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Walking around the North American International Auto Show this week, it’s very clear the role of auto shows is changing.

For one, there appears to be far fewer journalists showing up because there are far fewer new vehicles making their debuts. At one time media previews took two full days and at least a couple of nights with more than 50 vehicles making their world or North American debuts. This year in Detroit? Barely 30 as several automakers simply sat this one out.

Another trend is less physical “stuff” and more virtual experiences leave the show floor feeling less crowded, and maybe on first pass, less active and exciting.

Where space on the Cobo Center floor was once at a premium, this week large, dark, almost empty spaces could be found near the rear of the hall. One large area once dedicated to an automaker, was filled with vehicles and signage from a company that customizes vehicles.

The issue is, auto shows have been playing catch up for more than a decade. At one time vehicle reveals during media preview days were just that. When the satin sheet came off the vehicle it marked the car or truck’s actual introduction to the world. But for years, automakers have become much more savvy about avoiding the competitive noise of real-time vehicle introductions during an auto show.

With few exceptions, auto companies invite journalists to embargoed previews of the products they plan to reveal several weeks, or even months, ahead of the shows. Reporters gather all the information, interviews and images they need to produce a well-rounded story that is released on the day of the actual reveal. So much for the big auto show surprise.

The 1990’s and early 2000’s were heydays for big, expensive, auto show reveals, often featuring a celebrity (fun fact: Franco represented the North American International Auto Show from 1997 until 2003). The shows were fun, but often out shined the vehicles they were meant to showcase. Reporters who covered the 2006 NAIAS may remember the stunning Chrysler brand extravaganza featuring the Russian clown troupe, Slava’s Snow Show, culminating in thousands of bits of paper simulating snow being blasted by wind machines into the audience. The result was, the show was memorable, but the vehicle it unveiled, the Chrysler Aspen, is largely forgotten. Those types of reveals all but vanished as budgets tightened during the recession and the advent of social media.

Indeed, several automakers have figured out it makes little sense–commercially or economically to take the wraps off a new vehicle at an auto show. Ford Motor Co. famously unveiled the 2011 Ford Explorer on Facebook.

Consumers don’t even have to wait for media reports from auto shows anymore with live social media posting from the floor and even live webcasting of the full reveal programs by automakers. Those methods are not only cost-effective, but provide pipelines for valuable instant feedback on a new vehicle from the public.

Auto companies are also holding their own unilateral events going directly to consumers, or staging their media programs at sites away from actual show floors.

Where auto shows still serve an important purpose, no matter the season, is providing the chance for shoppers to hop in a vehicle, or even drive it, without the pressure they may feel in a showroom. That ability is translating into sales. The National Automobile Dealers Association says 25% of what it terms “12-month intenders” make a decision on which vehicle to buy after attending an auto show–almost one-million purchase decisions or 7% of all U.S. retail sales.

Even Ford President of Global Markets Jim Farley echoed these sentiments when asked about the future of auto shows in the final question at last night’s Automotive News World Congress.

So what’s next?

Detroit’s auto show will take a bit of a breather when it closes and re-emerge in June, 2020, re-imagined with outdoor displays and experiences for attendees. It’s hoped the combination of nicer weather and opportunities to drive some of the new cars, pickup trucks and SUVs will bring out the crowds…but it’s still unclear if it will spark the automakers to bring out their newest wares.

How are you preparing for the changes to come at NAIAS 2020, and other auto shows and related events as they continue to evolve?

Ed Garsten is an Integrated Media Consultant at Franco. Contact Ed at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @EdGarsten ‏

Tina Kozak is Franco’s President. She can be reached at [email protected]. You can follower her on Twitter @tinakozak.