The famous Chicago auto show is back – but has the fallout from the pandemic and changes in the industry definitely killed the auto show?

The Chicago Auto Show returns this week to the McCormick Place convention center in Windy City, becoming the first major auto show outside of China since the global Covid-19 lockdowns began last year. But many industry insiders wonder if traditional auto shows will ever fully recover – not only from the pandemic, but other changes sweeping the auto industry.

It is the largest and oldest auto show in the country, dating back to 1901. But this year the event has not only been delayed, but also reduced and shortened. It has been moved to a smaller section of the convention center, will only last five days, instead of the usual 10, and tickets are only available online.

The relaunch of the show was welcomed – with caution – within the automotive industry. Since the start of the Covid restrictions, automakers have had to rely on virtual previews of the dozens of new cars, trucks and crossovers that were launched during the pandemic.

Even after the pace of national vaccination efforts began to pick up at the start of this year, questions have arisen as to whether an auto show will take place in 2021.

“We (worked) with the people in charge of McCormick Place for months on an opening plan,” said Dave Sloan, general manager of the Chicago Auto Show. “We just needed to be smaller and shorter and we knew some automakers would accept a pass.”

That includes the mainstream Hyundai brand and the premium brands Mercedes-Benz and Genesis, at a Chicago show covering just 500,000 square feet of space, up from 1 million normally.

Organizers have announced plans to relaunch shows in New York, Detroit and Los Angeles this year, though all have also been cut to varying degrees. The Motor City event, temporarily renamed Motor Bella, will be held on a small race track 25 miles north of its usual home at the TCF Convention Center in Detroit.

Even before Covid hit, there were strong signs of change in the auto show circuit, in the United States and abroad. Some automakers have reduced their presence at auto shows or have withdrawn altogether. Audience attendance also declined significantly, although it varied from show to show.

Turnout was so low, both among the industry and the public, that the organizers of the Frankfurt Motor Show decided that the 2019 event would be their last. Many observers question the viability of the other two major European trade fairs in Paris and Geneva, the latter narrowly escaping bankruptcy in 2020 when it was canceled a few days before the opening, due to the pandemic.

Beyond 2021, and an auto show circuit still grappling with Covid restrictions, there are plenty of questions about what these once-popular events will look like in the future.

From the automaker’s perspective, “the pandemic is causing us to re-evaluate things like we weren’t doing before,” Rob Moran, head of media relations for Mercedes-Benz in the United States, told NBC News. “Our eyes are open to many different opportunities. Now is a chance to balance digital and traditional, ”he added.

There are obvious advantages. Even the most stylish online events cost a fraction of what manufacturers will spend on a single major auto show. Just setting up a small booth at an event like the North American International Auto Show in Detroit will cost more than $ 1 million, industry planners told NBC News. . A large stand, accompanied by a press conference, can reach 5 million dollars. Repeat this at half a dozen large events and it can drastically reduce a company’s marketing budget.

On the other hand, digital previews have their limits, especially if a company wants to give potential buyers a chance to pitch the tires. According to Foresight Research, nearly 70 percent of adults who visit the Chicago Auto Show are in the market to purchase a vehicle within 12 months.

Auto manufacturers and auto show organizers are looking at the classic formula to see if there are ways to bring these events into a new era.

“(Car) shows have their place and they are important, but you can’t keep doing it the same way,” said Rod Alberts, head of the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, the group that runs the show. Detroit.

There is a general consensus that manufacturers will become more selective when it comes to hosting multimedia previews of auto shows. At the same time, shows like Detroit and Chicago are looking for ways to better engage consumers. They’re less interested in static exhibits, Alberts said, and Chicago’s Sloan agrees.

“It’s all about the consumer. We’re trying new things,” Sloan said, noting how automakers are offering potential buyers the ability to actually drive some of the products on display – Ford and Jeep have put in place test tracks. custom dirt to try out their latest SUVs.

Ultimately, auto shows that can demonstrate the ability to continue to attract audiences – and then translate attendance into sales – will have the best chance of continuing to earn manufacturers’ money.

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