With just a few weeks before the kickoff of her company's biggest customer event ever, Trudy Hardy was experiencing the usual nerves and apprehension that come with planning an important, customer-facing program. Was the venue secured? Was the entertainment confirmed? Was the agenda finalized? Oh, and one other minor detail … would anyone actually show up?

Just six months earlier, Hardy and her team at MINI USA had set out to plan the nation's first cross-country drive for MINI owners, a 15-day trip from Monterey, Calif., to Lakeville, Conn., crossing 19 states and logging more than 4,000 miles along the way. The only problem was, they had no idea how many people would show.

“It was a large unknown for us, and a real risk,” says Hardy, marketing manager for MINI USA. “We knew MINI owners were a passionate group, but we just didn't know if they were going to come with us on a coast-to-coast journey.”

The company's goal for its “MINI Takes the States” event was to bring car owners together to raise brand awareness and to foster communication among the company's network of dealers across the country, dozens of car clubs, and its corporate headquarters in Woodcliff, N.J. The company had decided to give the program a flexible, “grassroots” feel by encouraging car owners to participate in as many or as few activities along the route as they chose and to breeze in and out of events freely. That meant registration via the company's Web site was purely optional. And because the event was free for all MINI owners and enthusiasts, there was no financial impetus for registered attendees to actually show up.

“Our worst-case scenario was that we would have made a commitment with a venue to host something along the route and then all of sudden only 10 people show up,” says Gina Koutros, shows and events manager, MINI USA. “That was our biggest fear.”

Luckily, that scenario never materialized. In fact, more than 7,000 MINI owners and guests participated in various parts of the event, when the company had originally estimated 500 to 1,000. Within six weeks of launching the program, more than 3,000 car owners had registered. The major events on the roster also drew crowds all across the country. More than 1,000 people took in the MINI Music Festival at Centennial Park in Nashville, and 900 motorists attended a party at the Gypsy Tea Room in Dallas. The MINI rally was featured in 45 local and national media outlets, and more than 15 radio and magazine writers took part in the trip. And earlier this year, the program earned MINI and its planning partner, R/A Performance Group of San Francisco, the Global Paragon Award for Excellence in Promotion from Meeting Professionals International.

Sparks Fly

Every great idea has a spark, and MINI's developed from a December 2005 brainstorming session focused on an upcoming sales program. A limited-edition launch of the new MINI Grand Prix had sold 2,000 units globally, with 415 of those vehicles arriving in the United States. The company decided to create a unique delivery experience for the owners of the first 80 vehicles — delivering the first 45 cars on August 21, 2006, in Monterey, Calif., at the Monterey Historic Automobile Races where the Cooper Car Co. was being named the featured brand that year. The remaining 35 vehicles would be delivered September 4 at the Lime Rock Vintage Festival in Lakeville, Conn.

They needed to do something in between.

“We thought, if we are going to participate in Monterey and Lime Rock, how can we connect the two and give people the opportunity to drive from one event to the other?” says Hardy.

She brought in R/A Performance Group to connect the dots. A lead time of just six months, an extremely limited budget, and the logistics of planning dozens of secondary events spread over 4,000 miles made this a particularly challenging task for Mimi Almeida, R/A's president. For starters, when six times more participants than expected registered online within six weeks of launching the program, “we literally had to scrap everything and start again, looking at new venues and finding parking to accommodate the group” she says. “We really had to be creative every step of the way to accommodate the budget and the [attendance] numbers.”

To help with the budget, they reached out to media outlets looking to raise their own brand awareness. The marketing team at MINI USA contacted Rolling Stone, Sirius Satellite Radio, Wired, The New Yorker, ESPN, and others, who were all eager to sponsor events. “They basically saw this as an opportunity to expose their brand to potential customers,” says Koutros. For example, ESPN raffled 50 box seats to a St. Louis Cardinals game while the drivers were in town. Other sponsored events included a country music concert in Nashville hosted by SPIN magazine and a theme park day at King's Dominion in Doswell, Va., sponsored by Business 2.0 magazine.

One of R/A's first steps in the planning process was to establish the route that MINI owners would take cross-country. The requirements for the route specified that daily drive patterns allow for participants to experience each city without spending more than six hours on the road in any given day, that the trip include both highway driving and mountainous or seaside roadways to allow drivers to test the agility of their vehicles, and that the program be designed for those going the entire route as well as for drivers who just wanted to drop in for one or two events.

After developing the initial plan for the drive in mid-March 2006, a team of four R/A managers set out in two MINI Coopers to test the plan. During this “test drive,” the site crew made sure that the route was acceptable for drivers and scouted potential sites for special events. They also conducted hotel site visits in order to give lodging recommendations and sought out parking facilities to accommodate the cars. Almeida and her team also had to figure out how to seamlessly direct drivers from one locale to the next throughout the country without resulting in mass confusion.

On-site at the event, R/A divided its 16-person team into five groups. Team One would advance one day ahead of the group, checking final road conditions and reserved parking areas, and holding pre-conference meetings with all hotels to ensure executive suites were ready for MINI USA's top executives, who were also taking part in the trip.

Team Two would depart in the morning, taking care of last-minute requests and opening the arrival information desk in each city. Team Three would depart in a custom-wrapped, MINI-branded tour bus, which served as the command center. Team Four was responsible for sweeping the route for stranded motorists, and Team Five worked the regional events and flew from point to point two to three days before the group's arrival.

Consideration also had to be given to MINI owners who would basically be spending two weeks living out of their cars as they drove from city to city. One surprise R/A planned for these drivers was to provide free valet laundry service midway through the country. “We did it for the first 100 people going coast to coast. They gave us their laundry in special MINI bags, and we hired a laundry service to do it and then gave it back to them at the arch in St. Louis. We didn't lose a single piece,” says Almeida.

