Entire communities once flocked to witness the arrival of the circus. Times and tastes change. After 146 years of oohs and awes, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus went dark in 2017.
Is the auto show next?
Some believe that the auto show era is going the way of the circus. The events were already in trouble. It costs automakers a fortune to display vehicles. Some (mostly European) brands have abandoned shows for independent offsite events or online unveilings. Millennials, a huge market, have proved to be a difficult demographic. Internet shopping for cars is ascendant. But the knockout blow, at least for most shows in 2020, is the coronavirus pandemic.
The Geneva International Motor Show in March was canceled because of the virus, as was Detroit’s blockbuster event. The Detroit show would have begun this week, as it had already been moved to warmer fan-friendly dates this year after decades anchoring the late-winter calendar. Los Angeles organizers, however, say their November show must go on.
These are dark times, but talk to show producers and there’s a cautious confidence they can hold their relevance.
The 120-year-old New York International Auto Show, normally held around Easter, first moved to August this year and then called off the 2020 incarnation. Despite the new challenge that shows face, “I think they’re here to stay,” said Mark Schienberg, the New York show’s president.
“There’s a proven track record of what they do for the industry,” he added. “There are ups and downs in attendance because of weather and school schedules, but attendance is constant. And think about it: Hundreds of thousands of people pay their own money to look at a product that somebody wants them to buy.”
None of the automakers contacted would speak directly about their auto show plans. Many on the no-show list are luxury brands, and economics, especially these days, play a role.
Consumers expect impressive displays, but the high-end models don’t sell in high volumes, so the return on investment becomes harder to justify. Some are experimenting with other marketing strategies, like consumer drive events in key markets. Others use targeted digital campaigns. The BMW Concept i4, Volkswagen ID.4 and Hyundai Prophecy electric vehicles were forced into internet unveilings after the Geneva show was called off.
“There’s two layers to auto shows,” said Stephanie Brinley, principal automotive analyst for IHS Markit, “the media introductions and the public show itself.”
The first few days of auto shows are usually reserved for press events, drawing throngs of journalists for splashy debuts and junkets. After that, the public is welcomed in to view row after row of new vehicles, new technology and even new automakers like Bollinger Motors, Rivian and Vinfast.
Introducing vehicles at major shows can supercharge awareness in automotive news spheres. New York auto show data says over 6,000 reporters helped generate 4.5 billion media impressions in 2019.
As far as shoppers go, “public shows are still a good family event for wowing people, Ms. Brinley said. “They can sit in vehicles without the pressure of a salesperson, and it confirms what they found on the internet. They may not buy in the next two days, but they eventually do.”
Terri Toennies, president of the Los Angeles Auto Show, argues that “browsing on the internet isn’t the same as sitting and touching a vehicle.”
“Statistics show 68 percent of attendees are in the market to buy a car within a year,” she added. “Manufacturers skipping shows miss opportunities to expose themselves to new consumers.”
Keep in mind that there are essentially two kinds of shows. Big, splashy international affairs like Geneva, Los Angeles, New York and Tokyo are where future-leaning concepts debut and important production vehicles are elaborately unveiled. A single event can easily cost an automaker over $1.5 million. The others are regional shows that don’t get the buzz but offer consumers the easiest way to see the latest and greatest, sometimes before the vehicles are at dealerships.
Scott Lambert is the president of the Twin Cities Auto Show Association and a co-chairman of Auto Shows of North America, a group that represents 70 shows. “The beauty of the shows is everything is under one roof, so if you’re looking at S.U.V.s, you can go from one display to the next and compare everything,” he said.
“It’s an unmatched experience where things are fresh in your mind,” Mr. Lambert added. “Otherwise, you’re spending days traveling from dealership to dealership trying to remember what you saw. People coming to the show add vehicles to their shopping list, they make better choices. That’s proven by the data we collect.”
A benefit that goes less noticed is the boost to the local economy. About the Minnesota show, Mr. Lambert said: “We’re worth $9 million to the region in terms of hotels, restaurants and shopping we bring in. It’s not just people looking at cars and trucks but spokespeople and crews constructing the displays.
“We’ve had the Super Bowl in Minneapolis, and we had more people in our show than they had at the N.F.L. Experience. We’re by far the biggest thing in our Convention Center.”
Vicki Fabre, executive vice president of the Washington State Auto Dealers Association, coordinates the Seattle International Auto Show. With attendance up over 7 percent in 2019, she credits innovation.
“We’ve put on programs for women buyers and built ‘fun zones’ for kids to enhance the family experience,” Ms. Fabre said. “There are V.I.P. tours given by experienced automotive writers.”
Mr. Lambert said the smaller shows needed spectacles to draw the crowds. “Automakers don’t make wild concept cars like they used to, and we miss that,” she said. “People love those. This year, our big draws were the new Chevrolet C8 Corvette and Ford Mustang Mach-E electric. People came specifically to see those.”
Mr. Schienberg of the New York show believes innovation will keep automotive shows relevant. “We were the first show to have Camp Jeep, where people experience off-road capabilities on a test track,” he said. “First it was inside, then we put it outside on 11th Ave, and the lines went on and on and on.”
Toyota, Jaguar/Land Rover and Volkswagen have also built displays that give buyers experience with the vehicles.
Automakers’ finances have been hit hard, and that will trickle down to the auto shows for years. Organizers argue that money spent on a presence at an auto show is laser-targeted at potential buyers, while television ads are scattershot. Not everything is so simple, though.
“Most companies have two different promotional budgets,” said Ms. Brinley at IHS, and “ad and event money is counted with different metrics.”
“Maybe important models like the new Cadillac Escalade get high-profile press debuts, but a refresh of the GMC Acadia is done virtually.” she said.
Ms. Brinley added: “It’s harder for manufacturers to decide where to spend money since the last 10 years have brought new venues like CES and important auto shows in China. There are more shows fighting for money.”
This all comes as the manufacturers are investing deeply into electrification and autonomous vehicles.
The pandemic has made the immediate future for shows hazy. Organizers in the United States are looking at the recent Hunan Auto Show in China as a guide. Visitors underwent strict identification and health screening, were required to wear masks and were told to wash hands often.
“When our show opens in the fall,” said Ms. Toennies of the Los Angeles show, “we have to decide whether to let people inside the cars. If so, do interiors need to be immediately disinfected? Normally the cars are eight feet apart. Do they now have to be 10 or 12 feet apart?
“We want people to feel safe,” she added.
The Greatest Show on Earth faded away, but it can be argued that the circus tradition lives on with shows like Cirque du Soleil. Automakers will be pinching pennies, but with over 340 nameplates in the market, they’re still keen to cut through to consumers. Auto shows are adapting to remain relevant. For all events, the pendulum swings like a trapeze, and it’s important to get timing right.