TOKYO — Despite the odds, the beleaguered Tokyo auto show survived the Great Recession, the 2011 earthquake-tsunami in Japan and the rivalry of bigger, bolder shows next-door in China.
But it could not withstand the COVID-19 pandemic.
Organizers of Asia’s erstwhile premium auto exhibition have pulled the plug on the 2021 event and said that the show will be rebranded as the Tokyo Mobility Show in the future.
It marks the first time the show has been canceled since its inception in 1954.
When that next show, under the banner of mobility, might be held is an open question. The show’s organizer, the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association, is considering 2022 or 2023.
The decision was announced on Monday by Akio Toyoda, the Toyota president who also serves as chairman of JAMA. Toyoda has been among the Tokyo show’s top advocates in recent years, pushing to reinvent the event, attract more visitors and restore its former glory.
But the pandemic posed hurdles just too high for the biennial show, last held in 2019.
“We have concluded that it will be difficult to offer our main programs where many visitors get to experience attractive features of mobility in a safe environment,” Toyoda said at a regular JAMA press conference. “The next time, we would like to hold an improved event to be called Tokyo Mobility Show. We would like to ask for your continued support.”
It is important to hold the show in real-life, not virtually, to connect with customers, he added.
“The Tokyo auto show showcases motorbikes, minicars, large vehicles, passenger cars, as well as mobility vehicles of other industries,” Toyoda said. “As such, we would like to prioritize having visitors experience these vehicles in the real world, and we would rather hold the event in the real world, not virtually. So, we have decided to cancel the event.”
Toyoda helped steer a tentative revival of the Tokyo show back in 2019. He set a goal of attracting 1 million visitors, and the 12-day show finished with more than 1.3 million stopping by.
That tally represented a 70 percent surge over the 771,200 who attended in 2017.
Attendance had been falling fast, from 902,00 visitors in 2013, to 813,500 in 2015. Back in 1991, the Tokyo auto show swelled with a record 2.02 million people.
Numerous factors have conspired to make reversing the downward spiral a tough task.
For starters, international participation has tapered off in recent years. The only major global brands participating in 2019 were Mercedes-Benz, Smart, Renault and Alpine, the latter two seemingly out of solidarity with the French brands’ Japanese partners, Nissan and Mitsubishi.
The lack of exotic foreign brands only further undercut the show’s draw power.
But JAMA and Toyoda rallied to reinvent the show and pull in the people with new ideas. The concept was to create an event more akin to a theme park than a traditional auto exposition.
The Tokyo show relied on a full menu of freebie activities to bring people downtown. The hope was they would then cave to buying tickets into the exhibition halls with the cars. Free admission for high school students and anyone younger only helped the push.
JAMA planned to build on that success in 2021. But the pandemic had other ideas.