Dealer Connection

Throughout the drive, a big focus was also on involving MINI dealerships. By weaving the route past more than 60 of MINI's 80 U.S. dealerships, the company gave dealers an opportunity to host events along the way and to bring customers into their showrooms.

One dealer that jumped on the opportunity was Sandia MINI of Albuquerque, N.M. “It is an obvious stimulus for your local marketplace,” says owner Mike Hoax. “If you involve your community and the car owners, you'll get sales out of it. The bottom line is, you'll make money.”

The group at Sandia MINI worked with its local MINI car club and its MINI rep based in California to get the word out about its event. As drivers approached the city, signs directed them off the highway to a racetrack on the east side of Albuquerque, where members of the Sandia MINI dealership were waiting with hot dogs and soft drinks. Drivers were then invited to drive around the track and pose for a photo shoot. “It was a totally voluntary activity, and we had about 90 percent of the group come off the highway and join us,” says Hoax.

The next morning, Hoax and his employees hosted a breakfast for participants at his dealership. From there, he arranged for the local police to escort drivers out of town and back onto the highway. The event was a real motivator for Hoax's employees. “It was one of the few times that they were asked to be an integral part of something corporate. Everyone gave their input, and it was on their own turf.”

But the road trip and events along the way weren't just about internal and external branding.

Success at the End of the Road

When the last driver had headed home, there was no question that all the effort put into MINI Takes the States had paid off. Not long after, JD Power and Associates raised the MINI brand up 22 spots to No. 1 on its list of “Brand Most Likely to Recommend,” and Edmunds.com named MINI the “Most Wanted Coupe Under $30,000.”

MINI USA is ready to hit the road once again. “We are already thinking about how we are going to do this again next year,” says Koutros. “But this time, MINI owners are telling us what they want to see from the event.”

Mini's Great American Road Trip

DAY 1
8.21.06

Monterey, Calif. The event kicks off with a beach bonfire and party at Pirate's Cove Beach House.

DAY 2
8.22.06

Las Vegas. 250 MINI drivers take over The House of Blues at Mandalay Bay for a night of dancing, music, and more.

DAY 3
8.23.06

Flagstaff, Ariz. Route 66 Pit Stop photo op at the Yellowhorse Trading Post on the Arizona-New Mexico border.

DAY 4
8.24.06

Albuquerque, N.M. An afternoon of barbecue, track laps, and games at Sandia MotorSports Track — all proceeds go to the University of New Mexico Children's Hospital.

DAY 5
8.25.06

Amarillo, Texas. Participants gather for a movie night at the Pioneer Amphitheater in Palo Duro Canyon State Park.

DAY 6
8.26.06

Dallas. 900 MINI motorists and friends party at the Gypsy Tea Room in Dallas; two MINI drivers get married at an exclusive comedy club show for motorists that evening.

DAY 7
8.27.06

Memphis, Tenn.

DAY 8
8.28.06

Nashville, Tenn. More than 1,000 MINI enthusiasts attend the MINI Music Festival at Centennial Park.

DAY 9
8.29.06

St. Louis. MINI tailgate party and VIP seating at the Cardinals vs. Marlins baseball game.

DAY 10
8.30.06

Indianapolis. Aerial photo of MINIs under the St. Louis arch is followed by a lap around the Indianapolis Speedway.

DAY 11
8.31.06

Charleston, W.Va.

DAY 12
9.1.06

Charlottesville, Va.

DAY 13
9.2.06

Washington, D.C. Motorists enjoy free admission to Kings Dominion amusement park.

DAY 14
9.3.06

Jersey City, N.J. MINI Wrap Party.

DAY 15
9.4.06

Arrival in Lakeville, Conn., for the Rolex Vintage Festival at Lime Rock Park.

(Not) Mini Challenges

WE ASKED THE “MINI TAKES THE STATES” ORGANIZERS TO NAME THE TOUGHEST PARTOF PLANNING SUCH A HUGE EVENT:

GINA KOUTROS, shows and events manager, MINI USA: There were so many things you couldn't plan for and just had to react to, like the rain and detours in the route — and trying to estimate how many people would show up for each part of the trip.

MIMI ALMEIDA, president, R/A Performance Group: I think from the beginning to the end it was a constant challenge. We all just kept adding more and more aspects to the planning and thought, let's see how many of these things we can accomplish.

TRUDY HARDY, marketing manager, MINI USA: It was really tiring being on the road every day and waking up in a different city. When you are working events in the morning and at night, you don't have a chance to go to your hotel room and get a good night's sleep because you are always preparing for the next day. You really have to remember to maintain that enthusiasm and passion and project that to the participants — you have to be just as fresh on Day 15 as you were on Day One.

Objectives Achieved

MINI USA'S LIST OF GOALS FOR ITS CROSS-COUNTRY ROAD TRIP:

  • DELIVER A FLEXIBLE, GRASSROOTS ATMOSPHERE TO PARTICIPANTS.

  • OFFER MULTIPLE EVENTS AND EXPERIENCES ALONG THE WAY.

  • LAUNCH A NEW MINI PERSONALIZED CREDIT CARD WHILE APPROVING APPLICATIONS EN ROUTE.

  • COVER A ROUTE THAT PASSED WITHIN 250 MILES OF 80 PERCENT OF ALL U.S. MINI DEALERSHIPS.

  • INVOLVE THE MEDIA TO INCREASE EXPOSURE.

  • INCLUDE FOUR MAJOR EVENTS ALONG THE WAY, ONE IN EACH OF THE MINI USA'S SALES REGIONS.