BERNARDINO BECKONS: CALIFORNIA TOWN BUILDS ROUTE 66 CAR EVENT; PLANS MORE ACTIVITIES

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A growing number of municipalities and community organizations are recognizing the power of event marketing to boost tourism and local activities, but few cities have embraced the tactic like San Bernardino, Calif.

In just 10 years, the San Bernardino Convention & Visitors Bureau has built the Stater Bros. Route 66 Rendezvous classic car festival from a few cars parked on a grassy field into one of the nation's largest free-admission events, while also turning a profit through dozens of national and local sponsorships.

"We have no convention center, no tourist attractions and no theme parks, but we need to bring people here to fill hotel rooms and drive business at the local level just like any other city," said Steve Henthorn, bureau executive director, who oversees the organization with the help of a board of local citizens.

DRAWS 600,000 VISITORS

Billed by the California Division of Tourism as one of the state's top events, the four-day Rendezvous drew 600,000 visitors last month, pulling in millions of dollars in revenue for local businesses and hotels.

What's unusual is how the event is owned and operated by the community business organization, which handles the Rendezvous in-house and with the help of thousands of community volunteers, vs. hiring an outside event marketing company to sell sponsorships and manage the event itself.

Targeting blue-collar and middle-income consumers, the event has a strong attraction to retailers and marketers of cars and other mainstream services, event organizers say.

The theme of the Rendezvous is the cars and culture of the 1950s and '60s; a maximum of 2,483 classic cars (the number of miles on Route 66) are allowed to participate. Each auto pays a nominal fee of up to $50.

The San Bernardino organization is now laying plans for two more major annual festivals to be held at other times of the year.

In July 2000, the bureau will help oversee the launch of an international food and music festival in conjunction with the San Bernardino mayor's office, expected to draw thousands of spectators and hundreds of merchants from around the world, including purveyors of food, wine and crafts. A major component of that event will be classic cars from around the world, Mr. Henthorn said.

The bureau also is maneuvering to become the headquarters of many youth soccer and sports events, and recently formed the San Bernardino Area Youth Sports Alliance, a coalition of area parks, recreation areas, schools and public facilities whose resources will be offered to major regional youth tournaments in 2000.

AREA'S FIRST-EVER AIR SHOW

In addition, the area's first-ever air show, developed by the bureau and executed by Airshows of America, takes off this month, with admission fees of $10 for adults and $5 for kids.

Overall, local event marketing efforts are expected to bring in more than $30 million for local businesses next year, Mr. Henthorn estimated.

This year's Stater Bros. Route 66 Rendezvous brought in an estimated $25 million in revenue through 150 corporate sponsorships, Mr. Henthorn said.

The Rendezvous attracted a record number of companies including its title sponsor, the Stater Bros. regional supermarket chain. Other sponsors included Allstate Insurance Co., Anheuser-Busch, AT&T Corp., Bridgestone/Firestone, Coca-Cola Co., General Motors Corp., GM's Chevrolet, GTE Corp., Home Depot, Kmart Corp., Perrier Group's Arrowhead water and State Farm Insurance. Fees, which varied, weren't disclosed.

Events included a golf tournament attended by thousands, a concert by the legendary surf band Jan & Dean, parades, car competitions, and a variety of events for classic car aficionados and families.

Within the Rendezvous, attractions included first-time sponsor Kmart's Open Header Contest, in which car owners were invited to rev up their engines to the loudest volume possible. The winner was determined by decibel-measurers, and first prize was a new engine, courtesy of Kmart's Penske Auto Centers.

FIRESTONE BURNOUT CONTEST

At the Firestone Burnout Contest, car owners were invited to drive onto an abandoned local speedway to "burn out" their tires; the winner was measured by the amount of tire destruction and smoke produced. The top prize was a set of new tires.

"The car crowd is an ideal audience for sponsors because a lot of these people are middle-income people with kids, so they spend a lot of money at retail and they do a lot of work on their own cars," said Jack Boren, director of special events for the bureau.

Coca-Cola provided its soft drinks for sale at concessions, where the soft-drink giant split profits with the bureau and local non-profit organizations. That's how the organizers helped harness the assistance of thousands of local volunteers.

"You couldn't do an event this size without volunteers, but people see how the event produces results for the local community, and we have swarms of people working 16-hour days for free and taking their vacations to do it," Mr. Boren said.

Home Depot sponsored the Cruisin' Kids Town, where thousands of children built their own toys to take home, free of charge. The reality of thousands of kids flocking to one sponsored area is indicative of how big the Rendezvous has become.

"We started very small with one goal: to fill hotel rooms," Mr. Henthorn said, "and now we've gone way beyond that to where we've filled all the hotel rooms

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