It’s been 17 months since the doors closed at the McCormick Place convention center wrapping up what turned out to be the last major auto show in North America — or most of the rest the world — before pandemic lockdowns began.
On Thursday, the doors reopened for what will be a “smaller and shorter” version of the Chicago Auto Show. The 2021 event is using barely half the normal 1 million square feet of exhibition space and will proceed without many familiar brands, such as Hyundai, Genesis and Mercedes-Benz. There were only a fraction of the normal events during the show’s media day, just two brands — Jeep and Volkswagen — introducing new products.
This year’s Chicago show, meanwhile, runs just five days, rather than the normal 10, and turnout will be held artificially low due to ongoing caution about COVID-19. Tickets, for one thing, can only be purchased online.
Downsizing is critical, post-COVID
“We had to get smaller” to cope with the realities of post-pandemic life, said Dave Sloan, the general manager of the Windy City show.
And Chicago isn’t the only place where a major car show is having to cope with new realities. In the Motor City, for example, organizers have, for at least 2021, moved out of Detroit’s riverfront convention center in favor of a private race track 30 miles to the north. They’ve even rebadged the event Motor Bella, rather than the North American International Auto Show, the name it has used since 1989.
The country’s two other major car shows, in Los Angeles and New York, are planning to return this year after being cancelled in 2020. They’re also expected to be downsized, both in terms of brands on display and public attendance.
While COVID has clearly hit the auto show circuit hard, it’s not the only reason why auto shows are undergoing major changes, both in the U.S. and abroad.
The death of the Frankfurt Motor Show
After experiencing a sharp decline in both public attendance and industry participation, organizers of the once massive motor show in Frankfurt, Germany announced the autumn 2019 event would be their last. The show in Geneva is struggling for survival, though it didn’t help that the planned 2020 event was cancelled just before it was set to open as the Swiss government ordered a nationwide pandemic lockdown. The Tokyo Motor Show is a fraction of its size a decade ago. And it is uncertain whether the Paris Motor Show will return in 2022 after being scrubbed last year.
There are all sorts of reasons why. For one thing, many manufacturers no longer view car shows as the end-all-be-all way to reach potential buyers. Nor do they see splashy media days as the primary way to get news coverage of new products.
“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.”
An expensive proposition
Setting up at the major car shows, like those in Chicago, Detroit, New York and Los Angeles, is an extremely expensive proposition. Even a small stand will start at more than $1 million, industry insiders confirm, with a large stand and a big news conference bringing that to $5 million or more. Over an annual auto show season that quickly added up.
Now, however, manufacturers are finding plenty of alternatives. In some cases, these are events like the Texas State Fair where both Ford and Chevrolet launched several key truck products in recent years. And then there’s the digital side. The past year has seen carmakers introduce dozens of products in virtual media previews. That includes the Mercedes-Benz EQS, the all-electric alternative to the S-Class, as well as the Nissan Frontier, Chevrolet Bolt EUV and Mazda CX-30.
Manufacturers have also been reaching out directly to consumers through the virtual world. And they’ve been setting up digital showrooms that let consumers handle much of the purchase process online.
“Zoom fatigue” is something the industry is well aware of. And they know that many consumers — and journalists — still want to kick the tires. So, most plan to maintain at least some presence at car shows.
But organizers are having to work harder to sell the merits of their events. That means rolling out data showing the value car shows can deliver.
“According to Foresight Research, nearly 70% 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.
While the five major U.S. car shows aren’t likely to go the way of Frankfurt — at least not in the near-term — they’re expected to experience a number of changes. In Chicago, for example, this year’s gathering includes two “test tracks” set up by Ford and Jeep where showgoers can experience some of what the new Bronco and Wrangler 4xe models have to offer. A number of other manufacturers, including Volkswagen, are letting potential buyers take their products for short loops on local roads.
“We’re all about consumers here,” said Chicago Auto Show GM Sloan.
Detroit is testing out some of the same ideas. It will feature ride-and-drive opportunities on both public roads and on the nearly two-mile track at the M1 race course. An outdoor, off-road track is also being set up at the 87-acre complex ahead of the September Motor Bella.
Emerging from the pandemic “offers the opportunity to look at (the way car shows are run) in a whole new light,” said Rod Alberts, the head of the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, the group that organizes the North American International Auto Show, or NAIAS. “(Car) shows have their place and they’re important, but you can’t keep doing it the same way.”
While Alberts hopes to see his group bring the NAIAS back to downtown Detroit in 2022, he expects it to reflect many of the changes his group is tinkering with this year. And it likely will feature a much lower profile than in the past – at its peak the Detroit event featuring as many as 70 new vehicle previews each year.
Coming back from COVID restrictions actually provides an opportunity to experiment, said Chicago’s Sloan, without the normal pressures to boost attendance and build the number of new car previews. But organizers know that they will need to find a new formula in order to keep car shows relevant and avoid repeating the fate of Frankfurt.