Why the Iconic Geneva Motor Show Is Moving To Qatar of All Places

At a time when storied auto shows are trying to reinvent themselves to stay alive, one international show is expanding its brand to cater to a growing car culture in the Middle East which is now the fastest-growing luxury vehicle market. The Geneva International Motor Show is adding a second show and venue: GIMS Qatar 2023 and preparations are well underway to welcome the media October 6 and open its doors to the public from Oct. 7-14 in Doha, Qatar.

The move comes as other respected and well-established shows in Paris, Detroit, New York, and Los Angeles have become shrunken versions of what they used to be, and the long-standing Frankfurt Motor Show has been relocated to Berlin in an attempt to jumpstart interest.

Auto shows were already falling out of favor with automakers which were choosing their own time and place to unveil new models and declining to even exhibit at major shows. Add to that the chaos of a pandemic that forced repeated event cancellations, often at the last minute, and companies had more reason to not spend millions on elaborate displays at big shows.

How Did This Happen?

Surprisingly, it was the pandemic that spawned the partnership behind GIMS Qatar. Planning dates back to summer 2020 when the Geneva show became the first major auto event to be cancelled at the onset of the pandemic. Qatar’s Ministry of Tourism contacted the GIMS committee in Switzerland about adding a special edition of the Geneva Motor Show in March 2021 in Doha, Qatar. As the pandemic raged on, and Geneva cancelled its Swiss show for a second year, a larger conversation began. Instead of a one-time show, could they create something new together in Qatar to expand the breadth of the Geneva show’s brand?

Over the course of nine months, starting in August 2020, they hammered out the details and set up a 10-year partnership agreement for five shows in Qatar. The pact was signed in March 2021 with plans for a show in the Middle East in November 2022—but that too was pushed back as the world continued to struggle with the virus.
GIMS CEO Sandro Mesquita knows he is swimming against the tide. “But crisis can create opportunities,” he tells MotorTrend during a trip to Qatar to see the venues and plans firsthand. “Without the pandemic, we likely would not have thought of this partnership.”

No other auto show has tried franchising like this, and Geneva has no plans to expand beyond the Qatar arrangement. “We’re being pragmatic,” the GIMS CEO says.

Geneva Show in Switzerland to Resume

The idea is not to clone the Geneva show which will return in the spring of 2024 after a four-year hiatus and resume its status as an annual show. The Qatar show will be every two years in the fall. The partnership will be re-evaluated after 10 years.

The same GIMS team is doing both shows to create synergies, but the format will not be the same, in part because of the diverse locations and weather—Geneva is a winter show and Qatar is in the desert. One brand, two platforms, says Mesquita who sees it as a way to transform and test new ideas that cannot be implemented in Switzerland, which is not a venue suited for test drives and off-site activities the way Qatar is.

Like the Geneva show, GIMS Qatar 2023 will feature high-end and exotic cars, but in addition to supercars and hypercars there will be mainstream exhibitors, like Toyota which is popular in the Middle East and whose Land Cruisers are ubiquitous on the streets of Qatar. Mesquita expects 40-50 brands to be represented in Qatar with a mix of global and regional new vehicle unveils.

About 40 brands have visited the city and site, and feedback has been positive. Requests are coming in from Asian brands, including major nameplates in China. Automakers have until the end of August to opt in, and site buildup will begin in September.

Some exhibitors will choose to attend both, but Geneva will continue to be a classic and neutral show with vehicle debuts and the latest tech while Qatar will be billed as more of a festival to highlight the region’s car culture with activities across the city and into the desert. Companies can offer test rides and drives on the Lusail International Circuit, home to the Qatar F1 race, and set up desert base camps for off-roading vehicles in the sand dunes of the Sealine area where the desert meets the ocean.
There will be a Parade of Excellence at the end of the show along the 3.7-mile Doha Corniche seaside boulevard -a Middle East take on Detroit’s famous Woodward Dream Cruise. And organizers are working with car clubs on a Concours d’Elegance for the final weekend to showcase the car collections and money in the region.

Qatar Partners All In

The venue is the state-owned DECC (Doha Exhibition and Convention Center) that opened downtown in 2016 with its pillar-free design. There are five halls with 31,215 square feet of space—half the size of the Geneva show. Exhibitors will pay $150 per square meter which is a bit more expensive than Geneva but less expensive than some other shows. Exhibitors can bring their own stand or opt for a plug ‘n play booth all set up and ready to go. Organizers plan to duplicate the layout they use in Geneva with big booths along the walls, small booths in the center, and hopefully similar signs hanging from the ceiling to easily find each company.

Organizers say the Qatar show plans to host 1,000 media but that sounds like a stretch given lower media attendance at other shows post-pandemic. A digital TV channel will also broadcast content to those unable to cover in person. Qatar Airways has also signed on as a partner to help with flights and packages for attendees, but also to ship cars to the country for the show.

The Geneva show team is working with the head of Qatar Tourism on this one, part of an effort to triple the share of tourism to 6 million visitors a year by 2030 in a country that has little manufacturing and relies on tourism to grow employment. The hope is some visitors will come for the 2023 Formula 1 Qatar Grand Prix the first weekend and stay for the show and other activities. The goal is to attract 200,000 visitors for the show—not counting the 120,000 spectators attending the Grand Prix. The city has about 6,000 hotel rooms nearby, most within walking distance.

The Qatar Auto Museum is being created in the old convention center but does not open until 2026. Some of its collection will be on display for the GIMS Qatar, set up in the funky National Museum of Qatar that was designed to look like the petals of a desert rose crystal.

Organizers say 80 percent of the world’s population is within a six-hour flight of Qatar and most attendees will be from Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and other parts of the region with packages to attract people from Europe and other regions. The notable chunk in the 20 percent is North America. It is a long and difficult trip—not all major airlines even go to Doha. Mesquita admits attendance from North America will not be large, but packages are being prepared with flights, tickets to the show, Grand Prix, and other activities included.

Qatar’s visa policy makes it an easy country to enter: 95 countries have visa-on-arrival or are visa-free. Until recently, visitors had to show proof of medical insurance, but that requirement has now been dropped. With cameras everywhere, it is considered a safe country, for women as well as men. English is widely spoken. The modern city that has grown up out of the desert has a good public transit system, tested during the hosting of the FIFA World Cup.

Mesquita says plans are on track and government support has been key. He is optimistic the Doha show will be a success. He sees it as a way to innovate as organizers work to find a way to keep auto shows alive and relevant. “I think we are creating something unique by mixing the show with experiences and F1.”

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