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The art of the deal: courting high-end car buyers

The Porsche Roadshow 2009 targeted 350 prospective customers from across Canada.

Paul Giamou/Porsche

A small, surprisingly heavy package arrived at my door a few days ago. I peeled away the wrapping to find a box that looked like an elongated version of the one I used for my wife's engagement ring. Inside was an object designed to melt a machinery buff's heart - a black carbon-fibre pen with machined silver end caps and the heft of an expensive car component.

There was also a hand-written note from the president of BMW Canada. I was getting a first-hand look at the way an elite car company woos a potential buyer - the note and the beautiful pen were just two small parts of a fine-tuned sales choreography.

A week earlier, I had spent a day at Mont Tremblant raceway doing laps in its new M3 coupe. I zoomed around the track, focusing on the M3's handling, butter-smooth gearbox and perfectly formed seats. I'd never given the M3 serious consideration before. Now I was, bank balance notwithstanding.

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I had been introduced to the seductive choreography of a high-end car sale, where elite manufacturers play Casanova to well-heeled buyers. I was there among a dozen potential customers in Tremblant for The M Experience, a day designed to make a driver fall in love with the BMW M3. My companions included CFOs, physicians and entrepreneurs whose names had been culled by BMW from a variety of sources, including country clubs and the customer lists of a private jet charter firm.

Now we were being pitched, but this was a far different process than the one you endure at a car lot - there was no oleaginous salesman, no fluttering plastic pennants and no closing room. Instead, there were fast laps, a catered lunch and a really smart BMW engineer dissecting the finer points of the M3, including the carbon-fibre roof panel: "Takes out 30 pounds," he explained. "Doesn't sound like a lot, but it's up high, so think about what happens when you're braking or turning, and you take that mass out so far away from the roll centre."

As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, the rich are different than you or I. Now I was learning how the elite auto makers sell them cars.

A team of assistants prepared the M3s before our track session, and we were handed bottles of designer water as we exited the car. We got to drive fast on a beautiful racetrack, and could even sample the competition - BMW had brought along an AMG Mercedes and a Porsche 911 for us to drive and compare.

Each of the participants would leave Tremblant with golden memories of a day of speed and engineering geekery. A week later, we would all receive one of those beautiful pens with the BMW logo discreetly milled into the band. It was like getting a flower after a memorable date that might or might not lead to marriage. (The pen has been donated to The Globe and Mail's employee United Way drive.)

Based on history, high-end manufacturers expect that 10 to 20 per cent of the participants at an event like the one I attended will go on to buy a vehicle. But even if a couple of us bought a new BMW, the event still looked a risky investment for the company - it had brought in driving instructors, engineers, two trailer loads of brand-new cars, and footed the bill for everything from catered food to first-class airfares. I asked Kevin Marcotte, BMW Canada's director of marketing, how he could justify the expense.

"We appeal to a specific demographic," he told me. "This is part of selling our brand to them. All car buyers use their head. All car buyers use their wallet. But in this segment, there's a lot more emotion involved - the high-end buyer is more interested in buying with the heart."

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But as I soon learned, there's more to it than that. Another goal of these exclusive events is what's known as a "conquest sale" that converts a customer from another brand. I had the theory explained to me by Bruno Lucarelli, a car industry consultant who helped set up eBay's online car sales division.

"A conquest sale can mean millions down the road," Lucarelli said. "You can create a lifetime customer, and sell cars to everyone that customer knows. There's a lot at stake."

High-end buyers typically buy a series of vehicles from the same manufacturer, and often act as brand ambassadors, influencing others to follow their lead. So the key to selling a luxury car brand is identifying this small yet critically important group of well-heeled enthusiasts. Now I was starting to understand why BMW had brought along the competition's cars. It knew that many of us probably liked Mercedes or Porsche. Now it wanted to convert us to BMW and close a conquest deal that could result in a long series of future sales.

"Let's say you're Mercedes, and you're running a hospitality tent," Lucarelli explained. "You don't want to hear 'I'm a Mercedes guy. I love Mercedes.' What you really want to hear is 'I'm an Audi guy,' or 'I'm a BMW guy.' Those are the ones you're looking for. That's where you grow your brand."

The event at Tremblant is typical for an elite manufacturer. Last year, Porsche Canada rented Mosport race track for two weeks and flew in 350 potential customers from across Canada, all expenses paid. Twenty new Porsches were brought in from Germany, accompanied by a team of elite driving instructors who coached their guests in the art of driving a Porsche fast. At the end of the day, the prospects decamped to the Soho Metropolitan hotel in Toronto, where they were wined and dined, all courtesy of Porsche. A professional photographer recorded the entire event, and gave each participant a disc of images.

According to Porsche spokesman Laurance Yap, 14 per cent of the participants bought cars (a number that is referred to as "conversion rate.") But selling 50 new Porsches was just the tip of the iceberg - the company had minted a new legion of Porsche ambassadors.

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"It was worth it," Yap said.

Courting the high-end purchaser has always involved an elaborate set of rituals that are aimed at creating an ongoing relationship. Lucarelli's father, for example, was a diehard Cadillac fan. For more than a decade, the local dealer would call him to announce the arrival of new models, and invite him in for a viewing and test drive. An Aston Martin dealer in Lucarelli's area invited prospects to horse races and art shows. Mercedes set up a hospitality tent at Far Hills, a private racetrack where wealthy enthusiasts go to lap their cars.

Lucarelli wasn't surprised by any of that: "If you don't connect with the high-end customer, another company will," he said. "And that's not what you want."

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