Risa Benson and Katie Connor are used to wowing the audiences at big-city auto shows, but their talents as product specialists now includes walk-around performances at select Lexus dealerships.
A team of narrators took to the road to help Lexus introduce its IS sedan to potential customers. Models supplied the know-how and the wow factor just as they do during their auto-show performances.
“They do a professional walk around the car just like at the Detroit auto show. They mingle with customers, pointing out assets to the car that some of the sales people don't know,” says Bill Morton, general manager of Tom Williams Lexus in Birmingham, AL.
With almost 600 guests attending the IS preview party staged in the dealership's service department, at least 14 vehicles sold within two weeks, enticed by the special appearances.
Benson and Connor mingled with customers, supplying comparison data on similar vehicles and reasons to purchase a Lexus. Morton says the facts rolled out of the specialists like a natural conversation, without the aid of product booklets.
People had salmon pate, tenderloin tips and cocktails in a club-theme, soft-sell environment, which experts say points to a powerful wave of future sales trends.
“We got all our money back, we'd do it again in a heartbeat,” says Morton of hiring the models, showcasing a live band and providing food and drink for prospective Lexus buyers.
Auto show talent — pigeon holed for decades as breathing accessories to the shiny car displays at auto expos primarily attended by men — now play a strategic role in driving car intenders to dealerships where sales are made and where the attendance is pretty even between sexes.
“The men and women you see on turntables at the auto show are enticing and informing without sales pressure. They are the approachable face of the car lines they represent,” says Margery Krevsky, CEO of Productions Plus, a talent agency with Detroit and Los Angeles offices that supply models to 10 different car companies.
Across the country, 24 million people attend shows in more than 70 cities.
Corporate data indicate 65% of show attendees buy a car within 12 months and 20%-25% buy in three months, says Donna D. Walter, manager of Toyota show and exhibits. The capital investment in convention space, set design and models has a direct impact on the bottom line.
“The Internet provides the basic information customers need, but they still need to get in a car, feel it, boil their decision down to three car models, and that's where the product specialists help out,” Walter says. “They are just as comfortable talking about a Tundra pickup payload as Avalon sedan luxury comfort. They are extensively trained.”
Kavita Matani, a product narrator from San Francisco, joined a team of 30 product specialists in Cambridge, Ont., Canada last summer for a week of product immersion. They toured the RX 330 factory, learned comparison information and went on a road rally to experience both rough terrain and city driving.
“When the product specialists leave the training site they are 100% ready for the barrage of questions people ask on the auto show floor,” Krevsky says. Nearly every manufacturer subsidizes the costs of training for the models who tour at least six cities on the circuit.
The sirens of steel, the attractive people who glide on turntables and croon automotive sales pitches like poetry, have been part of auto shows since at least 1915, says Robert Szudarek, author of the book, First Century of the Detroit Auto Show.
“Some paraded up and down the aisles and others (an innovation of up-to-date managers) sold accessories and gave out catalogs,” Szudarek says.
Over the years, auto-show exhibitors turned models into human hood ornaments, perching on the hood of a car for hours in come-hither positions. They recruited beauty queens, ethnic-culture ambassadors, Hollywood stars, fashion models and Olympic competitors to lure wandering show patrons to their square of the show floor.
At its most lavish, more than a dozen buxom beauties, led by fan dancer Sally Rand, simulated the Streets of Paris for Depression-era showgoers in Chicago, according to James M. Flammang and Mitchel J. Frumpkin, authors of World's Greatest Auto Show, Celebrating a Century in Chicago.
In the late 1980s, Krevsky led the movement among modeling agents to transform models from “car babes” in hot pants and evening gowns with plunging necklines into qualified product specialists who are smartly dressed and help entice show patrons to make purchasing decisions.
She says foreign auto makers saw the value in using educated presenters faster than the Big Three because they recognized the growing power of women consumers who would respond to a sales pitch by a woman.
Behind the scenes of the show floor, Vince Salisbury, manager of auto shows for Lexus, spends an hour on opening morning of an auto show instructing product specialists on new design features and reminds the team of the brand focus of each vehicle so they can communicate its essential points.
“We look for product specialists with college degrees, who are well spoken and who have a friendliness and approachability,” Salisbury says.
A turntable presentation lasts five to seven minutes, and then product specialists circulate through crowds answering questions and guiding likely buyers to dealership sales personnel who staff shows.
Few shows have actual purchasing booths anymore, but sales people make appointments and sometimes offer coupons to those who come to the store within a month of the show.
“This is a low-pressure selling environment,” Salisbury says of the show floor. The ease in which customers relate to attractive, articulate sales people led Lexus to design a rolling introduction of the IS in dealerships and community centers.
Dealerships in Charlotte, NC, Richmond, VA, Cleveland, OH and Birmingham, AL set up events with auto show models.
Sandy Nicolazzi of Team One, a Cleveland advertising agency that teamed up with three Lexus dealerships in Cleveland for a launch party for the IS at the Playhouse Square, says model Melissa O'Connell dazzled the audience during its event.
“Melissa knows how to get attention,” Nicolazzi says.
Years of standing before crowds amid blaring videos, bright lights and loud people help hone the delivery to an art form.
A Modeling Agent Tells How to Work the Crowds
Margery Krevsky, owner of Productions Plus talent agency, offers these tips for prospective model presenters at auto shows and, now, dealerships:
- Learn as much about the vehicle line as you possibly can do
Take cars on test drives through a myriad of road conditions, study nearest competitors and read every article and brochure printed on the product you are representing.
- Speak in a conversational tone
Invite people to explore the vehicle. Make it warm, personal and passionate instead of repetitive and thorough.
- Tailor your pitch to your audience
The days of entirely scripted deliveries are gone. Today's top product specialists are improvisational artists who adapt a presentation to the prevailing audience, whether it is to talk about the ease of entering and exiting to a senior crowd, cargo-hauling capacity of a truck bed to blue-collar workers or safety features to young parents.
- Look as attractive as possible
Product specialists are issued two outfits per show that must be dry cleaned daily. They don't eat or nap in their clothes lest the material become stained or rumpled. The crisp outfits from Hugo Boss and Armani, tailored to match the colors of the display, lend an upbeat professionalism to the individuals.
- Suggest before you sell
Adopt the role of transportation counselor empathetic to a customer's needs and purchase options. If you push a product or force an immediate purchase, people may walk away.
- Make it fun
Few sales people encounter the sheer numbers of people who throng a show floor slamming doors, testing radios and asking questions. Keep cool, enjoy yourself and tolerate people who ask the same question over and over again.