Still, organizers said the event marked an important step forward for consumer auto shows after dozens were canceled last year because of COVID-19 fears. The Florida show demonstrated that even indoor shows can be held safely during the ups and downs of a pandemic that is far from vanquished.
“We had an amazing turnout in December, during the middle of a pandemic when we still didn’t have a vaccine and there was still a lot of panic,” said Evelyn Cardenas, president of the Central Florida Auto Dealers Association, which organized the event.
Planners had to judge public opinion before going ahead with the show, even though Florida was mostly open for business. Cardenas traveled to other events in the state to gauge interest and see best practices.
“We did some preliminary surveys and discovered that, yes, people did want to come out. And if they deemed that it was a safe environment, they would be more than happy to participate,” said Cardenas.
While the show does not give out official numbers, attendance fell by only a few percentage points from its pre-pandemic 2019 level, organizers said.
“The most exhilarating thing for me from the auto show was that as I walked the floor, people were thanking me,” Cardenas said. Visitors commented that the show was a little smaller than normal but also that it served their car-shopping needs and provided an outlet for homebound families, she said.
Some of the lessons learned for other shows planning to resume include crowd-control measures to keep groups of people from bumping up against each other, the use of quick-clean crews with disinfectant fog that can sanitize a vehicle each time someone sits in it, and temperature check procedures at the entrance.
“Even if we didn’t have COVID, there are safety measures that can be implemented in the long term to prevent any pandemic or whatever may come,” Cardenas said. “Viruses are always changing, so we don’t know when we’re going to be faced with a similar situation.”
Curt Van Loon, president of Adstrategies, which handles marketing for 19 auto shows a year, said organizing the Orlando expo during the pandemic was “a lesson in never, ever, ever give up.”
“Even back in December, people had tons of pent-up demand to go out and do stuff, and there was really nothing to do,” Van Loon said.
While there were worries about the possibility of criticism for holding a mass event at that stage in the pandemic, those fears didn’t materialize and Orlando visitors complied with mask requirements without any public confrontations.
The event took place with three to four months of preparation, Van Loon said. “We got support from the manufacturers, we got support from the dealers, and we were able to pull that show off in a COVID environment.”
Adstrategies is seeing steady interest in a return to the pre-coronavirus calendar by relying on sanitary practices to keep people safe and comfortable.
“Very slowly, since Jan. 1, those shows have come back online. And attendance has been up over pre-COVID levels — and up by a lot at some shows,” he said. “I think it’s going to be at rock-star levels when we get through the summer and through the fall. Events are going to come back with a vengeance.”
Several auto shows that are normally held in the first quarter have been postponed or canceled this year, but others have marked a careful return.
The Oklahoma City auto show was held in early March with 17 brands, including those presented by local dealers, according to the Metropolitan Auto Dealers Association. One highlight was an early look at the four-door Bronco.
The Tulsa Auto Show was held in mid-April, featuring 20 exhibitor brands, according to the Tulsa Automobile Dealers Association. That show, deep in oil country, featured an EV exhibit called “Electric Avenue.”
The Atlanta auto show was held in mid-April with 12 brands participating, including Subaru, Jeep and Kia, according to the Metro Atlanta Automobile Dealers Association. Vehicles were spread out more than normal in some cases to prevent crowding.
Cardenas said she is already organizing the 2021 Orlando show and seeing strong automaker interest.
“We are working with the manufacturers to send us all their new vehicles and those that they didn’t get to showcase last year,” Cardenas said.
“My Nissan dealers are pushing to get the Armada, Kicks, Frontier, Pathfinder and the Ariya. My GM dealers want to see some of the new introductions as well as EVs. Our guests also want to see the Lyriq.”