SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - The landscape has changed in the past decade. The snow-capped Colorado Rockies were replaced by the evergreen-dotted hillsides of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, which now are joined by arid spaces near Southern California's Santa Ynez Mountains.
Ten years after it began, Camp Jeep - an annual three-day owner loyalty event that attracts thousands of Jeep enthusiasts - has had several locations. This year it expanded to include two stops in the same summer: Virginia in mid-July and this month's first Camp Jeep California.
Camp Jeep California enabled Jeep owners to drive their vehicles on a variety of trails and off-road courses this month.
The Jeep ride-and-drive is the model of longevity for consumer events, the hot trend in automotive marketing. Such events cost significantly less than advertising on network TV and often provide a greater return.
Jeep executives say Camp Jeep likely will continue to explore grass-roots efforts with new audiences in new territory.
"There will be more, and probably in many locations," says Lou Bitonti, senior manager of Chrysler and Jeep events. Bitonti founded Camp Jeep in 1994 in Hale, Colo.
"We are not walking away from what we've set up," Bitonti says. "We've built a brand with Jeep, and we've built an event here."
Chrysler's Lou Bitonti: "We've built a brand with Jeep, and we've built an event here.
Bitonti says Camp Jeep will broaden its base. Camp Jeep California will come to Los Angeles or the San Francisco Bay area next year. Another proposal ties Camp Jeep to other national events, such as the annual Army-Navy college football game in Philadelphia.
Like other consumer events, Camp Jeep seeks to provide something for everyone who attends. It sells guitars, offers cooking lessons and sponsors disc-jockey spin sessions. There are scuba classes in a pool, skateboarding on a half-pipe track and rock climbing sessions on a man-made cliff.
Above all, there are trails, driving activities and off-road courses developed by Jeep engineers.
The goal of an owner loyalty program such as Camp Jeep is to persuade customers they never want to drive anything else.
"We want to carry the brand through the generations, from cradle to grave," Bitonti says. "Our owners are not only the best ambassadors for our brand -every one of our owners brings at least one owner who is not in a Jeep."
Jeep owners drive their vehicles at Camp Jeep California.
Training and launching
Camp Jeep has succeeded by being cost-effective - Bitonti says he could host "a couple of Camp Jeeps for the price of a Super Bowl commercial" - and by branching into other areas.
In addition to sponsoring Camp Jeep to build owner loyalty, Jeep Division has used the event as an internal training site and a national public relations showcase. One year the event hosted a national dealer announcement. This year's Camp Jeep California supported the national launch of the redesigned Grand Cherokee.
Jeep engineers join consumers in frank discussions about owner satisfaction.
"They know the vehicle as well as we do," says Joe Eberhardt, Chrysler group's executive vice president of global marketing, sales and service. "And they help us define where we want to be."
California's first Camp Jeep attracted enthusiasts in about 1,000 vehicles, who paid $335 per vehicle to attend. Nearly 10,000 people showed up in roughly 2,900 Jeeps from 38 states at the Virginia event in July.
Shown is an overhead view of Camp Jeep California.
Consumers came to California from, among other places, Georgetown, Conn.; Fort Bragg, N.C.; Everett, Wash.; and Minot, N.D.
Gino and Carol Giannavola drove 400 miles through the night from Healdsburg, in Northern California, to attend their first Camp Jeep. Gino Giannavola has owned a 1942 Willys, a Cherokee and a Grand Cherokee.
"We've wanted to be here for a long time," Gino Giannavola says. "The fact Jeep came to California made it much easier."
Bitonti pledges more is on the way.
"I never thought (Camp Jeep) would go 10 years in a competitive market," he says. "It's a great run. We'll see what's next."