Factory ownership of dealerships, torrid new-vehicle sales and the impact of the Internet will be hot topics at the National Automobile Dealers Association convention from Saturday, Jan. 22, to Tuesday, Jan. 25, in Orlando, Fla.
The Internet has so permeated new-car selling that a seminar track on the World Wide Web and dealerships has been added to the convention, said Denny Fitzpatrick, chairman of the convention committee.
Fitzpatrick is a 51-year-old, third-generation dealer who runs Fitzpatrick Chevrolet-Buick in Concord, Calif., 30 miles east of San Francisco. He talked to Staff Reporter Michael Woodyard about what dealers can expect at the convention. Here are edited excerpts.
How will the convention reflect the emergence of the Internet?
We have gotten a lot of feedback from dealership personnel about how technology comes into play in their particular departments and what they can do to effectively meet the challenges they are going to have to deal with in e-commerce.
So this year we've added a separate study track devoted to the Internet.
For example, some of the topics at the training sessions will include buying used cars at Internet auctions, where we'll have a panel of Internet auction experts discuss the pros and cons of purchasing used vehicles with the help of online technology.
We're going to have a session devoted to developing a dealership Internet (training) strategy, with case studies to illustrate the successful practices.
We're trying to put something in there for everyone. The Internet is one of those things that is not going to go away.
Hasn't everyone realized the importance of the Internet and taken strides to get up to speed on it?
We're a third-generation company here. My grandfather and my dad started the dealership. And now my dad is the only guy in the dealership without a computer on his desk. I think you get a lot of older generation dealers who aren't really computer literate because they haven't forced themselves to look into it.
But computers and the Internet are all around us. And where my dad is not computer literate, he understands the importance of being in the middle of this change that is going on in our industry, of having a Web site and doing all the things we can do on the Internet to market our dealership.
What else is new at this year's convention?
We are changing the format a little bit. It has been kind of a tradition that we have the opening session on Saturday and the other business session on Tuesday. This year we're moving the second session up to Monday and then we're scheduling more workshops and exhibit time on Tuesday. We're having President George Bush speak at the session on Monday.
So the schedule is going to change a little, but I think it's going to work out better, in terms of everybody being able to do the kinds of things they want to do.
How big will the convention be?
The Orlando Conven-tion Center is huge. We'll actually have a lot more room than we did in San Francisco. We've sold over 300,000 square feet of exhibit space and the exhibit hall itself is like 600,000 square feet. The convention center itself is a half-mile long. If you're not in shape, we'll have vehicles inside there to shuttle you around. It's big, and we sold out a long time ago.
How can a dealer find out about the exhibitors?
We are, for the first time, offering an exhibitor profile, where people can basically hyperlink from the NADA Convention home page directly to exhibitors. The exhibitors can talk about their service and where they're going to be exhibiting.
We are trying to stay in the forefront of all the technology that is available.
Around this time, I get a barrage of mail from the exhibitors saying: 'Make sure you see us at booth 57.' It's just unbelievable. This offers a real alternative to putting together the mail pieces and mailing them out in bulk. A lot of people are accessing their computers every day anyway, and they are going to be able to go to that page and see what's out there and what the exhibitors are going to be offering.
On top of all of that, there is the issue of manufacturers' involvement in retail. How will you work that into the convention?
What has happened this year with the manufacturers and their involvement in the retail part of our business impacts everyone, even dealers that aren't GM or Ford dealers.
I know that the air is real heavy out here in California with strengthening our state franchise laws. And there are 20 or so states contemplating some kind of bill in their legislature in the coming year because of the reaction to the events of the past year.
These will be at the top of the list in the question-and-answer sessions. Dealers will be asking questions about where they fit in the manufacturers' Internet sales plans, where they fit in plans to sell off-lease used cars. The climate's going to be pretty thick.