will still be able to find great deals, and since most concours shows happen on a weekend, the extra few miles you have to drive to the event will only add a few minutes to your travel time. If after the event you decide that you wish to return the next year, make sure to book a room once the event is over. Most hotels will allow you to cancel your reservation up to several weeks prior, so better be safe than sorry. You can also call the local chamber of commerce or tourism office and ask if they are aware of certain hotels with availability. They might guide you to a small B&B that does not play with the larger booking sites.
Tip 4: Now that you have your ticket(s) and room you can go back to the website and start planning your trip in more detail. Depending if you plan to attend only on the typical Sunday, or go for a few days, planning ahead can save you a lot of lost time at the concours. At the Amelia for instance, visitors can enjoy a wide variety of complimentary events surrounding the show; their impressive Saturday Cars and Coffee is free to attend and features over 400 young and oldtimers, while on Sunday you can sign up for free rides by some top manufacturers such as Porsche, Jaguar or McLaren, and they might even announce a product launch or celebrity appearance in their schedule. Other manufacturers such as BMW, Alfa Romeo or Mercedes-Benz will have a pavilion with new or classic vehicles on display that are part of the show field. The larger shows will also have multiple auction houses plan their events around the concours, and most will have free visiting hours in the days prior to the auction. Knowing what takes place when, and making an overview of your visit will ensure that you are not missing out on these complimentary highlights.
Tip 5: A few days out, you will have to decide what to pack. While most car shows take place in summer, for the ones on the shoulder seasons such as The Amelia or the Hilton Head Concours it is advisable to bring a light jacket or sweater, as the mornings can be quite chilly. What should definitely be on your packing list is comfortable shoes. Even though many concours are a perfect opportunity to make your fashion statements, the grass areas are usually not very heel friendly, so for women this mean no fancy pointy heels. If you do want to risk it, buy some heel stoppers (and get a few extras). Summer dresses and fancy hats on the other hand are certainly a welcome addition. For the gentlemen, there is no need to wear dress pants and blazers - leave those for the judges - but classy shorts and boat shoes are certainly fine. You also might want to pack some sunscreen lotion, as you will be out all day long - as a pale Belgian, I learned that the hard way. Bring your camera (see tip 14) or cell phone with a portable charger, and make sure you have enough free memory space to take those hundreds of pictures.
So, the weekend is finally there and you are ready to attend your first concours event. Let's continue with some tips while at the event itself.
Tip 6: The first thing you do when you wake up is to check the website and social media pages of the event organizer. Chances are that if anything has changed last minute, that this is the way they will announce it first. As concours shows are dependent on weather, we all know that a couple of hours can make a big difference, and in the case of a concours show, that can mean moving up the awards ceremony or the need to cancel a few events during the day. Organizers don't go lightly over these decisions, as they will have been awake all night long to debate contingency plans and arrange alternative locations, but don't be despaired if you see a few drops in the air, as most shows continue the course when sporadic rain showers are predicted.
Tip 7: Make sure to arrive early! From a silent running Rolls Royce, the revving of a Sebring winning race car or the tuf-tuf (is that even a way to describe it?) sound of a horseless carriage, the early bird gets to enjoy not only seeing some unique vehicles, but also hearing them in action. Often the drop off point for the transportation trailers is a mile or less away from the entrance, which gives you a great opportunity to see these cars make their way to the show field. But keep in mind that by early we don't mean 8:30am! Get there before dawn and you will be rewarded with some beautiful sights and sounds that most concours visitors will be missing out on!
Tip 8: With gate times usually opening up around 9am, make sure to be there early so that you can be among one of the first to enter the field. You may have to wait for a while, but once the gates open up, you will have the best views. Of course if you purchased that early entry or VIP ticket I spoke about earlier, then you don't have to worry about this. My recommendation is to first walk all the way to the end of the field, allowing you to take a close and unobstructed look at some of these classics and then to make your way slowly back to the entrance. By then the early rush will have thinned out. After that you can circle around several times to wherever your interest leads you.
Tip 9: If you plan to buy souvenirs, books etc, do so on the Friday or Saturday if you can, so that you keep your hands free on Sunday. Vendors will have extra time to talk or to answer questions on these days, as Sunday is just full force for them. Also, you will be given a concours magazine when you enter the field, and of course now you are stuck carrying it for the entire day. I always try to get my hands on one the day before for the same reasons that, as a photographer, I rather have my hands on my camera, but for you, that might mean holding that glass of champagne to walk around with rather than a book or magazine. You can try to wait it out and take one on your way out, but chances are that they will have run out of magazines by then. Alternatively, if you are parked close by, you can always pick one up around noon time and put it in your car, but make sure to ask for your return-entry stamp.
