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Previewing new vehicles

So here I am at my first press launch after a year and a half of writing about cars, and I have to admit I'm overwhelmed.

  • Gray modern car closeup on black background.

It’s 6 a.m. and Dr. Detail is already hard at work on the line of 10 Land Rover Discovery Series IIs lined up in front of the hotel.

The new sportutes had spent the latter part of the previous day off road, and there’s some mud on their lower flanks. But, according to the schedule left in my room last night, we’re going off road again this morning, and will presumably get them dirty all over again.

So why the wash?

“We always go off-roading in clean vehicles,” Land Rover’s Don Robidas tells me jokingly. The cars have to be clean, should we choose to take any pictures.

So here I am at my first press launch after a year and a half of writing about cars, and I have to admit I’m overwhelmed.

For a group of less than 20 journalists, the production values seem too big, the attention lavished on us a bit too much. We had dinner last night in a specially built glass-walled dining room surrounded by a pack of wolves.

Just gathering the cars, I’m later told, can be a major undertaking. The Land Rovers had been air-freighted from England.

For “long lead” launches, held months before the onsale date, the vehicles are usually pre-production models that can’t be sold, says Nissan’s Max Wickens. Some prototypes can cost “way over $100,000 each to build and send up, and end up being crushed within months after press events.”

Depending on the manufacturer running the event, the number of support staff can be numerous as well.

Several manufacturers contract “event management” companies to run press launches. The numbers vary, though: Mazda’s Greg Young usually has five people on site during launches to handle vehicle wrangling and other technical responsibilities in addition to the event management people.

Land Rover had more than 10 in October: seven from the company, two from the PR firm Griffin Bacal Volny, and four from Haliburton Forest, not to mention Andrew from Dr. Detail.

PR consultants’ professional fees are also quite a large portion of the overall budget, Young says, in addition to air fare and accommodation (which is much more expensive overseas than here).

Most manufacturers prefer locations close to major airports, because journalists don’t want to travel “a long time for a couple of hours of driving time,” he says.

Driving time is, after all, what these events are about, Wickens tells me. “Real journalists get embarrassed” by plush resorts, hype-filled technical presentations and press events that are more like marketing exercises.

“They’d rather cut to the chase, get plain and simple facts, do their ride-and-drive, and get on with writing their stories and earning a living.”

A recent Automobile Journalists Association of Canada survey about press events confirms this. Seat time in the cars was ranked as the most important aspect of any event.

Choosing a set of roads and trails on which to demonstrate the vehicles is more of an art than a science — for the Discovery intro, an advance team did a site survey months beforehand, plotting alternate routes to use in case of really bad weather.

Choosing proper locations was especially important for the Discovery, says Griffin Bacal Volny’s John Morris, because much of the new technology in the vehicles — Hill Descent Control, four-wheel traction control, and the optional Active Cornering Enhancement — wouldn’t be as easy to experience in regular

driving.

Logistical considerations dictate many of the roads laid out during a preview, but all manufacturers stress finding some place new, interesting and memorable, with good roads.

Most of the driving routes also tend to be naturally photogenic; many of the PR people planning these events are former journalists and photographers themselves, and they want to make sure that the cars look good in their surroundings.

Flying, lodging and providing vehicles for 20 journalists can get expensive.

According to Land Rover, the Discovery launch ended up costing more than $30,000, including rental of off-road facilities, hotel, meals and air fare for out-of-towners.

And yet, press launches, on the part of the manufacturers, seem to be worthwhile exercises. Although every penny spent by the company is eventually reflected in the cost of a vehicle, they are far from being a major component.

Editorial column inches are more valuable than advertising space anyway, says western auto journalist Bill Roebuck. A testimonial for a vehicle “has a lot more credibility than ad copy,” and even negative comments can generate interest in a car.

Depending on how long or prominent an article is, editorial column inches may even be “cheaper,” as well. Mazda’s Young measures amount of copy generated versus the equivalent space bought for advertising to gauge how effective a program was.

Besides, look at it this way: if Land Rover sells even one more Discovery II thanks to the launch I attended, then the time and money invested would have been worth it.

That’s not (yet) going to stop me from feeling a bit guilty about stepping into a hotel room that I’m not paying for, or playing with a toy car that’s been deposited on my pillow, but then I’m still new to this game.

Laurance Yap is a Toronto-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Auto Motive, a bilingual Chinese-English automobile magazine.

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