AURORA, Ohio-For an hour or so, they drove fast cars through obstacle courses. For four more hours, they had information driven slowly into their heads, so they'd be certain not to have any obstacles.
Such is the nature of Michelin North America Inc.'s BFGoodrich Tires ``Kick Asphalt'' tour, a ``portable'' seminar with the primary goal of making sure dealers are educated about BFG products, programs and other enhancements that will help them to jack up profitability as much as possible.
The tour stopped May 4 at the Six Flags Ohio amusement park in Aurora. Attended by about three dozen employees of Northeast Ohio dealers-mostly representatives from various Cleveland-based Mueller Tire & Brake locations and a small media contingent-it was the 19th on the 28-city tour that began Feb. 19 in Tampa, Fla., and will end June 7 in Toronto. By tour's end, approximately 2,500 people will have attended the seminars.
Held twice daily, the seminars involve seven BFG representatives at each location, including a set up crew of five. A spokeswoman for Michelin's BFGoodrich Tires unit said the company ``will not make public'' how much the program is costing it.
``The goal clearly is to better educate dealers on products and programs, as well as to find ways to better open the lines of communication between dealers and the company,'' the spokeswoman at the Cleveland-area stop said.
Tour stop attendees spend most of the nearly five-hour seminars in classroom settings. BFG performance tire managers (PTMs) schooled them on a variety of subjects related primarily to performance tires.
The Power Point graphics presentations, visual aids and high-gloss production videos aside, it was the hour spent on the asphalt-the ride-and-drive portion of the day's activities-that seemed to stick out in dealers' minds.
``Where I gained the most was product knowledge,'' said Dickie Brown, general manager of Robertson Tire Co. Inc. in Dallas, who took part in that city's tour stop. ``You gain a lot when you drive and you can tell a person `this does this over this tire.' You pick up little things that can help you at a sales counter.''
The ride-and-drive, which involved three courses in the Six Flags parking lot, was supposed to reinforce the seminars, but it turned out that the opposite seemed to happen. The question-and-answer session that followed the driving portion was filled with queries about equipment, many of which had been answered earlier.
By driving Chevrolet Corvettes and Z-28s, modified Honda Civics and Nissan Xterras-one each with a set of tires from BFG's T/A line and one each without-dealers were able to experience firsthand the difference between the BFGoodrich line and the competition.
Those in attendance had the opportunity ahead of time to select the competing tires placed on each car or truck. In each instance they were given three choices, which could change between morning and afternoon sessions.
The difference in tires was fairly clear, said Rick Mott of Olin Mott Tire Inc. in Tampa, Fla., who took part in the inaugural Kick Asphalt event, held in that city.
``The biggest asset you get is the personal experience of actually driving the cars,'' he said. ``You get the distinct feel of the different brands. It's a good experience as far as being a personal testimony to the customer.
``It gives you more confidence from a sales standpoint. It makes it more believable because you actually believe it (yourself).''
The time spent inside the specially equipped trailer-turned-classroom and under a tent watching and listening wasn't wasted on Mr. Brown, though. As a buyer for Robertson Tire, he found the wealth of information very useful.
``The technical knowledge about the difference in the tires and the tread designs...helps me make a decision on what I buy,'' he said.
The PTMs employed a decent amount of double-speak en route to their points. Customers were referred to as ``extrinsics.'' The dealers on hand were dubbed ``test tire engineers'' whose mission was to ``protect the equity'' of the T/A line.
That, according to Steve Rillings, a BFG performance tire manager and one of two seminar presenters at the Cleveland stop, hasn't always been accomplished by BFG.
He recounted a visit to a dealership in Pennsylvania. The dealer was looking for a particular tire, and Mr. Rillings had no idea what the dealer was talking about.
``I said, `We don't make a tire for that,' '' Mr. Rillings said. ``He said, `You sure do-I've got one right here.'
``Shame on us as a company. They didn't tell us as employees,'' Mr. Rillings added.
While he blamed that incident on a possible breakdown in communication, he vowed that BFG will be ``up front and honest when we've got some new equipment coming in, even if it's all going to be original equipment.''
Communication was a main focus throughout the program, as the PTMs requested opinions on how they could make such seminars more productive-even picking dealers' brains regarding how other companies run similar programs.
``The only feedback you can go from is what people say at the seminars,'' BFG's spokeswoman said.
Mr. Rillings also implored dealers to make the most of various buyer programs, such as roadside assistance that's available with the purchase of T/A models.
``We give this away with every tire we sell,'' he explained. ``It's a free program. BFGoodrich pays for it.''
Mr. Rillings said it is common for dealers to be unaware of such programs, even though they are offered at no cost to the dealer or consumer.
``It was very informative,'' Mr. Mott said. ``I've been around (the tire business) all my life, but you still pick up on things that, being around it, you never knew of.''