Germany revolutionized the automobile. A tough second act: How to revive the dying auto show

September 3, 2021, 12:54 PM UTC

When Chancellor Angela Merkel officially opens the IAA Mobility trade fair in Munich on Tuesday, the first major international exhibition in Europe since the pandemic erupted could prove to be the final nail in the coffin for traditional auto shows.

Previous IAA installments glorified the purchase of large, thirsty sedans and SUVs with plenty of horsepower. Nowadays, however, these gas guzzlers are increasingly seen as grotesque metallic temples to the very kind of conspicuous consumption that plagues the planet as choking wildfires rage and flash floods inundate towns and cities. 

Even as the Bavarian capital in May called off its Oktoberfest owing to health risks, the country’s influential auto industry chose to move ahead with the IAA Mobility event, hoping to resuscitate flagging interest in its biennial IAA by pitching it as a platform to illuminate future trends rather than simply as a showcase for upcoming new cars.  

“They have bought themselves another chance to explain their strategy for tackling climate change and present a positive vision of the future, but there is some uncertainty surrounding the event,” Capgemini consultant Peter Fintl said. “How much interest will the new festival concept generate under pandemic conditions? Will there be protests again next week? The next few days will put the concept to a reality test that will decide about its further future.”  

Dubbed by organizers as the “Davos of mobility” in reference to the fashionable Swiss ski resort that serves as the home of the World Economic Forum, automakers hope the current show will help shed their image as climate killers by proving their value to society at large. 

Tesla no-show

In the shadow of COVID, previous visitor magnets like last month’s Gamescom fair in Cologne were held virtually to eliminate any public health hazard. At the IAA, visitors are expected to prove they are not contagious, but there’s no mandate that they must be vaccinated.

There is some risk to that decision, says Axel Schmidt, senior managing director and global industry sector lead for Accenture’s automotive division, who warns that going ahead could backfire on the organizers if it facilitates the spread of infection. 

“Should COVID cases suddenly explode, then there’s always the risk the public can criticize the industry for being foolhardy by holding the show in the first place,” he told Fortune.

There’s also a problem with the audience—or lack thereof. With conventional motor shows in general losing their appeal for car buyers even before the pandemic, next week’s IAA could potentially prove the last: Only a fraction of the world’s car brands are bothering to attend.

Tesla, viewed rightly or wrongly as the driving innovator in the automotive space, as usual has skipped the event in favor of other concepts like the streamed presentation devoted to artificial intelligence it held last month.

“Nowadays manufacturers have at their disposal entirely new tools to reach far more people than ever before on a significantly leaner budget,” Schmidt explained. 

After the debacle in 2019, when environmental protesters descended on the IAA to create chaos and interest in attending the exhibition plummeted, automakers including Volkswagen, Daimler, and BMW decided change was needed. 

Shrunk down to socially acceptable size

The 2019 show welcomed just 560,000 visitors, a third fewer than the previous IAA two years earlier, and nearly half of the 931,700 peak recorded in 2015, when VW’s diesel emissions scandal was just coming to light. 

At the start of March 2020, only days before the pandemic broke out, Germany’s automakers and suppliers voted collectively to move the fair from its traditional home in central Frankfurt to Munich. 

Cutting its duration in half, they also split it into an industry meet-and-greet on the outskirts of Munich, where executives were less likely to be photographed being accosted by protesters, and a consumer-friendly exhibit downtown that would be arranged as an outreach effort to engage with the public on the latter’s terms.

Instead of ownership, the more amorphous catchall term of mobility would be emphasized this time around, like the more resource-friendly sharing economy deemed to be the future. With the advent of the virus, however, demand for services like car-sharing and ride-hailing all plummeted, and conventional ownership enjoyed a renaissance.

It now looks as if a motor show designed for a pre-COVID era may end up offering more of the same, just shrunk down to a more socially acceptable size with fewer new models unveiled, like the Volkswagen ID.5 GTX electric crossover. Thanks to the change in venue and concept, however, organizers will at least be spared a direct comparison with previous editions.

Next week could determine whether the IAA Mobility in its current form will survive to see another day, but Accenture’s Schmidt warns against doing away with it entirely.

“Germany’s auto industry is one of the last remaining sectors that can lay claim to being a global leader. It needs a format where it can communicate its role as a technological lighthouse—simply allowing the show to quietly and unceremoniously vanish would represent in a sense its own swan song,” he said.

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