Dealers Get Creative with Event Marketing

Events can be utilized in a dealership’s marketing for a number of purposes—to drive traffic, lay the groundwork for future sales, cultivate new business, generate more repeat business, brand the dealership and increase visibility. With the prevalence of social media today, many dealers would argue that event marketing is more important than ever. Indeed, both social media and event marketing hinge on being able to actively engage and interact with customers, and the two can work hand-in-hand. Efforts can range from the relatively simple to the large and grand, from cost-conservative to “anything goes,” depending on the dealer and what they hope to gain from the event.

The three dealers chronicled below host various creative events and contests, both large and small, and have seen resulting increases in traffic.

Hometown “Idles”
Phil Nightingale, general manager of Mel Hambelton Ford in Wichita, Kan., said that dealership’s foray into the world of event marketing started about three years ago after attending a conference and realizing the dealership needed to become more active in the realm of social media. He and Internet Manager Shannon West decided events would be the best way to increase the dealership’s interaction with the public to not only drive traffic but also provide material to help beef up the store’s social media presence.

They started by getting active with local schools’ sporting events, primarily football and basketball. Nightingale said the dealership sponsors a play-by-play streaming broadcast of each Friday-night game, and before each football game, he arrives on the field in a helicopter (emblazoned with the dealership’s name) to give the game ball to the referee. Then, at half-time on behalf of the dealership, he presents a scholarship to one of the students and donates money to the school’s booster club.

Mel Hambelton Idle Contest
At Mel Hambelton Ford in Wichita, Kan., one popular event held from February through May of 2011 was "Mel Hanbelton Idle," a singing competition modeled after Fox's "American Idol." Over the course of the competition, several events held at the dealership drew audiences of up to 300 people.

Maintaining an active presence at school sporting events actually led to one of the store’s most well-received events to date, the “Mel Hambelton Idle” singing competition, which ran from February through May of 2011. Nightingale explained that following one of the Friday-night games, a couple of students approached the press box and sang the store’s jingle. The students, he recalled, “did a hell of a job singing … It was unbelievable how good it sounded.” On his way to the dealership the next morning, he called the store’s owner, Lisa Hambelton, to tell her about it, and she suggested the idea of a singing competition.

Modeling the contest after Fox’s “American Idol,” the dealership invited people to audition for the competition by composing and singing a jingle for the store and submitting a video through the Mel Hambelton Facebook page. In addition to promoting the contest on Facebook, the dealership got Tim Halperin, a Top-24 finisher on season 10 of American Idol, to shoot a couple of television commercials promoting the competition, and then relied on word-of-mouth and email blasts to further promote the contest. About 90 people came to the dealership to audition live, and several managers served as judges through the preliminaries and semifinals. For the finale event, Halperin and fellow “Idol” contestant Chris Medina served alongside Miss Kansas 2010, Lauren Werhan, as judges for the final eight. The grand prize was a free two-year lease on a new Ford Focus, $5,000 in cash and recording studio time, which went to winner Cameron Bedell.

Nightingale described the event as “a huge success,” and West said they had audiences anywhere from 50 to 300 over the course of the competition.

“As it went farther along, the audiences got bigger, especially when we got down to the quarterfinals and semifinals,” said West. “It just kept getting bigger and bigger. Family and friends of the [contestants] would come and people would bring signs, just like the regular ‘Idol.’ It was kind of neat.” He said he has already gotten inquiries on their Facebook page about the possibility of another competition in 2012, which Nightingale seemed fairly sure they would do.

In August 2011, a few months after the Idle contest, the dealership held its second annual Tailgate Party, another event that evolved from the dealership’s support of local school athletic programs. Performances were given by dance teams, cheer squads, bands and drum corps from 12 different schools, and the dealership had various contests for the students as well as drawings for a turn inside the store’s money machine. The dealership also awarded scholarships to a number of students and gave away money to the schools’ booster clubs. Nightingale estimated there were roughly 3,000 people in attendance at that event.

Events of this scale are certainly not cheap. Nightingale did not give an exact number on cost for the Mel Hambelton Idle contest but said, “We spent a ton.” However, direct return on investment is not their underlying motivation for doing marketing of this kind. “We’re trying to do a whole different way of building our business,” he said. “I feel that … most dealerships look at selling a car today instead of looking at … ‘How do I sell cars in three months, six months, nine months, and the next year?’”

Mel Hambelton Ford Proposal
To help a customer propose to his girlfriend (she'd told him he couldn't get a new truck until she got a ring), Mel Hambelton Ford in Wichita, Kan., set up an area with balloons, roses, candles, cupcakes and the man's new truck, which he knelt in front of to propose.

