As live event audiences go there can't be many more experienced than car dealers. Each time a car manufacturer produces a new vehicle it is unveiled to the worldwide dealer network before anybody else - and always with a healthy helping of high-tech special effects and showbiz razzmatazz.
So you'd think these dealers would be prepared for anything. But if their reaction to last month's launch of General Motors' (GM) new-generation Vauxhall Corsa in Cannes is anything to go by - standing ovations and spontaneous cheering - perhaps they're not.
They certainly weren't expecting a musical based on Cannes' long-standing association with the film industry, which would rival anything running in London's West End. GM Europe manager of marketing operations David McGeorge says he is always mindful to make the most of a venue's virtues and the film theme was too good to be passed over.
McGeorge, the winner of this year's Marketing Event client personality of the year award, knows a thing or two about staging live events in unusual venues. He's been with GM for 36 years and reckons he's helped organise more than 100,000 dealer days. His most recent projects include the Astra launch in Marrakech two years ago and the Agila launch in Spain earlier this year (see box).
The Corsa launch was staged at Cannes' Palais des Festivals and the event kicked off with a champagne reception on one of the venue's most impressive features, a terrace overlooking the yacht-filled harbour. While undeniably pleasant, it seemed a fairly routine experience - until delegates found themselves rubbing shoulders with actors dressed as characters from films such as Rocky, Thelma and Louise and Star Wars. Nigel Lloyd-Jones, managing director of production company HP:ICM which staged the event on behalf of GM Europe, says one of his favourite moments was when a UK car dealer approached Clint Eastwood to say 'I'm not scared of you standing there in your cowboy outfit, half of us here run them'.
From the terrace, delegates were led into the Palais' main circular hall for a gala dinner. The musical show was sandwiched between each course, and each segment was designed not just to entertain, but to convey key messages about the new Corsa. Target customers, dubbed the 'spiriteds', were identified by dance scenes from the kind of films they're likely to watch such as West Side Story and Grease. 'We had dealers in that room aged from 30 to 60 and every one would recognise You're the one that I want,' explains McGeorge. The car's sense of fun was portrayed with Busby Berkeley-style dancing and scenes from The Mask. If any delegates found any of these metaphors hard to follow, all was spelt out on the table menus. The menus were also used to explain the proceedings to delegates if the event was not conducted in their native tongue, bearing in mind that the event drew 12,000 delegates from 50 countries. However, GM and HP:ICM tried to accommodate as many language groups as possible and the shows were held in ten different languages over the 21-day cycle.
The hotly anticipated finale was based on a scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Knowing that most delegates expected the car to be lowered from the ceiling, the entirely white-clad cast finished the set staring skywards. Shrieks of surprise arose from around the room when everyone realised that while their eyes were transfixed on the ceiling the walls of the venue had disappeared to reveal a circle of the new cars.
Delegates were invited to take a good look at the cars before heading back to their hotels to prepare for day two of the launch.
All the cars for the UK delegates had to be re-badged to reflect the Vauxhall marque, instead of Opel the name under which they are sold on the Continent. This was just one of a great many logistical challenges the team had to overcome every day. 'Logistics are very important,' says McGeorge. 'You can put on a great show but if a plane journey is wrong, that's the overriding thing they remember.'
Day two of the event started with a boat ride from Cannes to nearby Frejus where an aircraft hangar had been converted to stage technical workshops and hold a dining hall. It was from here that delegates could test drive the Corsa and take a ride in Vauxhall's new sports car, the VX220, with a professional driver. 'We want to win their hearts on day one and their minds on day two,' says McGeorge. The workshops were kept simple with easy-to-follow demonstrations which covered three areas; safety, handling, and design.
McGeorge believes colourful, visual demonstrations are the best way to get messages to stick in delegates' minds, such as the giant Newton's Cradle used to demonstrate the different levels of impact in an accident.
'We could tell somebody it's safe, but we couldn't put them in the car and crash it, so we used the Newton's Cradle,' explains McGeorge.
And of course the easiest way to get dealers excited about the car is to let them drive it, which turned out to be problematic given that the fuel crisis struck mid-way through the event. However, an HP:ICM insider confided that a lot of siphoning of fuel from one car to another and some 'dubious deals' done with the French meant all the hour-long test drives went ahead as planned.
Bizarrely, some delegates weren't bothered about the car at all. 'We're not really car people,' confided one husband and wife car dealer team from the South of England. 'We just came for the show.' And who can blame them?
Client: GM Europe
Event: New Corsa dealer launch
Venue: Cannes and Frejus, France
A WORLD OF LAUNCHES
Agila, Mallorca, March 2000
More than 4,000 international dealers speaking 17 languages attended the launch of the Agila, Vauxhall's first move into the mini people-carrier market. Part one of the 12-day event was an evening presentation with simultaneous translation on screens throughout. Part two featured a walk-through experience during which a typical Agila customer - 'a pragmatic mother in her 30s' - narrated a typical day in her life.
The venue was the 16th century Son Termens finca in Mallorca.
Astra, Marrakech, February 1998
Some 16,000 dealers attended this three-day event which was pulled together under the concept of 'Under the Skin'. Day one featured a theatre show where tiny 'cyber voyagers' representing the target customers were seen exploring the car. Day two featured technical presentations and a test drive, which took in the dramatic Moroccan scenery. The day was completed with a Moroccan dinner during which the Vauxhall Zafira was unveiled.
The third day was set aside for business meetings.