You can add the Geneva auto show to the list of coronavirus casualties. The 90th edition of the annual show, which was due to open this week, was canceled outright, not even postponed, and exhibitors are going to have to sit on their invested costs.
Organizers said they regretted the situation, "but the health of all participants is our top priority." If this were true, they would have taken responsibility for what was clearly a public health risk and canceled the show earlier this week when it was clear the virus had spread to Europe.
Instead, they acted only after Friday's decision by Swiss authorities to ban all major events coincidentally through March 15 -- the precise day the day was due to close its doors.
Once they were released from all liabilities, the show's organizers effectively told exhibitors "sue us" as they knew automakers' chances of victory in court would be slim at best. "For the exhibitors, it's a real bitter pill to swallow since they typically have spent 90 percent of their budget for the fair by the time it starts," one industry source told me.
That's all gone up in smoke now and this could leave lasting damage to the show, whose organizers were already considered by automakers to be rigid, arrogant and autocratic. In other words very much the opposite of customer-centric.
Geneva is a popular show because it takes place just before the start of spring on Swiss neutral ground, but it is not immune to underlying trends that are impacting car shows. Other auto shows have struggled to justify the exorbitant costs involved and have sought to change their format.
The German industry's auto show has traditionally been held in Frankfurt but next year it will move to a new city in the hopes of reversing last year's 30 percent drop in visitor numbers. The Detroit show has changed its dates to June this year from January and the Paris show promises a "radically redesigned event" when its doors open on Oct. 1.
By claiming force majeure in canceling the Geneva show, the organizers shifted responsibility to the Swiss Federal Council. They said public health was at the forefront of their thoughts. If they do not want to reimburse their customers, then they should not claim the moral high ground.
The show's cancelation was not a disaster for all automakers. Brands such as Ford, Opel and Volvo that had already decided before the show that they wouldn't attend avoided the huge costs of preparing their stands. They also will not be missing out on the marketing boost that comes from debuting new products at auto shows.
If the poorly handled cancelation is any indicator, the fallout could mean even more companies will steer clear next year, virus or not.