Auto shows San Diego
Fisker CEO Henrik Fisker unveils the Fisker Ocean during the 2021 LA Auto Show in Los Angeles, Nov., 17, 2021. REUTERS/Mike Blake

What a difference two years make. The 2019 Los Angeles auto show featured a parade of vehicle debuts, a flurry of press conferences and other events in its opening two days, along with hundreds of thousands of people eager to see new cars.

Fast forward to 2021. The Los Angeles Auto Show, the first major U.S. auto show since the start of the pandemic, hosted a single day of press events Wednesday. Some automakers even skipped the show.

The show illustrates how the pandemic has accelerated automakers’ shift toward the online world, as consumers buy more vehicles on the internet.

The changes already have had an effect locally. Organizers last month cancelled the 2022 San Diego International Auto Show – a San Diego Convention Center mainstay – which had been planned for late December and early January as usual.

“Given current conditions it would not be possible to produce an event of the caliber that show-goers have come to expect and deserve,” organizers said in a statement, citing “a variety of COVID-related factors.”

The LA Auto Show, though, opened to the public Friday through Nov. 28. A smaller crowd waited for the doors of an exhibition hall to open, and visitors were spread out among several halls, proving that many auto fans still favor in-person views of vehicles.

“I would really like to see it with my own eyes instead of seeing it on the iPad all the time,” said Peter Borch, who flew from Denmark to see Fisker’s electric sport utility vehicle Ocean.

“The size is bigger than on the photo,” Borch, 52, said, adding he spent all of his pension to buy an Ocean, which will start deliveries late next year.

Dustin Haug, 47, a construction manager in Los Angeles, said, “It is nothing like seeing an actual car in person, touching, feeling.”

David Fortin, head of consumer marketing at the Los Angeles Auto Show, told Reuters that although online reservations lag 2019 levels, they are “strong enough that we believe we’re going to have a great year.”

Honda and BMW both skipped the show in favor of alternative events. Honda showed off a reincarnation of its iconic Integra prototype sedan at an earlier live-streamed event in Los Angeles.

“That was an event that was exclusively ours. We find that we don’t have to compete like you do on the press days of an auto show to get the attention,” Honda executive vice president Dave Gardner told Reuters on a Zoom interview.

Korean automaker Kia expressed a similar view.

“The pandemic has taught us that we can work differently … There will be auto shows still in the future, but there’ll be also different types of presentations,” Karim Habib, head of Kia Design Center, told Reuters at the show.

Kia and affiliate Hyundai Motor were among the few automakers that debuted electric SUV concepts at the show and flew in executives, including chief executives, from their Seoul headquarters.

“Auto shows used to be very, very popular for automakers to make a big media splash. That has changed with social media and with other forms of access to the media by consumers,” said Brett Smith, technology director at Center for Automotive Research. “I think the pandemic was maybe the last straw in this.”

Smaller companies see a positive side to the changes.

“It gives more attention to us,” Henrik Fisker, CEO of electric vehicle startup Fisker, told Reuters.

He said his Ocean SUV is a “sexy sports car” best seen in person. “I know I’m Zoomed out. I don’t think I enjoy any more sitting just looking at computers and pictures. I want to see the real stuff,” Fisker said.

(Reporting by Hyunjoo Jin and Alan Devall; editing by Peter Henderson and Leslie Adler)

– Reuters