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It's the end of the road for the Frankfurt Motor Show

Even the smallest display at a major show such as Frankfurt, Los Angeles and Detroit costs a minimum of $1 million.
One of the halls at Frankfurt's international automobile show in September 1959
One of the halls at Frankfurt's international automobile show in September 1959.Schnevoigt / AP

The long-running Frankfurt Motor Show, traditionally the biggest car show in Europe, has run out of gas, with organizers announcing the event has been cancelled.

In its heyday, the show drew visitors from all over the world to see the latest products from German brands such as Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz, as well as foreign marques such as Ferrari, General Motors and Toyota. But last fall's turnout was down more than 40 percent from the 931,000 paid visitors who passed through the turnstiles at the Frankfurt Messe, the German city’s huge convention complex, in 2015. It didn’t help that an assortment of automakers also skipped out or sharply pared back their displays.

Frankfurt isn’t alone. The New York International Auto Show this coming April will go on without such familiar brand names as Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. And the North American International Auto Show, or NAIAS, in June is expected to lose at least one-third of the brands that once turned out for the yearly event. Indeed, some observers question whether there is much of a future for auto shows, in general.

Auto shows have become “dinosaurs,” according to Mike Jackson, the recently retired CEO of AutoNation, the automotive retail chain.

There are any number of reasons why. Some experts point to the seeming lack of interest in cars among millennials and Gen-Z cohorts.

There’s also the issue of cost. While event organizers are loathe to reveal figures, a number of the automakers NBC News spoke to on background indicated even the smallest display at a major show, such as those in Frankfurt, Los Angeles and Detroit, cost a minimum $1 million. Big displays have been known to top $5 million.

A news conference can add millions more — which is just one reason why there have been far fewer debuts at auto shows in recent years. At its peak, Detroit’s auto show staged 71 different product introductions in one, tightly packed three-day media preview. Last year, that was down to barely a dozen. The media preview at the Paris Motor Show used to run two long days, often with two or three debuts running simultaneously. This year, it wrapped up in barely four hours.

That’s encouraged manufacturers to look for alternatives to save money. Audi, Ford and Volkswagen staged off-site previews in Los Angeles last November, ahead of the official auto show at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

Days before Super Bowl LIV, South Korean luxury brand Genesis staged a standalone debut for its Genesis SUV in Miami. General Motors did the same thing for its completely redesigned Cadillac Escalade a week later in Los Angeles. In years past, both debuts likely would have gone to this week’s Chicago Auto Show.

There’s also more non-traditional competition to auto shows. A dozen different automakers turned out for the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last month. Mercedes revealed the AVTR concept vehicle, Hyundai the S-A1, a flying taxi it is developing for the Uber Elevate service.

Whatever the reason, “We have to change” in order to survive, said Rod Alberts, director of the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, the DADA, which sponsors the NAIAS.

For decades, the Detroit event was held in frigid January. The 2020 show moves to June. That not only offers show-goers nicer weather but allows the auto dealer group to revamp the fundamental concept — including giving visitors the chance to test drive some of the year’s new products, rather than just stare at static displays.

Back in Germany, the Verband der Automobilindustrie says it is studying some of the “creative ideas” it has been offered by seven cities that would like to replace Frankfurt in 2021. Organizers could pick up on many of the same concepts as Detroit.

Some experts believe that in today’s digital world, auto shows are an anachronism. After all, J.D. Power Data show that roughly four out of every five buyers will do the vast majority of their research online.

For his part, DADA’s Alberts notes that most motorists still visit a showroom before closing the deal, however. He’s convinced auto shows just have to adapt to the times in order to regain the luster that made them such big events since the dawn of the automotive era.

Otherwise, the cancellation of the Frankfurt event could be the signal that auto shows are a costly anachronism set to fade away.