Among the automotive industry, there has been much discussion of the importance of the major auto shows. Some experts say they’re vital to automakers, press, and consumers. Others say that the auto show is irrelevant now thanks to the internet and other digital ways of marketing cars. One thing is for sure, though, fewer automakers are showing up to the major auto shows in cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles in favor of other marketing endeavors. Could this be the beginning of the end for auto shows?

A Notable Shift to Digital Marketing

In the past automakers had to go to great lengths to get their cars in front of people. One of the ways in which to do this was auto shows around the world. That still works today. Journalists from all kinds of publications cover the auto shows, and when an automaker debuts a new model or showcases a vehicle at the auto show, they’re bound to get plenty of press from it. However, auto shows aren’t as important as they once were.

The new 2018 BMW M5, for example, was teased in a video game and then appeared for the first time at a gaming convention (shown above). From there it went to the auto show in Frankfurt, gaining more press. News surfaced recently that BMW, along with Mercedes-Benz and Audi, won’t even show up at the 2019 Detroit Auto Show (or the North American International Auto Show), the most prominent one in America. 

Jeep at an auto show
Jeep is just one of the big brands missing from the Frankfurt Motor Show. (Image: FCA)

This year’s Frankfurt Motor Show is notably lacking Tesla, Nissan, Peugeot, Fiat, Volvo, Jeep, Mitsubishi, and Infiniti. Patrick Koller, chief executive of Faurecia, which is a multi-billion dollar auto parts supplier, told Reuters that car shows need to do something new, “Otherwise they will disappear.”

It’s not only automakers that are skipping the shows, public attendance is down significantly, too. The Paris Motor Show saw a 14 percent drop last year, and the show in Detroit saw 9,000 fewer visitors than the previous year, according to Reuters.

‘If You Build It, They Will Come’ No Longer Applies

Chicago Auto show
Attendance has been down at most auto shows around the world. (Image: Chicago Auto Show)

The bottom line is that auto shows aren’t as needed as they once were. People have many more ways of getting information about vehicles than they used to. That decline in attendance combined with the high cost to the automakers to showcase their cars there and connect with journalists has driven many companies to reconsider going at all.

When fewer automakers show up to the auto shows, that means fewer journalists will be there to cover the happenings, which means less bang for the automaker's dollar. This exacerbates the auto show issue and strengthens the argument that the automakers could reach more people more affordably through other marketing and PR avenues.

The North American International Auto Show held in Detroit will probably move to June. (Image: NAIAS)

“It there is less press, that puts us in a bind,” Jim Lentz, CEO of Toyota Motor North America, told Crain’s Detroit Business. “I don’t need to spend all this money.” Lentz obviously isn’t the only one in the industry who feels this way. It’s also clear that the auto shows know they’re quickly becoming obsolete. There have been some efforts made to modernize the auto shows, adding in more driver-focused attractions like simulators and test tracks, other test-driving activities, and innovative technology exhibits, but so far it hasn’t been enough. 

The Detroit Free Press reported that the Detroit show will likely move to June, which will set it apart from the other auto shows that happened around its typical winter date. That’s a step in the right direction, but the Detroit show and all major auto shows will have to find a way to offer something that automakers and consumers can’t get anywhere else. Until that happens, it’s likely attendance will continue to decline and auto shows could become pointless.