BEVERLY HILLS Most people hear about a new car through a television
or newspaper ad, then maybe muster the courage to troop into a
dealership to marvel at a model as it were a gleaming sheet-metal
sculpture on the showroom floor.
Then there is Land Rover, which
snagged a French-inspired chateau on a socialite's $125-million estate a
few blocks from Rodeo Drive to preview the new Range Rover to 22
guests. After ogling the vehicle from a chilly patio, they chomped
through plates of filet mignon and Chilean sea bass catered by one of
southern California's top restaurants.
Between the army of chefs,
waiters, valet parking attendants, security guys running around in suits
with wires connected to their earpieces and the lady rolling cigars
during cocktail hour, it's an expensive way to sell cars.
increasingly for luxury automakers, such events are viewed as necessity.
In stark contrast to the largely impersonal, fleeting encounters
between sales person and customer when middle America goes to buy a car,
luxury makers are getting personal with customers. Intensely personal.
host invitation-only dinners, golf outings, art shows or other upscale
events in tony locales. Sales associates deliver cars for test drives
directly to prospective buyer's homes. They write personal notes in
order to maintain contact with those who easily can dash off checks for
cars costing upwards of $80,000 or more.
The goal is to get
customers to buy into a wealthy lifestyle, to become a member of an
exclusive club, not just buy a car in hopes they will keep coming
"The biggest part is understanding these customers," says
Kim McCullough,brand vice president for Land Rover in the U.S. "This
isn't about a TV ad or some Twitter (message) to these people. It's
about good, old-fashioned on-the-ground speaking to them."
practice underscores how intense competition is becoming among luxury
automakers clamoring to cash in the wealthy, the one-percenters who have
managed to become even richer in recent years. While lower and
mid-level luxury car sales were flat or down in October, the upper
luxury segment saw strong sales growth 27.1%, Autodata reports. The
trend has held up all year.
Land Rover's soiree was only the
latest in a string of similar dinners around the country, following
others in New York -- the Hamptons, of course New Jersey, Dallas,
Miami and Chicago. McCullough won't discuss cost, allowing that the
Beverly Hills event was more expensive than the others, but insisting
that it is all money well spent. The dinners are limited to customers
considered "superloyalists," those who have bought at least five Range
Rover SUVs over the years, vehicles that cost more than $100,000.
definitely nice to get some access to their network and expose the
product to them, but the main thing was to able to thank them,"
It isn't alone. Lexus finished with a round of
catered dinners at customers' homes around the country earlier this
year. Mercedes-Benz hosts customers at The Masters golf tournament, at
the James Beard Foundation gourmet dining experience and lets them into
its "Star Lounge" at the Mercedes-Benz FashionWeek runway events in New
Audi has gone straight after show-business executives and
celebrities. It hosted rooftop dinners at a producer's house in the
bohemian Los Angeles enclave of Venice over the summer. To show off its
new line of clean diesel-powered vehicles, Audi hosted a year long
"influencer" program to lure professionals to Hollywood events making
sure to have a chauffeur pick whisk them there in one of their Q7 SUV or
These luxury makers, and others, have begun aping the
longstanding glad-handing practices of the super-premium brands, where
annual sales in the U.S. are often measured one at a time. Not only is
every customer treated like royalty, they sometimes actually are.
treated its 60 guests at the swanky Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance
car show at the revered seaside golf course in Carmel, Calif., last
August to demonstration and dinner prepared by Thomas Keller and his
staff, whose French Laundry restaurant in California's wine country has
often been ranked as one of the nation's top restaurants.
customers "are the most discerning set of people you would ever want to
meet," says David Archibald, president of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars in the
U.S. "They expect a luxury experience...They are fun people to spend
time with. Lifestyle is very important."
That experience doesn't
end with the parties. Archibald says he mails a thank-you note to every
Rolls-Royce buyer, making sure to scribble a few extra personal lines if
he had met them.
It's not just about the car. "What you're
looking ot do is create access to dreams for people," says Kim Airey,
director of operations for Bentley Motors in the U.S. When they come to
events, "it may be the car is not the first priority for them."
why when it comes to these kinds of events, the sell is decidedly low
key. "If you promote yourself, it's rapidly seen as fake," Airey says.
"The hard sales pitch is something we don't want to go down."
at Land Rover's event at the Beverly Hills estate, the new $135,000
Range Rover barely made an appearance. It was parked on a darkened
driveway as guests sipped cocktails on the patio and munched on
tuna-tartare canapes before going inside to a dining room where the
restaurant Chonois on Main has prepared dinner. Eric Johnston, a Land
Rover regional vice president, gave brief remarks inviting guests to
take a gander at the next Range Rover, which will make its official
American debut at the Los Angeles Auto Show in two weeks, but that was
it for cars.
David Schneiderman, a BMW owner who came to the
dinner with his partner Bob, was one of the few who tiptoed down for a
closer look. "It feels great," he enthused, focusing on a 1,700-watt,
29-speaker sound system. "It's pretty luxurious."
They came as
guests of Suzanne Saperstein, a bon vivant who personally oversaw design
of the chateau and surrounding five-acres now on the market for $125
million. A competitive ballroom dancer and former horsewoman, Superstein
says she is not only is thrilled with a series of Range Rovers that she
has owned over nine years, but credits one with saving the life of her
daughter-in-law in a recent crash.
Like others given a chance to
throw a Land Rover party, she was largely in charge of the guest list
and could choose an extra activity for cocktail hour. If it hadn't been
the cigar roller, it could have been bourbon tasting, wine pairings or
the golf-swing analyzer.
Johnston, seated next to her at dinner,
listened intently as Saperstein dished on her sour experiences with a
Maybach, the super-premium failed Rolls-Royce rival sedan that is being
discontinued. She says her repeated problems with the car went unheeded
even when she brought them to direct attention of a top Maybach
executive. By contrast, she praised her Range Rovers,which she buys new
ever couple years, as having been dependable.
That kind of
off-the-cuff feedback is critical, one of the most important reason for
holding dinners with owners. Lexus' Hubble says seven dinners that Lexus
held around the country were a chance for the division's U.S. chief,
Mark Templin, to hear from luxury car owners about what they like or
"So often, the information that Mark Templin gets is in
reams of paper," Hubble says. At the dinners, "he learned things that we
don't ask questions for." Example: A woman at one dinner said that
while her husband is a diehard Lexus fan, she solicited advice on her
next car from their teenage son the family "arbiter of cool." She
ended up buying a BMW.
The Lexus crew was floored. "It was
incomprehensible a kid would get imput on an $80,000 car," Hubble says.
"It was an eye opener." Now, Lexus is trying to look to youths, not only
it core buyers, to make sure they perceive the cars as the perfect
rides for teen idols like Justin Bieber or Katy Perry.
hasn't gotten that scientific. They indicate their more out to simply
thank their owners and hope they keep driving Range Rovers.
"They can pretty much purchase anything they want," says McCullough. "They have been, thick and thin, loyal to this brand."