When Honda Started talking to potential partners that could execute a roadshow for its new Fit vehicle, it wasn't looking for one company to create a strategy, another to handle logistics, a third to build the training curriculum and testing, and another to get its message online. The RFPs went to event management companies that could handle all that and more.

David Heath, Torrance, Calif. — based senior manager of sales communications at American Honda Motor Co., put his set of objectives out to bid with a budget attached. He was confident that the creativity would flow despite the enormity of the task.

Heath needed two simultaneous roadshows — one on the East Coast, one on the West Coast — landing in 21 cities over a six-week period beginning in March. The events would train dealers on all aspects of the Fit, a Honda subcompact first launched in Japan, before consumer marketing rolled out.

The roadshow would bring the Fit (marketed under the name Jazz in Europe and some other parts of the world) to 7,000 sales consultants — about 60 percent of the sales force — while an online component would offer post-roadshow testing and training materials for those who couldn't be there. Heath needed a partner that could execute the logistics as well as collaborate on the strategy and training design. “It was too large to do in-house,” he says. “We manage the project by managing the vendor.”

Meet the Challenge

Several event companies gave their best shot at winning the project, but in the end, the roadshow went to Campos Creative Works Inc., a 13-year-old event company based in Los Angeles.

Headed by President and Creative Director Julio Campos, the company got its start serving the high-tech market but began diversifying into automotive events at just the right time. In 1999, before the tech bubble burst, Campos landed a Lincoln-Mercury event, and since then has been the engine behind an array of conventions, product launches, and other events for major car companies such as Toyota, Volkswagen of America, and Land Rover. Not to mention Honda: CCW orchestrated the 2003 sales training roadshow for the Honda Element. Campos has a staff of 30, as well as 40 “permalancers” who fill out the ranks depending on the project.

Honda had three broad goals for the roadshow. Naturally, Heath wanted salespeople to walk away with a better understanding of the car's features and its audience. Second, he wanted to create a positive buzz. And third, he wanted his dealers “to work more efficiently with their Gen Y customers.”

Aimed at young, entry-level buyers as well as fuel-conscious drivers, the Fit is selling to an audience that Honda hasn't served in a while. The company's Civic brand once filled that niche but has gradually moved up in price and features. Reasserting itself into the first-time-buyer market with the Fit, Honda is far from alone. When the car rolled into showrooms last month, it already had a large number of “economobiles” to compete with, including Toyota's Scion xA, Kia Spectra5, and Chevy Aveo, as well as several new faces. Toyota Yaris, Dodge Caliber, and Nissan Versa are all launching with the 2007 model year.

A challenge for the training event was to differentiate the car from the pack, especially when the Fit's exterior is very similar to its competitors. While the car will compete aggressively on its safety features and its creative use of interior space (the marketing campaign has a picture of a llama in the car), salespeople have to connect to that Gen Y audience.

Many Hats for Campos

Knowing that the training curriculum needed to be as much about the customer as the car, CCW put on its market research hat. They found, interviewed, and videotaped 35 people who fit the demographic and psychographic profile of a Fit buyer. They asked them their views on going to a car dealership and filmed them interacting with the car. Without using actors, the videos showed how Gen Y buyers' “‘BS meter’ is wound much tighter” than older buyers', says Campos, and how they value authenticity. The videos, which became the centerpiece of the roadshow's opening training session, Campos says, were intended to “shake up the sales consultants a little bit.”

While CCW was researching the Fit buyer, it also had attendee marketing on its mind. Sales consultants are not required to come to the roadshows, so they needed to be reminded and reminded again. Campos created a mailing that went out in February, followed by a campaign of e-mails every two weeks. The training Web site, which Campos built with games and quizzes intended to be both entertaining and educational, also went up in February. Visitors who registered were eligible for prize drawings.

Wearing yet another hat, the CCW team had site selection to contend with. They needed a location in each city with enough asphalt to create a driving course and enough indoor space for the training sessions — and to have a car on display. Hotels and expo centers with extra-large parking areas were the first places considered, but county fairgrounds and stadiums with indoor facilities were also in the mix. Each roadshow moved from city to city with as many as 18 cars in tow — the Fit and its competitors — as well as a truck loaded with décor, training materials, and audiovisual equipment. “Creativity is one thing, execution is another,” Campos says. “There are just so many variables with an event like this.”

All Revved Up

The Fit roadshow spent one to two days in each of the 21 cities, depending on the number of sales consultants in the area. Two sessions were held each day, each with room for 125 people.

Once attendees arrived and registered, they viewed “lifestyle boards” illustrating the psychographics of the target 16- to 34-year-old buyer — their values, buying preferences, the technology they use — and then headed to the opening session. Here Campos' real-people videos further introduced the seller to the buyer and offered an introduction to the car.

Four workshops followed: an in-depth look at the buyer, an explanation of how things work in the car, analysis of the competition, and a chance to get behind the wheel. CCW's responsibilities included designing road courses that highlighted the strengths of the Fit and gave salespeople a chance to “let it out a little,” Campos says. “These are car people.”

Over the course of the half-day event, an audience-response system measured attendee learning. And Campos-trained facilitators gave away “Fit Bucks” as part of a participation incentive that rewarded attendees with hats, T-shirts, and bags. The top point winner for the session walked away with an iPod Shuffle.

Honda is judging the success of the roadshow on several levels. Initially Heath will look at the evaluations. Did the attendees find it beneficial? Did they enjoy it? Second, there's a competency test. After returning to their offices, sales consultants take a Web-based test. A score of 80 percent or better certifies them to sell the car. Success of the training will also be judged, most critically, says Health, through customer satisfaction — what buyers say about the dealer. Customer satisfaction ratings are an important measurement included in the company's larger sales incentive program.

While it will be some time before that final piece can be measured — the Fit rolled into showrooms in May — Heath is confident that the roadshow has prepped its distribution chain well to compete in an increasingly crowded market. “I give Campos kudos,” Heath says “for the ability to understand our marketing plans, and add creative value.”