When the doors at Chicago’s McCormick Place convention center swung open last month for a “smaller, shorter” version of the Windy City’s annual auto show, it seemed like things just might, possibly, perhaps, be on a track back to normal. After all, Chicago held the country’s last major auto show before pandemic lockdowns began in March 2020 so, it seemed, it would be appropriate for the Midwestern event to help usher in the revival of auto shows this year.
But things didn’t work out quite the way folks in and around the auto industry had hoped — as the cancellation of what was to be the 2021 New York International Auto Show makes apparent. With COVID cases on the upsurge, Big Apple organizers decided to scrub their event for the second year in a row.
The immediate question is what happens with the other two major American shows scheduled to follow? But, longer-term, industry insiders are starting to wonder whether auto shows really have a place on the automotive calendar. And, if they do, will Chicago serve as the post-pandemic model, running shorter than in the past, with far fewer manufacturers participating?
2021 Auto Shows
The coming months will see the turnstiles spin in Los Angeles and Detroit, home to the country’s other big auto shows. But each has to adapt to COVID’s impact. In the Motor City, for example, organizers have moved out of Detroit’s riverfront convention center — at least for 2021 — in favor of operating outdoors using a private race track 25 miles to the north. They’ve even re-badged the event Motor Bella, rather than the North American International Auto Show, the name it has used since 1989.
“(Car) shows have their place and they’re important, but you can’t keep doing it the same way,” said Rod Alberts, president of the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, the show’s organizer.
The pandemic is clearly having an influence in the short-term. Chicago’s Sloan said it wasn’t even clear the city would have a 2021 car show until May when city and state officials started laying out plans to ease restrictions on public gatherings. Even now, the show is consciously limiting attendance – among other things requiring advance, online ticket purchases, rather than the heavy flow of walk-ins.
Auto Show Price Tag
But there are numerous other factors that are putting the future of car shows up in the air. The events, for one thing, aren’t cheap. At the major U.S. shows in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and New York, automakers typically spend at least $1 million, and that’s for a small, bare-bones “cars on carpet” stand.
Add multi-level displays and news conferences and the costs can top $5 million or more. Simply putting a chair out at a stand for a media preview at the New York International Auto Show costs $75, according to an official who spoke on background. It’s another $75 to take that chair away when the news conference ends.
COVID Times New Vehicle Launch Events
Add the pandemic, and it has only encouraged manufacturers to search for alternatives.
“The pandemic is getting us to reevaluate things the way we didn’t before,” said Rob Moran, the head of media relations for Mercedes-Benz in the U.S. “Our eyes are open to many different opportunities. Now is a chance to balance digital and traditional.”
Indeed, since the COVID lockdowns began, automakers have introduced dozens of new models using virtual public and media presentations. And Moran and others see that approach continuing. That said, there are products too important to simply launch online. Kia spent millions to take over a chunk of Times Square in May for the debut of the EV6 battery-electric vehicle, an event originally planned for the New York Auto Show.
Detroit’s Alberts says he doubts the North American International Auto Show will ever see the 70 new car previews it staged during its heydays in the 1990s. This year’s Chicago Auto Show only managed three: the Jeep Compass, and Volkswagen’s new Golf and GTI hatchbacks. But it also has a number of other new models making their first appearance in public, including Ford’s compact Maverick pickup and the F-150 Lightning battery-electric pickup.
Auto Shows Sell Vehicles
While auto shows may lose their luster for staging media events, they remain critical when it comes to actually selling vehicles. “According to Foresight Research, nearly 70 percent of adults who visit the Chicago Auto Show are in the market to purchase a vehicle within 12 months, said Ray Scarpelli Jr., a local dealer who served as the chairman of the 2019 Chicago Auto Show.
But not everyone is convinced that auto shows will remain as important as they once did to the sales process. Consider what’s happening with dealers. The pandemic saw a rapid shift to online buying. While most state franchise laws still carve out a role for franchise retailers, they’re increasingly serving as pickup points, or for handling repairs.
Younger buyers, in particular, are going online for more and more of the purchase process, according to Tyson Jominy, a senior analyst with J.D. Power.
So, said Chicago Auto Show general manager Sloan, it’s becoming important to find new ways to draw potential buyers back to car shows. And that will take more than static vehicle displays.
In Chicago, nine automakers are offering potential buyers an opportunity to actually drive some of the products on display. That includes Volkswagen’s new, all-electric ID.4. And both Ford and Jeep have set up customized dirt test tracks to try out their newest SUVs, the Bronco and Wrangler 4xe, respectively.
“It’s all about the consumer here,” he stressed during an interview at McCormick Place. Auto shows that ignore changing consumer tastes and demands do so at their own peril.
That message was lost on organizers in Frankfurt, Germany, who announced they won’t be back after suffering a sharp decline in public attendance and manufacturer participation in 2019. The future of the Geneva Motor Show – which was canceled days before opening in February 2020 due to COVID – is equally uncertain. Here in the U.S., organizers of the “big” car shows in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and New York are hoping not to make the same mistakes.