According to West, “One thing that both Lisa [Hambelton] and Phil [Nightingale] have set as a goal and standard rule is these events are for people to come and have fun.” He added, “The people now know that … when they come here for an event, it’s a fun time.” When those people are in the market for a vehicle sometime in the future, “they come to us because of the fact that they had such a good time and they weren’t hounded when they got here.”

Nightingale also cited the events as not only great for creating visibility and goodwill for the dealership with the public, but also as being good for store morale. “We’re trying to build a huge foundation of strong, loyal employees … Without happy employees, you’re never going to get happy customers. Without loyal employees, you’re never going to get loyal customers. [With] these events, we’re building that.”

In terms of ROI, Nightingale compared these kinds of events to social media. “Facebook, in my opinion, doesn’t sell cars. You build relationships, and when you build relationships, [customers will] trust you. That’s what these events are doing, they’re getting people to the store that have never been here before to see it’s fun and exciting, and when they’re ready to be in the market, guess where they’re going to look.”

While events make up a huge part of the dealership’s marketing, Nightingale acknowledged he doesn’t want to overdo it, adding that they have done as many as three events in a single month before, and handling the planning and execution of each event can be taxing on everyone at the dealership. “The payoff is huge, but … you just wear everybody out.” He is not concerned with over-saturation with the public, however. “That’s the neat thing about our events. We try to hit all different types of people.” The dealership has hosted events ranging from a chili cook-off to a mixed martial arts fight (the latter drew about 4,000 people).

The store even staged a small event to help a customer propose to his girlfriend. She had told him he couldn’t get a new truck until she got a ring, so under the ruse that he had won a helicopter ride while visiting the dealership to look at trucks, the man brought his girlfriend to the store. The store had an area set up with balloons, roses, candles, cupcakes and, of course, the man’s new truck, which he knelt in front of to propose (she said yes). It was actually the customer’s idea, but the dealership ran with it and turned it into a great photo op for its Facebook page.
Facebook is not only used for promoting upcoming events, but also for generating a lot of great PR mileage from events that have already taken place. Every event at Mel Hambelton Ford is covered with plenty of photographs that are posted to the store’s Facebook and Flickr pages. Videos from many of the events are uploaded to the store’s YouTube channel, providing even more exposure. The strategy has worked well for the dealership, which is becoming well-known for its fun events. “I get posts quite often on Facebook asking, ‘When’s the next thing? What’s coming up?’” West noted. “People keep an eye on us to see what we’re doing.”

Sand, Safaris and Daisy Dukes
One dealership that is already well-known in its area for the events it holds is Franklin Sussex Auto Mall in rural North Sussex, N.J. Events are an integral part of the dealership’s marketing strategy. General Manager Bill Snouffer said they try to do some kind of event every month. The month of July, for example, means a beach party at the dealership every weekend, complete with palm trees, beach chairs and truckloads of sand. “We fill the whole front of the dealership up with sand,” he said, adding that things like dunk tanks, treasure hunts and sandcastle-building contests are also incorporated into the beach parties. The staff members wear shorts and Hawaiian shirts, and there’s music and a barbeque every weekend. The event is a popular one with area residents. “It’s crazy, but they’ll actually come and sit on our beach and just hang out,” he said, adding that in terms of sales, July is “a pretty good month for us every year … That beach party seems to work well for us.”

Another event that has proved successful for the dealership for several years is the Safari of Savings event held each September. The safari theme runs in the showroom all month, complete with salespeople in khaki pants and pith helmets on the weekends, and visitors can sign up for a chance to win a trip to Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The month-long theme culminates in a one-day event Snouffer described as “one of the cooler things that we do here.” He said they actually fill the showroom with animals like mountain lions, kangaroos and monkeys, with the help of a nearby animal sanctuary. The day is filled with giveaways (including the Animal Kingdom trip), music, a barbeque, camel rides and a reptile show presented by a personality from the animal sanctuary known as “Urban Tarzan.” Snouffer said, “We’ve had some crazy experiences doing it … It’s a pretty fun day. We’ve done that every year for probably the last 10 years.” It’s also a profitable day; the store typically sells 25 to 30 vehicles on the day of the event.

Franklin Sussex Auto Mall
During a reptile show at Franklin Sussex Auto Mall in North Sussex, N.J., Urban Tarzan (AKA John Brennan) is shown here holding an adult Alligator Snapping Turtle alongside Bill Snouffer, the dealership GM, holding a baby Alligator Snapping Turtle. The show is part of the dealership's month-long Safari of Savings, held each September.

Another huge draw for Franklin Sussex is its Hazzard County Fair in August. The centerpiece of the event for three of the last four years is an appearance by actor John Schneider, who portrayed Bo Duke on the 1980s television show, “The Dukes of Hazzard.” Snouffer said the idea came about a few years ago after Schneider’s agent purchased a Dodge Challenger from the dealership; part of the deal was for the agent to get the actor to visit the store.

