The pandemic and the 2020 Detroit auto show that wasn't

It was an amazing show. A record 900,000 visitors showed up to enjoy the summer weather and the new indoor-outdoor spectacle, well above last year’s 774,000. Dozens of new vehicle models were premiered and dealers, buyers and 4,500 journalists from around the world descended on Detroit for the two-week show. There was a renewed focus on technology, autonomous vehicles and cars with electric and hybrid motors. The city spotlighted the cutting edge of modern mobility, reimagined the traditional car show and regained its automotive crown.

Well that’s what was supposed to happen at the North American International Auto Show, but none of it did. The June show was canceled at the end of March and the massive convention center was turned into a 1,000-bed coronavirus field hospital that ended up treating only 39 patients. No journalists came, no dealers and no car lovers. Hotels were as empty as the Detroit streets in a snowy January.

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It was a blow to Motor City just and the show organizers just as they were “trying to reinvent the Detroit auto show, making it something of a combination of the SWSX music festival in Austin, Texas, and the Goodwood Festival of Speed,” Detroit-based industry expert John McElroy told DW.  “By the time the auto show returns to Detroit, there will be a gap of about 30 months, so they lost a lot of momentum.” The last show was in January 2019, with this one skipped the next show will open in June 2021.

More than just cars

The most direct negative impact was on the convention center with its 723,000 square feet (67,200 square meters) of exhibition space, which has been the home to the event since 1965. Having the car show in January was a good way to fill a slow month. Moving the show to June forced the convention center to cancel or move some June events to make room for the car show, its biggest moneymaker. When that was canceled they were left with nothing.

General Motors Global Design chief Michael Simcoe helps unveil new Chevy Silverado trucks at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in 2018

It’s impossible to say just what auto enthusiasts missed out on this year. Many vehicle manufactures are trying to make up for the loss by having virtual premiers, but they don’t have the pizazz of loud live events

But it’s not just the event location that lost out. So did the many trade fair outfitters who design, build and maintain all the company stands and the contract specialists who explain each vehicle to the public. The city of Detroit also suffered. Last year the exhibition generated about $430 million (€383 million) for the region through thousands of hotel bookings, dinners and meetings. Still challenges go much deeper.

“The COVID-19 outbreak has caused larger problems than a missed auto show. Detroit is facing a major revenue shortfall. About 12% of the city’s revenue comes from gaming taxes from the city’s three casinos, which remain closed. And much of the city’s downtown tenants, such as Quicken Loans, have not reopened their offices to workers,” Dustin Walsh, a senior reporter at Crain’s Detroit Business, told DW.

Detroit Auto Show 2020: It wasn't just the carmakers who lost out this year. Designing and building the impressive company stands kept many people busy all year

It wasn’t just the carmakers who lost out this year. Designing and building the impressive company stands kept many people busy all year. The show also brought many people to downtown Detroit and filled restaurants and hotel rooms

A whole new experience

Looking at cars has traditionally been a hands-on activity. People want to peek under the hood and slam the doors. This year’s event was going to be held as always inside but with the addition of 14 acres of outdoor space along the Detroit River. Barges would even be docked in the river to show new vehicles and the public would be able to actually ride in autonomous cars and eat at an outdoor beer garden.

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“Besides missing important vehicle launches such as the new Ford F-150 and Cadillac Escalade, the Detroit auto show was going to highlight everything from autonomous cars to classic Italian and British sports cars in outdoor settings around the city,” said McElroy.

The move to a new expanded summer show was a risk. With its cancellation, no one knows if it would have been a success. 

Switching to social media

This year some manufactures didn’t wait for the Detroit show. Others are revealing their new products virtually, which costs a fraction of what is spent on a big show and gives them all the attention at once without having to compete with dozens of other manufactures at the same time. Yet getting attention is not as easy as at an expo with thousands of journalists and customers lining up to get a front row seat

The North American International Auto Show in better days

The North American International Auto Show in better pre-coronavirus days

Another thorn in Detroit’s side was the growing influence of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) show. For years the Las Vegas expo had been creeping more and more into the automotive world, it was also held the week before the January auto show. 

“CES did compete with the Detroit show for a couple of years as it grew larger and many auto suppliers viewed the Las Vegas show as a better avenue to display their technology. I think that trend has been reversing in recent years as the size and scope of CES has made it more difficult for the automotive sector to get the eyeballs it seeks,” said Walsh. 

Still other carmakers have just delayed new product launches for the time being. This is not only because of the show cancellation — the manufactures themselves are often behind in development because of the COVID-19 outbreak. 

The end of a dinosaur?

But don’t write off Motor City. Detroit is a tough comeback kid and the dates for the 2021 North American International Auto Show are already set. And “barring a never-ending pandemic or the widespread adoption of jetpacks, shows like the one in Detroit or Los Angeles or Frankfurt will continue to serve a purpose,” said Walsh. “Maybe that purpose changes from a media-driven international event to a regional auto show that moves car sales up. I don’t know, but there will definitely be a Detroit car show in the future.”

McElroy agrees, but thinks all auto shows need to look for more entertaining ways to bring in visitors. “The days of thrilling the public by parking a bunch of cars in an arena are over. There needs to be more entertainment for families and groups of all ages, including music, food and interactive displays. The shows need to become more of an entertainment destination,” he said.

Whatever their pitfalls, the current shows bring in millions of people a year — many ready to buy a new vehicle. This makes them an important marketing and sales tool.   

“While auto shows are not as important for the media or industry insiders, they are important for the public and will probably be around for a long time to come,” McElroy concluded.