The National Automobile Dealers Association has opted to make its annual convention completely virtual and move it to February amid uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.
Until last week, when NADA’s executive committee decided on a virtual alternative, the organization had been tentatively moving ahead with plans to host its annual show Jan. 21-24 at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans. The event typically draws tens of thousands of dealers, vendors and other visitors from across the U.S. and other countries.
The virtual show is set for Feb. 9-11 — a rare Tuesday to Thursday schedule.
The coronavirus began its significant spread in the U.S. not long after the 2020 NADA Show in Las Vegas concluded in February. COVID-19 has since killed at least 210,000 Americans and infected some 7.5 million, according to Johns Hopkins University. Globally, it has killed more than 1 million people and infected about 36 million.
The pandemic prompted a series of state and local government orders focused on social distancing to limit spread of the virus.
On Oct. 3, the city of New Orleans moved to Phase Three of its response to the pandemic, which allows more business and restaurant activity but still blocks trade shows.
“If the show were to be this month, we would be prohibited flat-out from doing it,” NADA CEO Peter Welch told Automotive News. He said there was no way to predict where the city will be in its pandemic response come January, just three months away.
NADA had been doing contingency planning for several weeks. It had looked at a hybrid, digital-and-physical option for those unable to or uneasy about attending. Welch said he had heard from an “awful lot of” dealers who were prepared to attend in person.
The organization also spent a lot of time and money researching how to have a safe physical show that would meet U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention standards, he said.
“Our driving concern here is that the decision to have it in person is probably not going to be made by us,” Welch said. “It’s going to be made by government proclamation.”
Welch said registration numbers had been lagging, as many likely were waiting to register at the last minute.
NADA opted to push the now-virtual show to February to allow more time to build the different platforms that will be involved. The group sees attendance possibilities as limitless.
“I think it will be a record number of dealers that will attend it because, obviously, they can stay at home and do it on their desk,” NADA Chairman Rhett Ricart said. The convenience of a remote show should also lead to more automakers including their top executives at meetings, he added.
The association has chosen Freeman, a company it has worked with for previous shows, as its producer. “They have an electronic platform that looks very robust; they’re familiar with us,” Welch said.
For the 2021 show, 62 workshop presenters have been selected and signed up, and they will now present virtually. Participants for the show’s popular Distinguished Speakers Series are being lined up.
NADA is still in discussions with Freeman and another company called Directions AV to figure out the best online approach for hosting general sessions, Welch said. Some events, such as the Time Dealer of the Year Award, will resemble traditional presentations but in a digital format.
NADA envisions franchise meetings will follow their typical 90-minute time frame, with 60 minutes of presentation and 30 minutes of question-and-answer. But automakers will have more flexibility with who presents, how and from where.
For the exhibitor portion, the digital show is being built out to resemble a convention hall. “It’s pretty slick software they have for these things,” Welch said.
Exhibitors will be able to pay for different levels, with varying capabilities and features. The price to attend the virtual show is $199 for a dealer/manager member. Before the switch, the early bird price was $390. Refunds will be issued for the difference, and full refunds will be made to those who opt out of the virtual show.
The group remains hopeful that attendance will be high, given the savings on hotel rooms, airfare and other expenses.
Welch, who is set to retire at the end of December after eight years as CEO of the association, said he had seen a lot of challenges in an industry that is constantly changing, but no one predicted a pandemic.
Welch and Ricart, who serves one year as chairman, acknowledged the disappointment in not having the in-person experience of the NADA Show. Asked whether it felt like he was missing senior prom, Welch said he, like many in the industry, looked forward to the events surrounding the show and reconnecting with familiar faces.
“But guess what? Everybody’s still having a prom,” he said. “They’re just not doing it down at the high school gymnasium this year.”