While interactive displays are extremely popular with visitors, the biggest value of the shows is that they stimulate shopping, Puffer said. Research shows that local dealership foot traffic increases up to 20 percent in the month the show takes place and in the following month as well, he said.
"It's a piece in the marketing wheel, and there's a lot of ways you can find out about new products," he said. "But the shows are very important to our dealers."
Toyota Motor North America said in a statement that it has participated in around 70 auto shows across the country annually over the past five years, although the number can fluctuate a little. While the media component of big auto shows is less relevant with digital alternatives, the consumer aspect remains important.
"Budgets have been a challenge," Toyota said in the statement. "We built new auto show kits two years ago that were more modular, allowing us to have more flexibility with what we display. The new kits also help us to be more efficient with spend, especially when press conferences are involved."
Toyota's show participation has also been changing during COVID.
"The landscape will look different with wider aisles, temperature checks, etc.," the company said. "Some shows are moving to outdoor venues and/or planning their shows for spring and summer dates, which is the traditional off-season for auto shows."
General Motors said in a statement that it does not participate in a set number of consumer shows each year but continues to see them as an important driver of vehicle sales.
"Regional auto shows are important to GM and our dealer network," the company said. "We will continue to monitor the consumer interest in events and exhibits as we craft our strategic plans for 2022 and beyond."
Hyundai Motor America said it is looking for the right time to jump back into the show circuit this year or next.
"Hyundai has always found regional auto shows effective at building awareness, consideration and reaching in-market buyers," the company said in a statement. "We will be prudent about participating at any auto show or large public gathering for the time being."
Several automakers and show organizers made the point that auto shows are the only place where potential buyers pay to see the product. That in itself is a powerful indication of their value.
"They drive up to an hour," Foresight Research's Stommel said of show visitors. "They pay for parking. They pay for overpriced concessions. They spend five hours on average on the show floor, all to attend what amounts to one long car commercial.
"So there is certainly value from the customers' perspective."