Knocked Down by Virus, Auto Shows Plot Their Future

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.

  • Updated June 5, 2020

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?

      Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.

    • How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown?

      Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

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.

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