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Visitors enter the Canadian International Autoshow in Toronto in February, 2006.

Arantxa Cedillo / Veras/The Globe and Mail

It’s official – Canada’s major auto shows are totally cancelled for all of next year, both live and online. They hope to come back in 2022. Best of luck to them.

There are six big auto shows in this country, and this year, only three of them – Montreal, Toronto and Quebec City – squeaked in under the wire of COVID-19 to run as normal. Between them, those three had more than half-a-million attendees, and the largest of them all, Toronto, had about a thousand vehicles on display.

Then, a few days after 70,000 people visited the Quebec City show, COVID-19 closed the country. The Calgary auto show opened on the Wednesday; by Thursday evening, the gates were barred and the hugely expensive process of refunding visitors and exhibitors had begun. Vancouver and Edmonton quickly cancelled their April auto shows.

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If there’s anything positive in this whole pandemic mess, it’s that it has forced many of us to come up with clever solutions to keep going. Five of those auto shows – once-bitten Calgary took a pass – set about creating a fully immersive online experience that would replicate wandering through their halls, seeing the new vehicles on display and basically doing everything except actually letting you touch anything.

But that’s the whole point of an auto show. If we’ve dragged ourselves downtown, we want to sit in the vehicles, touch them, feel them and imagine ourselves driving them. We can already do everything else online just sitting in the bathroom with our phones.

The vehicle manufacturers know this, but only about half the 35 brands normally in attendance were prepared to invest in the auto shows’ shared digital platform, said Jason Campbell, general manager of the Canadian International Auto Show.

“We had put together a unique platform with the developer that was not an off-the-shelf package,” he told me. “It really was a three-dimensional walk-through of an auto show. That really doesn’t exist in any consumer experience, and we felt that was going to be quite groundbreaking, and also the next-best thing to attending the real show.

“That may well be something that is revisited, going down the road. I do believe that even when we go live, there will be a demand for a greater involvement from the digital side.”

It still sucks though. Damn COVID-19.

I made calls to each of the six auto shows to confirm they would have no online show in 2021, but Vancouver and Edmonton were neither answering their phones nor their e-mails, which I’m sure does not bode well. I’m also sure that Campbell is very disappointed the vehicle manufacturers chose to keep their digital marketing in-house and not share space with their automotive competition. However, it’s probably just as well that the shows’ virtual platform will not be able to prove a resounding success. If it had done so, it could have been their death knell.

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Let’s be clear: Auto shows have been in trouble for a while. Back in the calmer days of February, I wrote about how the Frankfurt show was cancelled for its plummeting attendance and about how the New York show was defending itself against a lack of interest from BMW, Audi, Mercedes and Volvo. The New York auto show was scheduled for April but was moved to August. Of course, that was cancelled with all the rest, and the show announced last month it will return in August 2021.

“No other marketing tool supplies automakers with the volume, reach, depth or impact that auto shows do,” said Mark Scheinberg just this week. He’s the president of the Greater New York Automobile Dealers Association, which operates the New York auto show, an event that draws a million visitors each year. “Attendees not only want to look at cars, but they want to be informed and engaged during the experience.”

“Engaged” is a word marketers love. Most of us have the online attention span of a goldfish, or less, but it’s an entirely different thing when we can actually touch and feel the cars that interest us. Like driving itself, it offers actual discovery and individual realization.

If the Canadian shows’ marvelous online platform proved it could indeed replace that tactile experience, then Campbell might as well cancel the current plans to return in 2022.

“Well, we’re hopeful, but nobody has a crystal ball,” he said. “One thing the process has demonstrated to us is that there is a real hunger from manufacturers to do live events again. It’s clearly demonstrated to us that the tactile experience that’s offered at a show to get behind the wheel of a car, to smell it, to touch it, to see what the seats feel like, is really something that can’t be replicated online. That was told to us by many of the manufacturers we talked to.”

So I’m disappointed that I won’t get to wander the virtual halls of the various Canadian auto shows – it sounded like quite something. But I’m relieved to think the loss makes it more likely that I’ll wander the real halls in 2022. I can’t wait.

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