New York auto show: Getting back to normal

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NEW YORK — The New York International Auto Show is bustling again.

It was a long road to get here, and the dire circumstances of two years ago, when COVID-19 forced a sudden hiatus for one of the industry’s premier launch pads, illustrate just how far the show’s journey back has been. The 2020 event was supposed to be another spectacle with glossy vehicles filling the sprawling Jacob Javits Convention Center, but the fast-moving health crisis transformed the show floor into a makeshift hospital with thousands of beds.

Seeing work crews hauling crates, setting up and filling the vast halls with sheet metal this spring was a reflective moment for Mark Schienberg, president of the Greater New York Automobile Dealers Association, which organizes the show.

“It had this strange feeling for a second because it’s been three years since we were last here,” Schienberg told Automotive News. “And then it just became enormously exciting. We are back.”

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, speaking at the World Car Awards ceremony during the show, highlighted the importance of its return.

“When the Javits Center is back, when the auto show is back,” she said, “that is the clearest sign that New York is back!”

The auto show circuit is returning to its normal cadence. The Chicago Auto Show, which shifted to the summer in 2021 but avoided missing a year, went back to its customary dates in February this year, and Los Angeles reclaimed its November slot last fall after skipping 2020.

New York and Detroit each went dark for two consecutive years, and automakers that have often used those shows for some of their most important debuts were happy to have one of them back again. Detroit’s comeback event is scheduled for September.

“Auto shows are coming back, and it really feels good to have a presence,” said Bob Carter, Toyota’s North American sales chief. “What we’re seeing around the country is that auto shows are becoming even more and more important.”

With the industry’s microchip shortage cutting inventory levels, Carter said people can’t always browse a full lineup at dealerships as they’ve done in the past, so auto shows are a great place to shop.

Not every brand took part in the New York show’s revival, however. Honda, Infiniti, Cadillac and Mazda were among those without a stand on the show floor. German luxury brands BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi, which already had pulled out of the event before COVID-19 struck, also didn’t come back.

The Chrysler brand had no new products to roll out, but it celebrated the show’s return with a special theme for the Airflow electric vehicle concept it unveiled at CES in January. Chrysler CEO Christine Feuell and Stellantis Chief Design Officer Ralph Gilles came up with a Graphite model in Galaxy Black with copper accents.

“We knew we wanted to come to New York because it’s one of the biggest Chrysler markets in the U.S.,” Feuell said. “It is a very technology-forward and BEV-friendly market, and we’ve done a lot of research with customers here.”

The pandemic’s ongoing yet shrinking influence remained visible in the ample hand-sanitizing stations around the Javits Center and workers wearing face coverings. Aisles between the exhibits are wider to create more space while people roam the floor.

Visitors aren’t required to wear masks, get tested or be vaccinated against the coronavirus, though masks are available upon request.

Declining case numbers and eased policies around masks and vaccines opened the door to this return to normalcy. Schienberg said people can enjoy the show as they always have.

While the situation has improved, Schienberg hasn’t forgotten about the precarious conditions that led the association to cancel the event multiple times.

Leading up to the planned 2020 show, reports began to emerge of the virus disrupting life overseas. But organizers still intended to hold the April event as late as Feb. 28, when they issued a statement supporting the Geneva International Motor Show’s decision to call off its event.

The deteriorating circumstances in subsequent days led Schienberg and his association to initially postpone the New York show until summer, before canceling it entirely for 2020 two months later.

The organizers again postponed and then canceled the 2021 event as the delta variant spread rapidly and they determined holding the event still wasn’t feasible.

Schienberg personally called as many automaker executives as he could to tell them the show wouldn’t happen. Their responses were all supportive.

Canceling the show both times was enormously difficult because so many players are involved. Schienberg said the event has to bring in more than 700 electricians and 2,000 carpenters and get approvals from the fire marshal.

After so many starts and stops, Schienberg had a question for his team after the long gap:

“I said to our staff, ‘I know we’re good at canceling shows. Can we remember how to actually follow through on it?’ And I’ve got to tell you, they did a great job,” he said. “Everybody just pulled together.”

Jamie Butters contributed to this report.

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