Luxury automakers woo buyers with perks

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.

But increasingly for luxury automakers, such events are viewed as necessity. In stark contrast to the largely fleeting encounters between sales person and customer when middle America goes to buy a car, luxury makers are getting personal with customers. Intensely personal.

They 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 back.

“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.”

The 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.

“It’s 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,” McCullough says.

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 York.

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 A3 sedans.

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.

Rolls-Royce 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.

Rolls-Royce 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.”

That’s 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.”

Indeed 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 spokeswoman Nancy Hubbell 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 don’t.

“So often, the information that Mark Templin gets is in reams of paper,” Hubbell 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,” Hubbell 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.

Land Rover 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.”