On Tuesday, Feb. 25, Bentley executives were mobilizing to debut the $2 million Bacalar at the Geneva Auto Show, announcing with the one-of-12 grand tourer their plan to double down on custom cars as the figurehead of the company’s business model.

By Friday, the show was canceled after fears of the coronavirus led Swiss officials to ban gatherings of more than 1,000 people. It was the first time the show had been canceled since World War II. 

So, the 100-year-old car company improvised. Staffers took the journalists they had planned to host at the show on a seven-car driving tour instead. The route started in London, skipped through whisky tastings in Scotland, stopped by an abandoned airport runway for 160 mph-plus pedal-to-the-metal runs, and ended with an intimate dinner and Bacalar debut at brand headquarters back in Crewe, England. The rest of the world watched the unveiling via live video feed. 

“It was one of the best weekends and lessons in versatility I’ve seen in recent time,” says communications head Erin Bronner, who along with her colleague Mike Sayer spearheaded the brand’s efforts to salvage the debut of Bentley’s new cars.

Instead of reinforcing the notion that automotive brands must be present at the customary trade events, the coronavirus looks to be proving the opposite.

“What has happened with canceling the Geneva show has happened against the backdrop of automakers already looking at the alternative platforms for vehicle introductions,” says Stephanie Brinley, the principal automotive analyst for IHS Markit, an automotive research firm. “This gave them an opportunity to test some things out they might not have done this particular year.”

The Gem in the Crown
Geneva was supposed to be immune. Held annually in March since 1905, the show is the most glamorous of the world’s automotive trade shows, the place where such iconic cars as the Ferrari 250 California Spider, Porsche 904, Lamborghini Diablo, and Jaguar E-Type were first seen.

This year, McLaren, Bugatti, and Aston Martin—as well as the European brands Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz—had reserved their glitziest debuts for the event. Historically, thousands of journalists from all corners of the globe descend on Geneva’s Palexpo convention center for three days of news conferences, executive roundtables, and corporate dinners.

But in a social media-obsessed environment, the pillars sustaining the need for an auto show had already started to wobble. Endless press briefings at automotive trade shows were once deemed exclusive but now are streamed simultaneously worldwide. Near-meaningless product embargoes are often broken by influencers, while trained journalists play by the rules.

It’s similar to what’s happened in the fashion industry, where live video streams and the impact of influencers demanding—and being granted—front-row billing at the expense of magazine editors and news journalists has nearly erased the benefit to many brands of holding live runway shows at all.

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