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Opinion: the 2024 New York Auto Show was a ghost of itself

After a thin showing at NYIAS, will US motor shows ever give us the same buzz again?

Published: 04 Apr 2024

“I think this might be my last auto show,” a colleague said to me as we quickly caught up by the media scrum before the Hyundai Santa Cruz reveal. The New York International Auto Show had always been a landmark event, but it - and auto shows as a whole - are pale reflections of what used to be. The media days used to be two full days of reveals, presentations and events, not to mention a week’s worth of pre-show debuts, private events and announcements.

As the sheet was pulled off of the refreshed ute-like utility truck, my colleague lamented the time and effort flying himself and his team to cover what would be seven or so full press conferences. Today, we’d all be done by noon.

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Personally, I get incredibly nostalgic when the New York Auto Show comes around. It’s my home show and I’ve been attending as a member of the press long enough to drop a “things were different back then.”

Things were different back then

In the old days, attending the show as a green auto writer was like entering the gates of gearhead paradise, freely shuffling throughout huge, exciting displays that felt like Gran Turismo menus you could walk through, with unfettered access to the latest cars and concepts. We would huddle in front of massive stages to see dramatic presentations and hotly anticipated reveals. We’d leave saying things like “we just saw Bob Lutz and 50 Cent present a rebadged Holden Commodore as a Pontiac sport truck,” a sentence that sounds like madcap ravings in the year 2024.

Our backs would be bent from carrying huge swag bags of press materials needed to write our stories. You would network, you would meet people, you would run yourself ragged desperately trying to see everything. As the years went on, the NY show would mark the true beginning of my busy season, and I would attend it in a number of capacities - solo, with a team, photographer, video presenter and so on. And while the inevitable buildup of apathy slowly calcified over the years, I would still take the time to hang on to that spark of wonderment that’s hard to recapture once you’ve seen behind the curtain. I’d find a couple minutes to wander around the BMW booth with headphones in, listening to Need for Speed soundtracks and pretending I was cycling through the game’s unlocked cars.

Today, I can’t remember the last time BMW was at NYAIS. A year? Three? Lockdown has ruined my perception of time. I walked around with just my camera, which I barely took out of its bag. There would be no massive presentations or need to run from stage to stage; everything’s an email and the story’s been written.

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What happened? How did we get here?

Inside Baseball

There are numerous stories from the past five or so years talking about “the auto show is dead” and other grabby headlines asking the same question, but without going into attendance numbers and deep analysis, let’s just assess what’s changed: everything.
Maybe that’s painting with too broad a brush, but everything that justifies an auto show has gone through a big upheaval. Let’s talk about the automakers. Companies who make cars would rely on these industry events to present their latest products to the world. The Ford Mustang itself debuted here at the New York show 60 years ago. Today, a brand could reach out to millions of people with a simple campaign on social media. Speaking of the media…

In this synergistic pact we as auto media have with the car makers, shows would be huge sources for information, first looks, original photography and deep dives of products well before they were headed to dealer showrooms. We’d need the show as the brands needed us to talk about their wares. Not to spoil the magic, but this is still the case, only now, what we used to see at shows is revealed at smaller events with fewer attendees that reach far more people, if it’s not just an email of media assets. Even if a vehicle is debuting at an auto show, attending the reveal is supplemental, not integral.

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Technology has changed, interest in cars has shifted, and the industry as a whole is in a state of massive transition to electrification. It’s probably worth mentioning two recessions and a pandemic, things that might’ve mixed things up a bit.

Game Over

It might be a habit to stay in our little auto industry bubble, but if we look beyond it, we can see similar changes happening elsewhere. Look at video games, a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry that had its own hallmark trade event, E3. The Electronic Entertainment Expo might not have been around as long as any major auto show, but it came to be the place where industry giants like Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft would debut their latest consoles, along with the biggest upcoming games.

As our connected world grew smaller, the makers of games found success in hosting their own events where they didn’t have to compete for attention or simply do their own streaming presentations like Nintendo Direct or Sony’s State of Play. E3 struggled to rally after Covid-related cancellations and was officially discontinued in 2023.

Could auto shows go the way of E3? It’s not out of the question. Ford could just stream a Mach-whatever reveal from the comfort of their Dearborn HQ if they wanted to, but there’s a key component to auto shows that still holds value: you.

“It’s not for you”

One year, at the end of a particularly arduous Los Angeles Auto Show, an organizer of the event asked me how things went. Worn out from the numerous off-site presentations that year, I nonchalantly quipped about how hard the show was for lil ole me. With a chuckle, he very bluntly stated: “You know the show’s not for you, right?”

Having been taken down a peg, the organizer pointed out my narrow media focus of the show, going on to explain how I wasn’t seeing how vital the event is for dealers, suppliers and other industry folks to meet and conduct business. “Deals are being made here,” he said, gesturing towards the convention center.

I’ve always kept that in mind, remembering that where I see a fading media day, it’s a small part of a bigger picture. Beyond the business side of things, auto shows remain a place for consumers and car fans to see the latest vehicles up close and personal, be it for cross-shopping or for enthusiast’s sake. As it happens, the New York auto show traditionally aligns with Easter weekend. For many, it’s been inexorably tied with the holiday, a visit being part of a family’s annual tradition for generations. For automakers, public attendance and actual consumer eyes on their stuff is far more valuable than what the dude from Top Gear had to say about the minuscule media component.

So long as the concept of an auto show holds value to the people who attend, they’ll continue in some fashion, even in a diminished scope. It doesn’t matter if I feel like the auto show’s fading because media days were fairly thin. It’s not about that. It never was. Would this be my last auto show? I hope not, but that’s up to you.

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