The COVID pandemic devastated the Auto show circuit — none hit harder than the annual event in Geneva, Switzerland. For more than a century it was a must-attend gathering that drew in a Who’s Who from the automotive world. But the pandemic put the Geneva International Motor Show on hold in 2020 and now, as it gets set to stage its return, it looks to be a shadow of its former self, with only a handful of major brands set to exhibit at the PALExpo convention center.
When COVID struck in late winter 2020, organizers were putting the final touches on the annual Geneva International Auto Show where more than 100 automotive brands from around the world were set to exhibit their wares. Just days before the two-day press preview, Swiss authorities ordered the event canceled, effectively bankrupting organizers.
They’ve spent four years trying to kick-start the show, while staging an interim event in Qatar. But when GIMS returns to Geneva a month from now it will be, at best, a shadow of its former self. In total, organizers list just 29 brands setting up exhibits. And, of those, only a few can be considered major marques, such as Renault. Other familiar nameplates, including Peugeot, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Ford and Opel are notably absent.
First staged in 1905, the Geneva International Motor Show was seen as one of the most important automotive events in Europe, perhaps worldwide. Staged in the traditionally neutral Switzerland, it had advantages over other major shows in France and Germany perceived to be overly friendly to domestic brands. As a result, it was the rare major brand that sat out GIMS. And the show also reserved space for small, specialty brands and start-ups typically squeezed out elsewhere.
Pandemic lockdowns forced automakers to rethink their marketing strategies, however, and auto shows have been especially hard hit. Rather than spend millions of dollars to set up exhibits and stage flashy news events, manufacturers have discovered alternatives — such as online debuts — that cost far less to reach substantially more potential buyers.
That’s led to significant cutbacks at events like the North American International Auto Show in Detroit and the Paris Motor Show. Other shows have closed for good.
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Geneva goes to Qatar
The rapid spread of COVID over the early months of 2020 caused worldwide chaos. In Geneva, most of the exhibits were already in place when Swiss officials ordered GIMS to cancel just days before it was set to open. With tens of millions of euros already spent, the move effectively bankrupted the show. Only a financial bailout held hopes that it could stage a return.
In 2021, the event was again “postponed,” and no gathering came together in 2022. Looking for a lifeline, organizers pulled a rabbit out of their hat, a deal that would lend the GIMS name to a car show in the Mideast financial center of Qatar which was staged last year.
But the goal was to bring the show back to Switzerland and that’s finally going to happen with a one-day press event on Feb. 26. Doors at PALExpo open to the public the next day, the show running through March 3.
“An innovative format”
“After a long absence of four years, the Geneva International Motor Show is back. We are delighted to be able to welcome again manufacturers and visitors at Palexpo,” said Alexandre de Senarclens, president of the Comité permanent du Salon international de l’automobile Foundation
As with auto shows in Detroit, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, GIMS’ organizers claim they’ve come up with what de Senarclens called “an innovative format.” A news release promises “bespoke thematic immersions, masterclasses, one-of-kind exhibitions and Auto.Future.Now Forum.”
There’s one big problem: a severe lack of manufacturers.
What if they gave a show and nobody came?
Where every major brand was previously expected to have a presence in Geneva, this year it’s a Who’s Who of those skipping the show. No major German brands. No Italians. Only Renault among the French.
One familiar element of the once-mighty Geneva Motor Show carries on. There’ll be plenty of the startup and specialty brands that previously provided a unique touch to the event.
Notably, Lucid will be staging its first showing at PALExpo next month. And one brand that could generate significant buzz is BYD, the Chinese automaker exhibiting in Geneva for the first time. BYD notably outsold Tesla during the fourth quarter of 2023 and it has major ambitions for cracking into the growing European EV market.
Whether enough consumers will find a trip to the Geneva show worthwhile this year remains to be seen. Plans call for a return to Qatar in 2025. But if the home show proves a financial flop it could mean a questionable future for subsequent gatherings in Switzerland.
Who’ll be there
Here’s a list of the brands and events coming to the 2024 Geneva International Motor Show:
- AGVS UPSA
- Auto-I-Dat AG
- Avenergy Suisse
- Caresoft Global Limited
- Classic Legend Motors
- Erreerre Fuoriserie
- Formule 1 Merchandising
- GP Motorsports
- Legends Magazine
- LMI Beeway
- Martin Engler
- MG Motor
- Race World
- Swiss Racing Lab
- The Car of the Year