Coronavirus Takes Down Geneva, 2020’s Biggest Auto Show

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The 2020 Geneva Motor Show got the hook early Friday in the wake of the Swiss government’s concerns about coronavirus and a ban on gatherings of more than 1,000 people. The show’s first events were scheduled for Sunday, with media days beginning Monday, and public days from March 5-15. As of Thursday, show organizers had been reassuring exhibitors, the media, and the public that the show was definitely going ahead.

Geneva draws about 600,000 to its annual, early March dates. While other major shows draw a million visitors, Geneva has been important because it’s not seen as the host country’s show, the way Frankfurt, Tokyo, and Detroit are seen highlighting German, Japanese, and American cars.

The immediate issue is keeping the public safe, dealing with coronavirus (also called COVID-19 and SARS-CoV-2), and its implications. Current research suggests coronavirus is fatal in 2 percent of cases while influenza is fatal in about 0.1 percent of cases – 20 per thousand infected versus 1 per thousand. What’s not known is what percentage of the population might be afflicted; with the flu, it’s about 8 percent, but can vary depending on the strain that season.

New Car Intros We Now Won’t See in Geneva

Among the major Geneva show introductions that now will have to be handled in some other way include:

  • Audi A3 Sportback (wagonlike), and possibly a sportier, longer-range e-tron S EV.
  • BMW i4 EV, as well as plug-in hybrids on the 3 Series and X2 crossover. Tesla scoffs at plug-ins, but they’ve got at least a decade of life where they can provide many of the benefits of EVs, but without the range anxiety.
  • Fisker Ocean, an electric SUV that was teased at CES.
  • Honda Civic refresh, plus EVs that won’t come to the US (Jazz, Honda E).
  • Hyundai was to reveal a new electric-drive platform with the Prophecy concept.
  • Jeep was to provide more details on its plug-in hybrids that were shown at CES.
  • Kia Sorento SUV, fourth generation.
  • Mercedes-Benz, E-Class midlife refresh, and the Mercedes-AMG GLA 45, claimed to have the most powerful inline-four-cylinder engine ever.
  • Toyota crossover based on the subcompact Yaris sedan.
  • Volkswagen Golf GTI and (for Europe if not the US) and the sport Golf GTD, where D is for diesel.

Concerns for the Health of Auto Shows

The cancellation of the Geneva show will amplify the discussion about the financial health of auto shows in general. The last traditional Detroit show (NAIAS) was in January 2018, with soft attendance and the absence of many high-end, international automakers tired of spending millions to market cars Michiganders aren’t likely to buy when they have friends-and-family discounts for Fords, Chevys, and Ram pickups. And with the Detroit show in January, more high-profile introductions shifted to CES in Las Vegas. So that’s the reason for problems in Michigan. Detroit hopes for a reset with the re-emerging as a celebration of spring with more outdoor events, running June 9-20.

A worse sign for auto shows is the absence at the New York International Auto Show (NYIAS), which begins with press days the Wednesday before Good Friday, then has public days through April 19. The three biggest German automakers are gone this year: Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz. Porsche will exhibit. Audi issued a statement that it will “continue to evaluate auto shows on a case-by-case basis moving forward to determine if they are the best platform for US and world premieres of our upcoming models.” For every luxury automaker, metro New York is typically their biggest market, and if not it’s in the top three along with Los Angeles and Miami.

Auto shows serve multiple purposes. New cars are introduced at the show. Automakers can sometimes milk the same car for as many as three go-rounds: world premiere, North American premiere, and on the off chance a car was introduced in Canada or Mexico first, the US premiere. Add the debut of the concept car, sometimes early concept and late concept, and you’ve got five. All this gives the media something to write about, and gets the public thinking about buying cars. But splashy events can become expensive. An off-site event with special effects and transportation of guests easily tops a million dollars.

The public days give potential buyers a chance to see cars. That’s when the automaker staffs are for the most part departed, leaving the regional dealer associations to staff the booths. There’s an open question about how effective shows are now at luring serious prospects when they can learn so much online. If automakers skip the shows, the dealer groups wind up shouldering more of the cost of the booth space.

Finally, there’s the interaction of automakers, media, analysts, and academics. The LA Auto Show, Nov. 20-29 this year, again has a conference and showcase focusing on green cars and the environment, called Automobility LA, that has been well received. Detroit countered with Automobili-D but it didn’t get quite the response. It’s also a time for automakers and suppliers to talk on background about future plans, and for job-seekers to pass around business cards.

The cancellation hit so quickly that Geneva’s media page was still offering credential information Friday morning.

All through the week, show organizers had said game on, but they urged automakers and media to be screened if they had concerns about being infected. At the same time, automakers had been pulling top executives from the show, which meant canceled briefings for analysts and media. And some organized media trips supported by automakers had been canceled as well. For small companies and individuals who bought non-refundable airline tickets and reserved hotels, that money is lost.

By midday European time Friday, the Geneva International Motor Show (GIMS) landing page carried a brief note:

The 90th edition of the GIMS, which was supposed to welcome the media from next Monday and the general public from 5 to 15 March 2020, will now finally not take place. This is an injunction decision of the Federal Council of 28 February 2020 that no events with more than 1,000 people are allowed to take place until 15 March 2020.

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