When Lisa Hambelton took the reins at Mel Hambelton Ford in 2008, the Wichita, Kan., dealership her late father had founded 24 years earlier suffered from a reputation for bad service.
Almost a decade later, vehicle sales and service revenue have rebounded dramatically, an increase that Hambelton largely attributes to the dealership's focus on something dear to the community's heart: high school sports.
Every year on a weeknight during the last week in August, the dealership moves roughly 1,200 vehicles off its expansive lot and hosts the Mel Hambelton Ford High School Tailgate Party. Roughly 2,000 students from a dozen or more high schools in Wichita and surrounding communities attend the event, Hambelton said.
During the three-hour event, five male and female athletes receive trophies for athletic and academic performance. About a dozen cheerleading, dance and pompom squads, as well as drum lines and bands, get $1,000 apiece for their schools, just for performing.
Attendees feast on free hamburgers, chips, water, soda and ice cream. And student bodies scream at the top of their lungs as they vie for cash prizes of up to $1,500 for first place in a spirit contest judged by a sound meter.
Phil Nightingale, the dealership's general manager, mans a giant T-shirt gun — purchased for $1,500 in what Hambelton called a go-big-or-go-home moment — and barrages students with shirts emblazoned with the Hambelton Ford logo. Students receive mini footballs, baseballs, basketballs and soccer balls, also with the logo. Students' names are drawn from a box throughout the night for dozens of smaller prizes.
"I love sports and that's what this event was borne of. We don't give enough attention to high school sports and how much work the kids put in, so it's great to have a forum that recognizes them and the drum lines and cheerleaders and dance groups. And it's all free. People absolutely love it," Hambelton said. "And it has changed completely the face of our dealership."