Tip 10: If you happen to spot some seemingly overdressed jacket-and-hats wearing gentlemen or women, huddled together and talking in hush tones while carefully holding their clipboards, chances are that you stumbled upon a flock of judges! At most concours shows, the aim for the automobiles or motorcycles is to get judged one way or the other. At some shows, this is done by looking at the beauty and elegance of a vehicle, while at others a rigorous point system is being used to check everything from working lights to cleanliness underneath the car. Ultimately, these vehicles compete for a Best in Class or Best of Show trophy, and knowing that winning can potentially justify an increase in value by tens of thousands of dollars, you will equally understand that this is not the best time to ask the owner any questions. Just take a step back, listen in if you can and when they moved on to the next vehicle, it is safe again to approach the owner.
Tip 11: With hundreds of million of dollars worth of vehicles present, it likely comes as no surprise that many of these concours events also tract some of the top racing legends, TV personalities or sports celebrities. If they are part of a judging team, please don't interrupt them and give them the space they need. Alternatively, if they are there to visit, they also want to enjoy the classic cars and motorcycles, just like you do. It is common sense of course to be respectful and ask politely if your son or daughter (or yourself) want to take that selfie. A better option is to attend a book signing or photo-op session, so that you can meet them up close and personal. Again, the schedule will be of help here. If you are attending with the family, this can also be a fun game for the kids to see if they can spot the celebrity.
Tip 12: When is a good time to do what? Breaking down the event times of a typical concours, you will have early admission prior to 9am, general admission gates opening between 9 and 10am and the final award ceremony ending around 3 or 4pm. My suggestion would be as follows: between 9am and 11am walk the field as noted in tip #8. At 11am go and have lunch already. This will leave you some time to visit the vendor areas around 11:30-12:30pm. After that time, you can head back to the field, as most people will have their lunch, making it less crowded. At 2pm, the crowds are back in full force, so take a seat on the bleachers by the awards ceremony and take some refuge from the sun while enjoying the parare of vehicles. Then around 3pm, you may want to complete another round, making your way back to the grandstands for the final Best of Show award. Once the Best of Show winners are announced, you will see that the usual exodus towards the gate will have taken place. Sit back, relax and don't move just yet! Give it a good 15-20 minutes and you will see that the crowds will have almost vanished. This is the time for your final walk-around, as there are always some car owners who have not moved their vehicle yet and with the sun setting lower, you will start to get some good natural photography light again.
Tip 13: While at real concours shows you won't find metal fencing or anything of that nature - it is a showcase of beauty after all - some might be gently roped of like at Amelia or Pebble; others, like at Hilton Head Concours or Misselwood Concours the vehicles are free to be admired and walked around. Obviously make sure to watch out for hanging purses, loose belts or cameras so that you don't accicdentily scratch any of the vehicles. Also, when doors are not present or simply open, don't confuse this with an invitation to sit inside these vehicles. However, even at the most posh shows, there are always some car owners willing to happily make an exception if you only ask, especially when kids are involved.
Tip 14: How to take good pictures for your collection of memories or social media? The hardest part will be negotiating around the crowds, but I already gave you a few tips above to minimize those. Think about what you want to shoot: is it a particular type of car, just an allround overview of the event, do you want to take a more artistic approach? We all know that for instance shooting directly into the sun is not always the best option, but at times can make for interesting shots. Try different angles: go low, find a high vantage point, or experiment with a different angle and you will already have beten 90% of all other pictures taken at the same show. If it is a bright sunny day, the best times would be from 6am-11am and from 4pm to 6pm. During noon time, the sun and shadows will be very harsh, but this might work well for overview pictures. If you take some cellphone pictures and post them, tag the event in it - by now most will have a hashtag that you can use - and make your friends jealous!
Tip 15: Above all, regardless of all the tips that I mentioned, the ultimate aim is to have fun and make sure to have a great time: sit back and relax, watch the crowd, have a cocktail, strike a conversation with a stranger, take in the sounds, admire the beauty, excellent and elegance! While some concours shows can come across a somewhat stuffy and snobby, most concours shows are a lot of fun and once you have seen it with your own eyes, you definitely want to return the next year. Enjoy and perhaps I will see you at one of the next Concours d'Elegance.
The Amelia Concours d'Elegance
March 9-11, 2018
Below you can find some images from various Concours d'Elegance shows, such as the Knokke Grand Prix Concours, Hemmings Concours, Hilton Head Concours, Misselwood Concours and the Amelia Island Concours.