As shows shift to EVs and ride-alongs, attendance was largely up in 2023 – so why are some automakers pulling out?
Jan 26, 2024 at 9:59am ET
Regardless of what the internet shouts, evidence suggests auto show attendance (at least in North America) is growing. So why are some automakers bowing out?
Stellantis announced it would stop spending money on major automotive trade shows in North America last year, first scaling back at CES, then the LA Auto Show. Eventually, the company decided to move away from shows entirely in 2024.
The company will focus marketing resources elsewhere, it says. That means no Jeep, Dodge, Ram, Chrysler, Alfa Romeo, or Fiat vehicles will sit on auto show floors for the time being. It could prove a short-sighted move, based on some of the evidence.
Multiple auto shows saw record attendance in 2023. Toronto was one of them, with more than 350,000 people making their way to the Metro Toronto Convention Centre last February. It marked the third-largest showing in the auto show’s 50-year history, and the influx even broke a single-day attendance record of 56,122 people, which happened Sunday, February 19.
Other American shows saw attendance increases as well; the DC show was up 107 percent, Miami was up 18 percent, and Los Angeles and Detroit both noted strong attendance figures for 2023, although they didn’t release any official numbers.
Chicago chalked up another success story. One of the five largest auto shows in the country, attendance increased 52 percent from 2022 to 2023, with more than 300,000 attendees making their way to McCormick Place last February – 100,000 more than the previous year.
Chicago Automobile Trade Association President and Chicago Auto Show General Manager Jennifer Morand cited ride-and-drive opportunities and an EV test track, among other attractions, for the substantial attendance increase.
“We grew back into a two-hall show in 2023,” she told The Trade Show Executive. “We learned just how much attendees loved all the ride-and-drive opportunities, and that kept people at the show longer, so we took that feedback and brought all that excitement indoors to the 2023 Chicago Auto Show in the form of test tracks.”
Camp Jeep – an indoor track with a 28-foot hill – welcomed its 3 millionth rider at the Chicago Auto Show last year. But it won’t return for 2024 after a 20-year run. Off-road enthusiasts will instead have to Ford’s booth for a similar Bronco ride-along opportunity this year.
Robby DeGraff, a Product and Consumer Insights Analyst at AutoPacific and Vice President of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, echoed the sentiment shared by Chicago Auto Show organizers. He said shows like Chicago have done an excellent job of expanding their offerings to more than just static displays.
“Auto shows have really evolved over the years to offer more activities beyond just walking around and checking out vehicles parked on the show floor,” says DeGraff. “There are great activities for families and kids from test drive and ride opportunities, hands-on displays and demos of cutting-edge technology, puppies, cool classic cars, and immersive exhibits.”
But one of the biggest reasons for growth is the rise of electric vehicle offerings.
Chicago expanded its EV test track to 100,000 square feet in 2023 – and it returns for 2024. New York stretched its indoor EV course to 83,000 square feet last year, with more than 80,000 people hopping behind the wheel. The Detroit News reported “long lines” at The Detroit Auto Show for EV ride-alongs, while LA’s Electric Avenue display was “unprecedented” in terms of size and scope.
CES in Las Vegas, while originally an electronics show, has become a preeminent destination for the debut of EVs and concept cars. Honda, Kia, Mercedes-Benz, and Volkswagen all showed brand-new products at CES 2023, which saw 115,000 people walk through its doors. That number “shattered” expectations, according to show organizers.
“We learned just how much attendees loved all the ride-and-drive opportunities, and that kept people at the show longer…”
“Auto shows provide a tremendous learning opportunity for consumers who are curious to learn more about EVs,” DeGraff says. “For many, an auto show might be the first time a consumer ever gets a chance to experience some of the unique aspects of an EV. Even more important, there was a charging infrastructure company readily available at the [Chicago] show to answer questions and temper worries consumers had about charging at home or on the go. That kind of experience is so, so very valuable.”
While traditional auto shows like Chicago and Detroit are becoming more EV-friendly, entire shows dedicated exclusively to EVs are popping up around the country. Electrify Expo has quickly become one of the biggest.
From 2021 to 2022, Electrify Expo expanded its presence in Long Beach to a one-million-square-foot facility to fit the 80 percent attendance increase. More than 25,000 people hopped on electric scooters and e-bikes, while also getting behind the wheel of some of the latest EVs.
“Electrify Expo is a significant part of our multi-city, experiential marketing strategy to connect with self-identified e-curious consumers on moving from traditional gas engines to EV,” said Eric Watson, Vice President of Sales Operations at Kia America.
What Does The Future Hold?
With electric vehicles getting more popular, auto shows likely will too – whether it be traditional venues evolving with the times or new shows like Electrify Expo popping up more frequently. That’s why it’s all the more confusing that Stellantis – a company that wants to sell five million BEVs by 2030 – doesn’t see the value.
But Stellantis isn’t alone. Brands like Audi, BMW, Mazda, and more are skipping some shows and spending their marketing budget elsewhere. Others like Mercedes-Benz and Kia see the value in burgeoning events like CES and Electrify Expo instead of more traditional shows like Detroit and Los Angeles.
“Honestly, it’s really disappointing,” says DeGraff, “because auto shows are tremendously important when it comes to getting your product, new and existing, right out in front of consumers – whether they’re in the market to buy or not.
“I understand the need to tighten the belt, especially in the wake of the UAW chaos, but [one] area an automaker shouldn’t cheap out on is having a presence at a major auto show in a major market… If you ask an organizer of any auto show, they have actual data that tracks auto show visits leading to actual sales happening not long after.
“That’s proof auto shows have and always will matter.”