A majority of Americans today favor SUVs, but the category covers a lot of ground. Most are crossovers built on car platforms with no serious off-roading prowess. But a select few are serious when it comes to getting off the beaten path, and carmakers want their customers to know that. What to do when all SUVs basically look alike? For Land Rover, the answer is Experience Centers all over the world, where customers and would-be customers can get down and dirty with the vehicles. The three driving school locations in the U.S. are Asheville, North Carolina; Manchester, Vermont, and Carmel, California. In Canada, there’s one in Quebec.
The venues are definitely upmarket, as are Land and Range Rover buyers. The Asheville location is the 1895, 250-room George Vanderbilt “chateau” known as The Biltmore Estate. It is set on a whopping 8,000 acres, and when guests aren’t off roading they can be tasting wines, fly fishing or getting spa treatments.
In Carmel, guests stay at the luxury, 850-acre Quail Lodge and Golf Club, which also hosts car events during Monterey Car Week. The Vermont host is the Equinox Golf Resort and Spa. The Experience isn’t cheap. One-hour of driving a new Land Rover with one-on-one coaching from an instructor (and up to three of your people in the car) costs $275. A half-day adventure is $850, a full day $1,200 and two days with 12 hours of customized coaching is $2,400.
Other Land Rover Experience Centers are in China, Russia, the Middle East, South Africa, Scandinavia and the U.K. There are eight of them in continental Europe.
“The Experience Centers are managed out of the marketing department along with other test drives and live opportunities to explore the vehicle line up,” Michael Curmi, Director of Brand Experience for Jaguar Land Rover North America, told MediaVillage during a recent interview. “We accommodate current owners looking to better understand and utilize their vehicle capabilities or research their next purchase.”
Owners can’t miss the Experience Centers, Curmi continued. “During Owner’s Days, they can bring their own vehicles and we provide the off-road course and trained Land Rover instructors. As part of their ownership package, each new Land Rover buyer receives an offer to attend an Experience Center. Would-be owners make up the largest portion of guests. Some are researching their next purchase and others are out to have a fun adventure. We also accommodate corporate team building activities and retreats.”
Does it work as experiential marketing? “Our best gauges are the plentiful smiles, thank-you letters and repeat guests,” Curmi said.
Automakers do this kind of thing because, frankly, it works. “The schools are a profitable enterprise that also serves a bigger purpose: selling new vehicles,” reports Car and Driver. Buying a car is an emotional experience, made with the heart, not the head. If customers associate a particular car with a lifestyle they either already enjoy or aspire to, the vehicle -- regardless of its actual qualities -- will gain in their estimation.
The same impulse leads automakers to exhibit at classic car events, such as the upcoming Greenwich (Connecticut) Concours d’Elegance in June. In 2017, LR enhanced the experience at the centers by adding a fleet of older Defenders. That idea came from Kim McCullough, Jaguar Land Rover’s Vice President for Marketing in North America, who saw it as a way of promoting the company’s 70th anniversary in 2018 with some vintage stardust.
“We have a younger, very affluent demographic right now,” McCullough said. “It’s [on average] early ‘50s and, depending on the product, the income can be quite high. We have been able to maintain that over the years and would like to be able to continue that combination of youth and affluence.”
The associative impulse leads automakers to sponsor everything from golf to polo. One Land Rover promotional video associates the brand with a family that raises horses for polo and dressage. “We are a Land Rover family,” they say. Here’s the video:
The Experience Centers work for carmakers, but also for dealers who can use them as convincers for wavering buyers. Land Rover owners get a 10 percent discount, and that reinforces their brand loyalty.
Do other automakers do this kind of thing? Of course they do. Porsche (which benefits from cult-like loyalty) operates the Porsche Experience Center Los Angeles. Consumers are asked to come and put the “fun” back in their tax refund. The center is all-Porsche, not hosted at a resort. There’s even a restaurant with happy hour.
In a smart move, drivers of any kind of car are invited to “The Morning Shift” on the first Saturday of each month and can bring their own car of any make to the track. Free coffee is part of the deal. While there, these car enthusiasts are going to get soaked in all things Porsche -- and maybe switch brands.
Some automakers, including Karma, are calling their showrooms “brand experience centers,” but that’s just marketing gobbledygook unless actual driving (on the track or off-road) is part of the package. The old “spin around the block” isn’t enough to sell cars these days.
In a corollary to how the Experience Centers operate, companies like Land Rover invite journalists from around the world to drive the new vehicles in exotic corners of the world. The location enhances the drive and leads (the brand hopes) to better write-ups. Land Rover recently brought 20 waves of journalists (including me) to Athens, Greece for the Range Rover Evoque.
The package is surprisingly similar -- overnights at resorts, drives along scenic roads, excursions on the track. The difference is that the company subsidizes the journalists and makes the public pay. But the payoff is oceans of ink in all the world’s languages.
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