During the event, Schneider spends the entire day at the store meeting fans and signing autographs, and the dealership has giveaways all day long as well as a Daisy Duke look-alike contest. Snouffer said people bring classic vehicles restored to look like the vehicles used in the TV show, the most popular being the General Lee, a 1969 Dodge Charger. He said he hadn’t realized before just how large the fan base is for the TV show and said the event always gets “a huge turnout.” He described Schneider as “one of the nicest guys you’d ever do business with” and added, “His car knowledge is incredible… and [he] knows a lot about Dodge, so that kind of fits perfect for us.”

Although they do sell during many of their events, Snouffer agreed with Nightingale’s view that event marketing is not necessarily about getting a direct ROI. He said, “I think you have to be a little more broad-minded and maybe look a little further down the road ... I think even through the recessionary periods this dealership did not get hurt that badly because of the returning customer base and the consideration we get because of the nice things we do.”

Snouffer believed most dealers won’t spend their advertising budgets on these kinds of events because they aren’t able to determine an exact ROI. “If they’re not able to measure the return on investment of the expense, then they don’t want to spend that money, but we’ve found here that it really has worked for us.” He mentioned by way of example the dealership’s annual Halloween party, which has food, music and costume contests for all ages with prizes like TVs, iPods and Xboxes. “We usually get three to four hundred people [who] show up for that event every year,” said Snouffer. “You can’t measure your ROI on that,” he said. “The general public … might not buy a car the day of the event, but when they’re in the market for a vehicle they will consider me. I think the events help build consideration on the consumer’s part.”

It’s up to the dealer to decide what kind of event suits their dealership, and it can depend on the type of image they wish to project as well as the demographic they serve. Snouffer said the casual atmosphere that goes along with most of his store’s events fits the area well. “We’re in very rural Sussex County, New Jersey. It’s a very country-type location and I think it fits well for my demographics, the dress-down type of atmosphere that’s in my showroom.”

ROI on a Kickoff Return
Of course, events certainly don’t have to be done on such a grand scale or be terribly expensive in order to be effective. When compared to the large events described by Nightingale and Snouffer, the events held by Mastria Auto Group in Raynham, Mass., are relatively conservative and less expensive, but they have nonetheless yielded success for the dealership.

Over Labor Day weekend in 2010, the store held a promotional event wherein anyone who purchased and took delivery of a vehicle during the holiday weekend would receive a $5,000 rebate if the New England Patriots scored a touchdown on a kickoff return in the opening game of the season. While the odds were decidedly in the dealership’s favor, that very scenario played out in the Patriots’ first game, and 33 of Mastria’s customers walked away winners.

Mastria Auto Group
In 2010, 33 customers who purchased a vehicle over Labor Day weekend from Mastria Auto Group in Raynham, Mass., each won $5,000 from a contest dependent on the New England Patriots scoring a touchdown on a kickoff return in the season opener. The dealership held a large party featuring Brandon Tate (pictured above signing autographs), who scored the touchdown.

This wasn’t a problem for the dealership, however, which had insured the venture with a promotions company and was covered for the $165,000 tab. The cost to insure the kickoff-return rebate, according to Mastria’s marketing director, Michele Scaife, was nominal and the promotion delivered a small uptick in sales that weekend over a typical three-day holiday weekend. She described the promotional event as a good closing tool. “In some ways, what it was really good for was to help close people that were on the fence [about] buying,” she stated.

It was also useful for generating good publicity. The dealership held a large party at its Nissan store featuring the Patriots player who had run the return for a touchdown, Brandon Tate, as the guest of honor. He presented the winners with their checks and signed some autographs for the public. The dealership also invited the local youth football team it sponsors and presented the team with a $500 check.

Scaife said they ran the promotion again for another game later in the season but did not see the same success. She speculated that it was too soon after the first promotion. “It could’ve been that [people thought], ‘What are the chances of it happening again?’” she said, adding that they might try the promotion again in the future but not soon. She felt it might be more successful in a subsequent run if more time is allowed to pass since the first promotion. Regardless of the results of the second attempt at the kickoff-return promotional event, she said the initial event was definitely justifiable in terms of ROI.

Another event Mastria held recently was its Car Care Event, which is directed at the store’s existing customers for the purpose of generating incremental business. In addition to free food and drinks, visitors could register for the chance to win a flat-screen TV. “We had trade appraisals and free dent-and-ding estimates, which we tied in with the service mailer that we do quarterly anyway, so it was just a little something to entice people to come in,” she explained. The event allows the store to pick up some extra dent-and-ding repair business and persuades a few customers to trade in their vehicles for something new. Best of all, Scaife said, “It really wasn’t something that cost a whole lot of money to run.”

Vol. 8, Issue 12

Kimberly Long

Kimberly Long

Assistant Editor