In 2015, the 11-day Frankfurt show attracted 931,700 visitors. Picture: Frankfurt Motor Show.

Frankfurt, Germany - The city's huge motor show, which opens next week, is already getting attention of the wrong kind - for its impressive list of no-shows.

Besides the glaring absence of Tesla and its electric Model 3, the roster of big names staying away has grown in 2017 to include such venerable brands as Nissan, Peugeot, Fiat, Volvo, Jeep, Mitsubishi and Infiniti.

The uncertain fortunes of the traditional car show mirror those of an industry in flux, its incumbents threatened by emissions regulation, tech giants and the sharing economy.

"Car shows need a new approach," said Patrick Koller, chief executive of Faurecia, a parts supplier with €19 billion (R295 billion) in global sales. "Otherwise they will disappear."

Traditional gatherings 

Frankfurt and Paris host two of the world's biggest shows in alternate years, punctuated by the Detroit show in January and other events in China, Japan, the United States and Switzerland.

But many of the traditional gatherings have seen visitor numbers fall since the turn of this century, when most new cars were still unveiled under their lights, framed by show girls.

The decline may be accelerating. Paris attendance was down 14 percent in 2016 - with fear of attacks also weighing on tourism - and January's Detroit show drew 9000 fewer visitors.

The sense of upheaval is acute in Germany, as Frankfurt prepares for its first car show opening since the Volkswagen emissions scandal blew up. Days before the event, Chancellor Angela Merkel was urging local officials not to ban diesels, as her re-election campaign drew opposition fire over perceived government cosiness with the industry.

But diesel scandals are just one of the problems challenging automakers and the legendary largesse of their trade shows.

The emergence of technology as the main battleground for the connected, autonomous cars of the future has drawn exhibitors to competing events such as the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

Footfall is becoming less important anyhow. Thanks to social media, Daimler reckons its Mercedes-Benz innovations reach the same global audience of one billion whether unveiled in Frankfurt or at CES - a trade-only show closed to the public, with less than a fifth of the German event's attendance numbers.

Spokeswoman Bettina Fetzer said: "Daimler's media strategy has changed with the rising significance of technology."

Although Mercedes-Benz will be out in force on Frankfurt's 200 000-square metre show floor, Fetzer said it was "getting more complex" to decide how and where to showcase new products.

Rethinking formats

To counter the drift, show organisers and exhibitors are rethinking formats and scrambling to associate with events and brands outside the staid universe of the combustion engine.

Next week's show will debut a New Mobility World forum with Google and Facebook as partners, while Mercedes-Benz hosts a conference under the banner of South by Southwest, the eclectic cultural gathering held in Texas. Rival BMW's programme includes TED Talks-branded presentations.

Anxious not to be outdone, Paris show managers travelled to Las Vegas in January to discuss collaboration with CES, but came away empty-handed; a CES spokeswoman said: "There are no discussions at this time for event expansion into Europe."

Analyst Arndt Ellinghorst of brokerage Evercore ISI commented: "These are attempts to stay relevant in the public domain. The way people consume products and brands is changing - the days when it was enough to lure consumers to shows with half-dressed girls on car bonnets are long gone."

Pop-ups

The modernisation efforts have not prevented Tesla, Nissan or another half-dozen brands from quitting the car-show circuit. For several years, Tesla attended the main European shows before opting out of both Geneva and Frankfurt in 2017 - just as the North American launch of its $35 000 (R450 000) Model 3 makes waves.

"We look for events where automobiles might be less expected," a Tesla spokesman said, citing golf and boat shows as well as a European summer road trip with pop-up Tesla displays along the route. "We can reach a lot of people that way."

Nissan's decision to skip Frankfurt followed a "full review at global level of our event and show strategy to facilitate maximum brand visibility", the company said.

Reports of the car show's inevitable demise have been exaggerated, however. As networking events up to CEO level they remain unmatched, while suppliers and new entrants are already filling gaps left by the patchier presence of some carmakers.

German industrial group Thyssenkrupp is returning after a decade's absence.  Karsten Kroos, head of the company's auto parts division, said: "If the sector is going to change so dramatically we want to be there and show what we can do."

Others skipping this show will be back. Instead of turning up every year, many carmakers simply want to opt in when they have something to announce.

Peugeot brand chief Jean-Philippe Imparato said earlier this year: "A car show is a marketing tool like any other, so it has to provide a return on investment - but that doesn't mean we won't be in Frankfurt again before too long."

Like us on Facebook
Follow us on Twitter