PLAYING PIGGYBACK: MAKERS COMBINE DEALER TRAINING AND CUSTOMER EVENTS AND GET MORE BANG FOR MARKETING BUCK

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You'd like to stage ride-and-drives for prospective customers, and you need to do something similar for your dealers. So why not combine both? That's what Lexus and Nissan are doing this year. Both companies see the move as a way to squeeze extra mileage from event-marketing programs.

Lexus will use the technique from now until mid-summer to extend the reach of its "Taste of Lexus" series. The program will run weekend sessions in eight major markets, and seeks to woo upscale buyers with gourmet food and test drives that compare Lexus with Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Jaguar, Acura, Cadillac, Lincoln, Land Rover and Jeep.

To leverage its resources, Lexus is combining the consumer event with two-day dealer training sessions. Lexus always has had annual training sessions for dealers, but combining it with a consumer event is a first for the luxury carmaker.

"It's doubling as a training event, and by the weekend we'll take advantage of the setup and convert to an upscale consumer event," said Greg Kitzens, Lexus national merchandising manager.

The Lexus events will take place primarily at local theme parks and event sites. The series was scheduled to begin March 27 in Dallas; from there it moves to Miami,

New York, Washington, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Lexus hatched the program in part to celebrate its 10th anniversary. It expects 2,000 attendees per weekend, including owners and drivers of competitive models. The series aims to refresh owners on what Lexus stands for, while broadening awareness of the company's expanded product line.

Lexus decided a decade ago to pursue its target buyers - 51-year-olds with household incomes of $140,000 - by promoting the lifestyle events they enjoy. In 1998, for example, it sponsored a 30-city tour by rock star Eric Clapton that played to about 1 million fans. The cost to Lexus: About $2.5 million, according to Lance Helgeson, managing editor of IEG Sponsorship Report, a Chicago newsletter that tracks corporate sponsorships.

This year its Lexus Downhill Ski Series, from January through March, combined the company's long-term association with ski maker Rosignal and a new deal with Olympic medalist skier Alberto Tomba. Events were staged in Utah's Deer Valley; Stratton, Vt.; Squaw Valley in Lake Tahoe, Calif.; and Aspen, Colo.

World-class skiers compete in teams or solo for cash prizes. Participants who buy tickets get ski pointers and personal tips from world champ Tomba.

But merging marketing events with dealer training is something new for Lexus. "By teaming up with training, we're getting a terrific impact," Kitzens says.

Nissan agrees

Nissan came to the same conclusion, from another direction. It had set up dealership sales training meetings in about 30 U.S. cities to run from May through late July. Now it plans to invite the public to some venues to view and perhaps drive its vehicles after the training sessions are over.

"We were renting stadiums and setting up these huge displays," says Mike Seergy, Nissan Division general manager. "We said, 'Wait a minute. The hardware is there, and it's costing us a ton of money. Let's send out some invitations and invite the public.'"

Ed Sheehy, director of Nissan marketing, says the company plans to invite about 20,000 customers in total.

"Some of the estimates for these events have gone up to

$10 million; we're looking at a lot lower than $10 million," he said.

Nissan will invite people who have expressed interest in the new Maxima or Xterra by either writing or e-mailing the company through its Web site, www.nissan.com. There will be food and beverage for consumers. The company also may conduct Xterra ride and drives in conjunction with the events.

Combining public-oriented events with dealer-training activities doesn't always work out, of course. But as Lexus and Nissan have discovered, it can be a

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