NADA ought to think virtual for 2021 show now


The 2021 NADA Show must go on — but it may be time to declare it virtual only.

As the coronavirus continues to spread, National Automobile Dealers Association leaders are weighing whether they can safely gather Jan. 21-24 in New Orleans. It isn’t looking good. In recent weeks, more in-person industry events have been canceled — including the CES tech conference set for a scant 15 days before the NADA Show.

Even the event NADA leaders had been watching for how to safely stage a conference is now off.

It seems best to embrace reality now and use the next five-plus months to put together a robust online event.

NADA says it is working on a contingency plan should the in-person convention be canceled. But it’s hard to build out an online program that breaks new ground while still planning a conventional gathering.

When the association in June committed to an in-person event, NADA Chairman Rhett Ricart said the pandemic has added to the importance of the show as “there has never been a more complicated time to run your business.”

It’s a good point. But the extraordinary circumstances the industry is facing also make large gatherings dangerous.

Will dealers, automakers and vendors really want to send employees to an event that normally has attendees grouping shoulder to shoulder, crowding the show floor and frequenting packed restaurants and bars? Many companies have travel restrictions in place that are likely to roll into next year.

NADA has recognized the concern, already outlining on its convention website measures intended to reduce risk such as decreased attendance, mandatory wearing of face masks in the convention center and wider aisles as part of a spaced-out show floor. The American Truck Dealers, a division of NADA, already has announced its annual show will not be held in 2021.

The convention is NADA’s biggest annual moneymaker. A virtual event no doubt will mean lower revenue. But the association has a hefty bank balance — $253.5 million in net assets at the end of 2018, according to public filings. NADA’s expo/convention revenue for 2018 was $18.5 million. For the safety of everyone who would attend, NADA can afford to take a year online.

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