SPARTANBURG, S.C. - Now that they have built it, will people come?
To cultivate one-on-one customer relationships, BMW of North America Inc. is rolling out the red carpet at its BMW Performance Center.
Surrounded by dusty farmland, the $12.5 million center is adjacent to the BMW Manufacturing Corp. factory near here. The center opened in June to train employees of the U.S. sales and marketing subsidiary and its dealers.
So-called American Delivery potentially will be the center's most visible function. U.S. customers can take delivery of any BMW vehicle here starting in late September or early October.
That includes German imports, plus the models that are built here: the Z3 roadster and its derivatives, or the X5 sport-utility. All customers still pay the regular $570 destination charge.
Meanwhile, archrival Mercedes-Benz USA Inc. has a similar program at the M-class factory near Tuscaloosa, Ala., which already has delivered about 140 sport-utilities. But the Mercedes program is for the M class only. And Mercedes customers are given a ride on an off-road demonstration course; they are not allowed to drive.
HIT THE ROAD
BMW's center has a test track, where customers are offered high-performance driving lessons as part of the delivery package.
For a price, BMW will offer one- and two-day track lessons to other BMW customers, and even to outsiders. The lessons are taught in BMW's cars, not the customers' own. American Delivery customers will drive the same model as their own, but not the same car. M5 buyers will be offered lessons in M5s as part of the price of the car.
BMW spokesman Jack Pitney said BMW got the inspiration for the Performance Center from sister subsidiary Land Rover North America Inc. Land Rover does not have an American Delivery program, but it offers its owners off-road driving courses at resorts in Vermont and West Virginia. And Land Rover runs Land Rover University for training its own and dealership employees. Land Rover training includes lots of driving, which is also a centerpiece of BMW's in-house training.
For customers who already bought into BMW's high-performance image, the opportunity to drive fast on a closed course should be a powerful attraction. The track also makes American Delivery a strong alternative to European Delivery. In the European Delivery program, BMW buyers have been able to go to Munich to pick up German-built cars, tour the factory and visit BMW AG world headquarters.
True, Spartanburg is a long way from BMW's customers on the West Coast. And for tourist attractions, Spartanburg is no match for Munich or the other European cities customers can choose to drop off their newly purchased cars to be shipped home.
But the South Carolina center has other things going for it, in addition to the factory and test track. Tom Troy, facility manager, said the center offers a higher level of personal attention than European Delivery. And from a logistics point of view, Spartanburg is handy to BMW's East Coast port of Charleston, S.C.
Troy said the center's initial capacity is 1,500 deliveries per year, but he said it was built to be expanded easily. One of the first events planned for the center is an Oktoberfest celebration for BMW owners clubs, and that should generate a lot of demand.
'We are prepared to expand if this really takes off, and we expect it will. We have a 134-acre site, and the track and the buildings we have now occupy only about 60 percent ... and we have another 1,039 acres across the street,' Troy said, in an interview last month.
'One of the primary questions we had to address when this idea was first proposed was whether we would get all our business from the East Coast, from Portland, Maine, to Miami. In fact, it turns out that all the inquiries we have had from customers and dealers have been from California and Nevada,' Troy said.
BMW dealers have not started taking orders for American Delivery, but that should begin in early September. Once that happens, customers should allow up to eight weeks for delivery of German-built cars, or up to six weeks for South Carolina-built cars. The X5 will not be available until at least November.
Eventually, BMW hopes to deliver BMW motorcycles here, and to offer American Delivery of both South Carolina-built vehicles and German imports to European customers.
For now, plans are on hold for European customers because of a number of tough issues: Will the U.S. government allow European-spec cars to be driven in the United States, even on a closed course? How will they be taxed? What tariffs will be due? It seems unlikely that European customers would come to the United States to take delivery of cars built in Germany, but spokeswoman Martha McKinley said BMW wants to be able to offer that option to Europeans, not just vehicles built in South Carolina.
From a bureaucratic 'turf' point of view, it is also significant that BMW of North America built the Performance Center, not BMW Manufacturing Corp. or parent BMW AG, except indirectly. So sharing the cost of expanding the program could be an issue. U.S. customers are the first priority for the U.S. sales and marketing arm.
Troy said he expects to add European customers eventually: 'We will overcome all that.'