Why Geneva has evolved into the must-see motor show of the year

A recent study anointed Geneva the most livable city in the world. Sitting where Lake Geneva flows into the Rhone River, the old city has a surprisingly small town feel and probably wouldn't even be on the global map were it not for the presence of the United Nations – and the annual Geneva Motor Show.

The Geneva Motor Show takes place on neutral ground. Switzerland has no car industry.
There are plenty of international auto shows in cities across Europe, yet with the exception of those in Paris and Frankfurt, which occur in alternating autumns, none bears the significance of Geneva. The 81st "salon," which just opened to the public, will see 100s of thousands squeeze through the turnstiles at PALExpo, and for good reason considering the scores of new products unleashed during the two media days – which included 64 separate press conferences on the first day alone.

Why has the Geneva Motor Show become so important – so much so that industry leaders and media alike struggle to find $1,000 rooms, often staying an hour away and driving in during the pre-dawn chill? Organizers have taken to heart the very central tenet of Swiss existence – in a word, "neutrality."

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

[Image: Martial Trezzini/AP]
Unlike other rigidly formalized shows, it's a tradition for executives to wander the floor and grant impromptu interviews.
"The Geneva Motor Show takes place on neutral ground. Switzerland has no car industry," other than a few specialty makers whose combined numbers don't even show up as an asterisk on the sales charts, suggests JR Piccard, the former publisher of Lausanne-based Automobile Year.

Other major shows, however hard they try, typically lean a little bit backwards for their local manufacturers, or at least those who dominate the local market, whether Paris, Frankfurt, Tokyo, Detroit or LA (where imports have often been the big players). Not in Geneva, where space and position are not influenced by national identity (though, of course, a big pocketbook has always been a way to influence the Swiss).

But even there, sources reveal, renting space at the PALExpo conference hall is a bargain compared to other major shows, notably Detroit, where strict union requirements will land you a bill of several hundred dollars just to get an extension cord plugged in. (Do it yourself and you could wind up with an unfinished display.)

True, hotel costs are high, but even in the brisk days of late winter, Geneva is a pleasant spot and easy to get to, suggests Piccard, noting that when the Eastern Bloc opened up two decades ago, attendance grew by the thousands, seemingly overnight.

Nowhere but Geneva would it be so appropriate to unveil the politically incorrect Lamborghini Aventador or Ferrari FF.
Credit the UN; Geneva itself has a history of attracting and servicing global leaders, so it can readily respond to the needs of even the most demanding automotive executives. From a media standpoint, unlike other rigidly formalized shows, it's a tradition for executives to wander the floor during press days and grant impromptu interviews.

If anything has changed, it's the pace of the press days. This year saw Geneva organizers scheduling news conferences every 15 minutes, virtually from dawn to dusk, and even doubling up makers like Chrysler and Mercedes-Benz. At least the relatively compact size of PALExpo makes it possible to get from one end to the other in minutes. Try that at Frankfurt, where Hall 10 is nearly a full kilometer from the IAA Conference Center.

With so many makers vying for media attention, manufacturers are increasingly turning to previews of their press events. That's been a tradition in Geneva for many years, reflecting the numerous locations available for big events, like Force Motrice, the old electric generating station that straddles the narrows where Lake Geneva flows into the Rhone.

What may be a critical difference between Geneva and other big auto shows is the lack of a sense of political agenda. Sure, makers know what the news is, so battery power has been and will likely remain a big story, but perhaps nowhere but Geneva would also be so appropriate to unveil the less politically correct Lamborghini Aventador or Ferrari FF.

Lamborghini Aventador at Geneva Ferrari FF

Indeed, Geneva's affluent burghers have always appreciated luxury and the show has a history of bringing to market some of the most upscale products, dating back at least to the 1961 launch of the legendary Jaguar E-Type.

Switzerland is a country that appreciates its machinery, and it has a fondness for small businesses, whether they be a watchmaker like Piaget or the rather eccentric Rinspeed, whose founder, Frank Rinderknecht, has a reputation for rolling out implausible flying cars, the submarining sQuba and, this year, the BamBoo, a very retro speedster that would look at home along the sands of San Tropez, especially if Brigette Bardot were sunning in the back.

In an industry all too dominated by giants like Toyota, Ford and Volkswagen, it's refreshing to have a place to see the low-volume tuners and specialty makers, like Pagani and Brabus, and increasingly, wannabe battery car manufacturers like Fisker and Tesla.

Sure, some other shows encourage their participation, but those struggling makers are usually exiled to back halls or basements. Not in Geneva, where the major brands are generally concentrated along the outer walls, with the small brands filling the center, where they're not likely to be ignored.

Inside the 2011 Geneva Motor Show

That is, in the end, the beauty of the Geneva Motor Show. It offers a clearer crystal ball than just about any of the other major auto shows, and it's all packed into one relatively compact convention center that can be easily managed even when carrying a backpack full of camera, audio and computer gear, as I do.

Standing on the upper deck of PALExpo, one can visually sweep the entire auto industry, from mainstream to exotic, from traditional to those pushing the proverbial envelope. No wonder Geneva has evolved into the must-attend harbinger of spring.

[Image: Salvatore Di Nolfi/AP]

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