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Official drive experiences remain pivotal to brands

Crucial: For most brands that offer them, genuine drive experiences or festivals are an important part of customer and fan engagement.

Brands adapt to COVID to continue delivering genuine drive experiences to fans

21 Sep 2021

THE resumption of manufacturer-backed driving experiences is high on the to-do lists of most brands that offer them in Australia as COVID-19 restrictions affect the most populous eastern states.


The prolonged Sydney and Melbourne lockdowns, as well as the gradually easing restrictions in Queensland, put an immediate stop to things like track days, tag-along adventures and 4x4 expeditions.


Strict border closures put in place by other states and territories have prevented such events being held or unable to run due to low attendance numbers caused by the inability of interstate or international participants to travel.


There are glimmers of hope on the horizon though, with several brands reopening bookings for their respective events while others have expressed eagerness to return to hosting duties.


Isuzu Ute Australia (IUA), for instance, runs guided 4x4 training days for its I-Venture Club members around the country, with the main purpose of the events being to boost customers’ confidence when behind the wheel when off-roading or towing.


The onset of COVID-19 forced the brand to abandon most of its events last year, although the recent easing of restrictions has seen interest in the rescheduled events soar, with all four upcoming courses in Melbourne, Double Island Point and Mount Cotton in Queensland and Stockton Beach in New South Wales being booked out months in advance.


IUA public relations manager Mark Harman said interest in the events had been so strong that the company is looking to host extra events where possible to meet the increased demand.


“While our I-Venture Club events are impacted by the ongoing effects of the pandemic, customer safety remains our priority and, in some cases, events have been postponed and cancelled,” he told GoAuto.


“We are also operating a very flexible cancellation policy to ensure anyone who does not feel safe or is unwell on the day can cancel and receive a full refund or postpone attendance to a future event.”


Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) Australia runs similar off-road events through its Land Rover Experience (LRE) series, but the premium brand is yet to resume hosting duties while the COVID situation remains so volatile.  


In a statement issued to GoAuto, JLR public relations manager James Scrimshaw said the events “have always been an important and popular element of our customer experiences in Australia”.


“LRE events allow our customers and prospects to gain confidence in their driving skills, as well as learning new ones, whilst getting a better understanding of Land Rover’s all-terrain capability over a variety of terrains,” he said.


“We look forward to resuming Land Rover Experience in the future.”


One manufacturer that has not been forced to abandon its in-house drive experiences is Porsche, which has arguably the most elaborate and in-depth programs of all the brands covered here, with more than 100 calendar days of track and motorsport fun on offer (pre-COVID) when events such as Targa Tours and Ice Experience are included.


Thanks to most of its events being run in Queensland and South Australia, Porsche Cars Australia (PCA) was able to avoid shutting down its popular Track Experience altogether and plans are already in place to return to a full program in 2022 – pandemic permitting.


According to PCA head of public relations Chris Jordan, the biggest hurdle in recent times has been the strict interstate border controls put in place by state and territory leaders.


Rather than scrap the program, Mr Jordan toldGoAutothat PCA was doing “what we can, where we can and when we can”, with demand remaining “very strong” throughout the year and even stronger interest expected for 2022.


A similar strategy has been employed by the local arm of the BMW Group for its BMW Driving Experience, with COVID-19 forcing several postponements across Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia over the past 12-18 months.


The differing restrictions and exposure rates of each state have enabled some events to go ahead, however nowhere near enough to cater for demand according to head of product, market planning and Driving Experience Brendan Michel.


“The safety of our customers and everyone involved with BMW Driving Experience is our highest priority,” he told GoAuto.


“We’ve continued to see extremely strong demand and now even have a waitlist due to the number of requests for new and rescheduled bookings. 


“We are working closely with authorities so we can get back to offering our full services and ensuring the experience for participants is not compromised in any way.”


Hyundai is another brand that has been trying to make the best of the situation without completely canning its still-young but extremely popular N Festival, with most of its hurdles being more to do with scheduling and border closures rather than lockdown.


“We had to delay last year’s N Festival from November 2020 back to January 2021,” Hyundai Motor Company Australia (HMCA) corporate communications general manager Bill Thomas told GoAuto.


“We held the event in Queensland, where we have a very strong N following and due to COVID restrictions, residents of the greater Sydney area were not able to attend … we still had over 100 cars at the event, and it was a huge success.


“We are planning to hold this year’s event in Victoria, and then we will have to see. We intend to move around and give all states their own festivals going forward.


“Smaller regional drive events have shown us that there is plenty of appetite from N owners right across Australia, even with COVID rules in place, and we will make sure we cover Australia with our track days.”


Compared to the other experiences mentioned in this article, the N Festival is a free gathering for N owners and fans to congregate, appreciate all things Hyundai N and experience the full extent of their car’s performance capabilities via the free track sessions and hot laps.


Such is HMCA’s commitment to the event that at the last edition, it brought along several development prototypes of then-upcoming models like the facelifted i30 Fastback N and TCR car.


“It’s all about focusing on our customers and giving them new and interesting ways to enjoy their cars – a free track day every year is the least we can do for owners who have paid significant amounts of money for their new Hyundai N cars,” Mr Thomas said.


“We like to think that we understand the enthusiast buyer quite well – we need to demonstrate that understanding with actions. 


“That means making sure that all owners are told about these events and have the option of attending.”


Toyota has taken a different path to Hyundai in creating the Gazoo Racing Club for owners of its Supra and GR Yaris but the end result ends up being fairly similar; free membership provides exclusive track and drive meets where owners can let their cars off the leash as well as perks including access to member-only areas at motorsport events including the ARC and TGRA 86 Series.


According to a Toyota Australia spokesperson, no club events have been able to be hosted so far in 2021 but plans are very much in place to rectify that later this year depending on the prevailing COVID-19 situation.


“While we have been unable to run live events this year due to COVID-19 restrictions, we are continuing to build a strong community around the GR brand and demonstrate Toyota’s commitment to building exciting performance cars that are fun to drive,” the spokesperson said.


“Our members also remain engaged through social media and regular editions of the GRC Journal online magazine, and they continue to benefit from discounts, merchandise and special offers.


“We are hoping to provide opportunities for in-person activities later this year, if permitted.”


Permissions could well make or break the next instalment of Mercedes-AMG’s Driving Academy sessions with the Level 1 ‘Performance Training’ and Level 2 ‘Advanced Training’ courses scheduled for October 28 and 29 respectively at Sydney Motorsport Park.


While the official landing page shows both events as being sold out – well in advance – it remains to be seen if they will go ahead on account of the greater Sydney area’s volatile COVID-19 situation and ever-changing restrictions. 


Much like Porsche’s Track Experience, AMG’s Driver Academy puts customers though a multi-level program to teach them the ins and outs of performance driving and car control.


According to Mecedes-Benz Cars Australia PR manager Jerry Stamoulis, demand is “dictated by the restrictions in place set by the local government leading up to or at the time of the event”.


Nevertheless, Mr Stamoulis told GoAutothe “Driving Events are and continue to be an important part” of the brand’s customer and fan engagement.


A recurring theme raised individually by the brands cited in this article is the patience and understanding of customers when events have either been cancelled or postponed.

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