Automakers are taking a new approach to selling cars: gourmet restaurants, on-track circuits

Morgan Korn/ABC News

(NEW YORK) — Auto shows were once a flagship event for automakers — a way for interested buyers to see, sit, touch and learn about the latest models. As many companies pull out of shows for exorbitant fees and the COVID pandemic cancels shows around the world, automakers are taking a new approach to winning over customers: haute cuisine and experience centers.

Take Korean luxury brand Genesis. Consumers attending the New York International Auto Show at the Javits Center in Manhattan won’t find the sleek and sporty GV70, Genesis’ highly acclaimed sport utility vehicle that went on sale last year, no anywhere in cavernous space. But a short drive away is the Genesis House, an immersive “sanctuary” in the Meatpacking District that gives consumers a taste of what to expect from the brand. On the first floor are the company’s latest vehicles as well as concept designs and color and material samples.

The 46,000 square foot space, which officially opened in November, serves as both a showroom and an art gallery. The atmosphere? “Distinctly Korean,” according to the automaker.

On the second level is Onjium, a Michelin-starred restaurant and Seoul Cultural Institute, which serves upscale, authentic Korean dishes to foodies while the Tea Pavilion, a “veranda-like lounge,” offers tea and coffee. Korean cookies with a panoramic view of the Hudson River and the High Line.

“The way to anyone’s heart is through their stomach, so it makes sense,” Car and Driver editor Tony Quiroga told Genesis House’s ABC News. A memorable meal can “increase the prestige” of a brand, he said, and automakers are desperate to stand out and build loyalty.

Japanese automaker Lexus has won over car and food lovers with its Intersect by Lexus restaurant, a dining “experience” featuring world-class chefs and rotating menus. The Lexus connection was subtle; a wall collage of whitewashed vehicle parts or the Lexus pin grille in the laminated bamboo trellis blends seamlessly into the architecture. Lexus decided to close the Meatpacking restaurant in January.

“From the start, our goal was to build a space designed for people to experience the Lexus lifestyle philosophy without driving,” according to a press release announcing the news. “INTERSECT aimed to improve the Lexus brand in an impactful and meaningful way, and it did just that. We are proud of what we have accomplished and consider INTERSECT BY LEXUS-NYC a great success. The Lexus brand will continue to develop creative and innovative lifestyle experiences to deliver an incredible experience, and we look forward to sharing this with customers for years to come. »

Ed Kim, president and chief analyst of AutoPacific, said visitors to Genesis House can learn about cultural influences on vehicle designs.

“Many brands are looking for creative ways to get the brand message across to consumers,” he told ABC News.

BMW, Lotus, Ford and Porsche have Experience Centers dotted across the United States, allowing enthusiasts to pay cash to test the hottest models on a track – and possibly walk away with one too.

“It happens all the time – people buy a BMW after the program,” Dan Gubitosa, director of BMW Performance Centers, told ABC News. “We refer them to a retailer closest to them.”

BMW operates two performance driving schools: the Spartanburg, South Carolina location opened in 1999, followed by the Thermal, California track in 2015. In August, BMW will open a satellite program – the BMW M Track Series – at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“We definitely expose people to the brand. This is the goal of these schools,” Gubitosa said.

Approximately 23,000 people attend BMW Driving Schools each year and programs range from half-day to full-day instruction with professional racing drivers. Prices start at $299 for two hours and top out at $3,995 for two days at M School.

“High performance cars are here. BMW’s most popular models – the X3 and X5 – are also here. We also have an off-road course. You can test just about anything,” Gubitosa said.

Porsche has nine Experience Centers around the world, with locations in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Shanghai, Germany, Italy and Tokyo. The tenth Porsche Experience Center [PEC] will welcome visitors in 2024 in Toronto.

“You don’t have to be an owner to come drive or visit the gallery,” Michelle Rainey, director of the Atlanta Porsche Experience Center, told ABC News. “We want to be accessible to everyone and we always make sure we have the latest and greatest vehicles so that they are representative of what is in our Porsche dealerships.”

More than 550,000 people have signed up for driving programs at experience centers in Atlanta and Los Angeles since 2015, according to a Porsche spokesperson. A major expansion of the Atlanta track, which will begin in early 2023, includes a 1.3-mile handling circuit inspired by Laguna Seca’s corkscrew, German track’s Nurburgring-Nordschleife carousel and the tail of the dragon in the Smoky Mountains. There will also be a 197-foot circle of low-friction, wet asphalt and an ice hill, with a wet, slippery surface as well as an incline and decline to demonstrate traction control, according to Porsche. Current programs start at $365 for 90 minutes and Porsche’s coveted sports cars like the 911 GT3, Taycan Turbo S and Cayman GT4 are available to drive.

“We teach you all about cars,” Rainey said. “We are always developing new programs that appeal to new audiences.”

Tyson Jominy, vice president of data and analytics at JD Power, pointed out that these experience centers essentially create brand ambassadors for automakers.

“If you buy a BMW and go to performance driving school, you will be much more enthusiastic about the brand. It’s about indoctrinating you and getting you into the brand,” he told ABC News.

Kim added: “For a brand like BMW or Porsche, performance is at the very heart and the very basis of what it offers. It makes sense to do things like experiments.

Quiroga of Car and Driver always sees auto shows as the ideal way to reach the greatest number of potential buyers. The NYIAS attracts at least 628,000 American households on average each year, according to a report.

“Auto shows are incredibly expensive for automakers…but they still matter to consumers,” he said. “It’s still a very easy place to get excited and see a lot of cars without the pressure of a salesman. Not attending will end up hurting the automakers.

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James C. Tibbs