Dealerships: Let's Party

When hockey star Sergei Fedorov bought a Ferrari at Cauley Ferrari-Maserati in West Bloomfield, MI, owner Jeff Cauley didn't just hand over the keys to the $650,000 car.

Instead he decorated the showroom and tossed a party for 350 glitterati hailing from sports, entertainment and media world. Champagne flowed all night long.

"This was such a hoop-de-do party we even had people from Italy celebrating the purchase," says dealership spokeswoman Mida Giragosian.

Partying amid Ferraris, BMWs, Jaguars, Subarus, Chryslers and other showroom vehicles is a growing phenomenon.

Dealers seek low-pressure methods of getting people to the sales floor. Beyond parties for top customers, dealers hold wine-and-cheese events to introduce new vehicles.

They also open their stores for area civic events and charity fundraisers. Such hospitality is good public relations. It demonstrates dealers' community involvement - and more.

"Events help get our name out in the community," says Leslie Rhodes, marketing and community relations manager for the World of Erhard, which includes two BMW dealerships and a Land Rover store in metro Detroit. "Every guest is a potential client."

Erhard's three dealerships over the last decade have raised more than $1.5 million through 14 major charitable events. Those include a formal dinner for the National Association of Black Auto Suppliers, fashion shows for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, a gathering of the Jewish Sports Foundation and recitals for talented children.

Several hundred luminaries with coiffed hair and black outfits swept into an Erhard BMW dealership for a launch party to welcome a new publication for upscale adults, Metro Exposure magazine. The dealership converted the parts department into a coat-check room, the reception desk into a martini and wine bar and the showroom into a dance floor.

The lure? Metro Exposure targets male and female 25 to 50 year olds with incomes that exceeds $100,000 a year, the very demographic the dealership desires. In fact, publisher Art Danou is a regular customer.

The dealership worked out a series of free advertisements in the magazine in exchange for hosting the party at its posh two-story, glass-enclosed facility. Party pictures ran in the editorial section of the magazine, in addition to full-page advertisements, increasing Erhard's name recognition.

Opportunities to host events may arrive on a moment's notice. Savvy dealer personnel learn to be fast on their feet.

On a day's notice Molly Padavini, vice president and general manager of Jaguar of Troy (MI), invited more than 100 Jaguar customers, upscale environmentalists and theater buffs to a guest appearance by actress Stephanie Powers, who champions the preservation of big cats in Belize, Guatemala, Costa Rica and elsewhere.

Powers was in town as lead actress in a touring stage production of "The King and I." She sought a way to tout her favorite charity, the preservation of the jaguar and its rain forest habitat. Among her favorite auto industry friends are car dealer Irma Elder and her sons who own Jaguar stores in Michigan and Florida.

"The Elders are actively working to save the jaguars," Powers says. "And Jaguar North America is possibly the only major company that has dedicated itself to the preservation of the very species from which its name derives."

Tossing a party is not as simple at a dealership as at a hotel ballroom or Knights of Columbus hall.

For example, parking can be an issue. Unlike other facilities, cars (in the form of inventory) are already at a dealership before partygoers arrive in their vehicles. Guests can have a daunting time finding parking spaces.

"You have an internal and external logistics challenge, you have to deal with the flow of people in a way that leaves a positive impression on your facility," says Jimmy Whiteside owner of Whiteside Communications Management. It specializes in logistics for large events, including numerous campaign stops for President George Bush last year.

"A gallon of milk won't fit in a quart bottle, nor can 300 cars work inside a lot with less than 50 spaces available," he says.

With 300 guests, he estimates a need for 150 parking spots, more if it is during a business day or appealing to singles, who often drive alone. (See sidebar, above right, for more logistical tips.)

Guests of the Metro Exposure magazine launch at Erhard BMW waited up to 30 minutes in unpleasant weather to get cars retrieved from valets. Some guests parked across the street and traversed six lanes of traffic without a light to avoid the anticipated valet delay.

But Danou says, "Most people loved the event, and barely remembered parking."

Giragosian says the main reason some dealers hesitate to host parties at their stores is the fear of surface damage to showroom cars or that something might be stolen.

"But we've never had a problem," she says "Employees walk around, cleaning up. There are ample tables to place drinks. Guests are usually respectful of the environment, grateful to have a good site for their gathering."

How to Host a Memorable Dealership Party

"If you construct a good plan in advance, you'll reap the rewards," says events coordinator Jimmy Whiteside, CEO of Whiteside Communication Management.

First, work from the premise that no one likes to wait in lines, he says in giving tips for hosting parties at dealerships.

"Attack the philosophy that people will wait if the food or service is good enough," he says. "You want a great experience for your guests."

Here are other pointers for running a smooth event:

Think about the experience. What do you want guests to feel? How will traffic flow around the dealership. What do you need to leave on the floor, what can you do without? What kind of buzz will guests leave with?

Consider the customers. Singles and business attendees tend to come alone, needing double the parking as events drawing couples. Care for various people's respective needs.

Meet more than once with the event organizers to learn a probable crowd count, electronic needs (microphone, loud speakers, Power Point presentation equipment) and what to include in a gift bag. Make sure the gift bag contains literature about the dealership and coupons enticing them to come back for a test drive or discounted oil change.

Hire the best valets. Get referrals from other event coordinators. Companies that specialize in parking know how to shuttle valets from a distant lot to the front door in record time. They seldom lose keys or cars.

Erect more than one food station. If you want crowds to flow around the dealership, moving past your vehicles and displays, put food in strategic spot. If all the food is in one location you may find clumps of people and frustrating lines.

Adjust volume of music. Depending on whether you have an older, sophisticated crowd or young, hip group, match the music accordingly. Either way, remember that people can't converse or network well if the music is blaring.

Hire an event planner. Seek recommendations for planners who deliver favorable results.
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