Geneva and the Decline of the Auto Show

While I'm not likely to get a lot of sympathy, do be aware that I'll be wearing out a lot of shoe leather, this week, during the two day press preview of the Geneva Motor Show. By my preliminary count, I expect more than 50 news conferences, with as many as 75 cars and concepts to make their debuts at the sprawling PALExpo conference center.

Put another way, that's nearly as many vehicles as were previewed at the most recent Los Angeles, Detroit and Chicago shows combined. And that's good news for those who worry that the classic car show is an endangered species.

Well, actually, it is. There's a growing consensus that car shows simply aren't doing what they're supposed to, which is to move metal. "Auto shows don't sell cars," insists the oft-controversial Mike Jackson, chairman of the nation's largest dealer chain, AutoNation.



Paul A. Eisenstein is Publisher of TheDetroitBureau.com, and a 30-year veteran of the automotive beat. His editorials will bring his unique perspective and deep understanding of the auto world to Autoblog readers on a regular basis.


Now, there are plenty of folks who will disagree, and the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, the DADA, which sponsors the Motor City's annual North American International Auto Show, or NAIAS, can trot out some impressive numbers suggesting that a sizable share of those who walked through Cobo Center, in January, will purchase a vehicle sometime in the next 12 to 24 months.

But a growing number of makers are starting to side with AutoNation's Jackson. Nissan, for one, has decided skip all but a handful of this year's shows. An assortment of makers, including Mitsubishi, Rolls-Royce, Infiniti and Ferrari, pulled out of Detroit. Bentley, in a surprising move, abandoned the LA show, despite conventional wisdom that it's a great place to reach Tinsel Town's affluent glitterati. "We decided to use our resources elsewhere," explained spokesman Dave Reuter.

Even a small stand can top $2 million, a rich diet for smaller makers.
Sure, recent sales numbers suggest the worst is likely over, and we could begin to see a modest recovery in the U.S. automotive market starting this year, but it could be the middle of the decade – if ever – before sales numbers come close to the 17-million peaks we saw during the last bubble. So, makers are reconsidering the need to invest what, for some, has topped $50 million to build and man a display – a figure some sources say comes close to what BMW spent last year to set up an indoor track at the Frankfurt Motor Show to display its latest wares in motion. Even a small stand can top $2 million, a rich diet for smaller makers.

Don't expect auto shows to go away entirely, cautions General Motors Vice Chairman Bob Lutz. Major events, like Detroit and Geneva, provide great opportunities, he says, for makers to reach a staggering number of journalists. Sure, we all know the media attendance figures are inflated, but the biggest shows can still generate millions of pageviews, to use an Internet term, hours of TV coverage – including an NBC special, for Detroit – and plenty of pages in print.

But even there, manufacturers are rethinking the way they approach auto shows. As regular readers of Autoblog, as well as my own site, TheDetroitBureau.com, are well aware, we've been running plenty of stories, in recent weeks, previewing the auto show previews. By the time the events actually get underway, there's certain to be a sense of déjà vu, if not outright disappointment.

How fast the auto show circuit pares back remains to be seen, but organizers came close to killing off the Tokyo Motor Show last year when all but a handful of foreign brands pulled out. Chicago, once the biggest show in the country, from both an attendance and media standpoint, could deliver barely a day's worth of press evens last month, though it's likely to remain a big draw for the public.

Even shows like Geneva have got to adapt or they will eventually die.
Smaller shows, warn industry insiders, will lose the support of manufacturers, and it's uncertain if dealers will be willing to cover those deficits, especially if they come to agree with AutoNation's Jackson.

In Europe, meanwhile, once powerful shows, like those in London and Turin, are shadows of their former selves.

The challenge, acknowledges DADA's Rod Alberts, is to give manufacturers "more bang for the buck." Not all that long ago, Cobo was straining to find room for all the manufacturers looking to display at the NAIAS. In 2009, there were some embarrassing open spaces. But this year, the dealer group came up with some creative solutions. In the space once occupied by the four brands GM is dropping, it created Electric Avenue, inviting in an assortment of non-traditional players to show off their green wares. Even Nissan returned, albeit in smaller form, with its Leaf battery car. Meanwhile, otherwise empty basement space was used to let the public actually drive some alternative vehicles on a quarter-mile indoor track.

The auto show, as we've known it, has been around for more than a century. But it's absurd to think that in an era when so much is changing, in part driven by the Internet, that car shows can continue business as usual. Even shows like Geneva have got to adapt or they will eventually die.


Paul A. Eisenstein is Publisher of TheDetroitBureau.com, and a 30-year veteran of the automotive beat. His editorials will bring his unique perspective and deep understanding of the auto world to Autoblog readers on a regular basis.