From Classrooms to the Real World: The Northwood University Auto Show, Karen Kupres, Lori Lendzion -
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From Classrooms to the Real World: The Northwood University Auto Show, Karen Kupres, Lori Lendzion

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Seniors majoring in advertising, marketing and business management.

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For one weekend in October, thousands of car enthusiasts, families, students and alumni from across the country gather on Northwood University’s secluded campus in Midland, MI, for the Northwood University International Auto Show (NUIAS). They come to see the tree-lined walkways transformed into a showcase for hundreds of new cars, trucks, vans, concepts, and specialty and recreational vehicles. The first NUIAS took place in October, 1964 and featured about 40 new vehicles, such as the Chrysler Turbine, as well as a press conference for students from local high schools. This was the first event in the country in which a college, an industry and high school journalists met on a common ground.

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The Auto Show has evolved a lot in the last 41 years. It is currently billed as North America’s largest new car outdoor show, and attracts more than 50,000 guests during a three-day period. This year’s show featured more than 450 new vehicles from around the world, including five revolutionary concept cars and newcomers, Avanti and Panoz. Local high school students still participate through a "Jr. E-board" program, which allows them to shadow executive board members.

 

The current show encompasses far more than just cars. One newer element is the expanded aftermarket display, showing new technology in car audio, motorsports and performance parts, as well as a classic car show. The specialty division showcases four-wheelers, jet skis, snowmobiles, dirt bikes and recreational vehicles. There is even a division for dump trucks and a school bus! Every year the Auto Show gets bigger and better to provide something for everyone.

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The NUIAS is a product of the combined talents and efforts of more than 700 students from all majors, including automotive marketing, advertising, management, hospitality and promotions. Everyone from freshman to senior level is invited and encouraged to participate and take active leadership roles. A 13-member student executive board and 55 team captains are responsible for planning and executing the entire show, with advice and guidance provided by Northwood faculty members. This gives students an unparalleled opportunity to apply the knowledge they’ve learned inside the classroom to the "real world" through hands-on experience.

 

One of the student e-board members was Matt Lewis, a senior majoring in Automotive Marketing and Management. Lewis was the Domestic Chairperson for the 2004 NUIAS. His role in the show began in December of 2003; just two months after the previous show had ended. Lewis was selected after an application and interview process. His first responsibility was contacting all US-based car and truck manufacturers and local dealers to secure vehicles for the show as well as a financial agreement. He then began recruiting captains for each of his 12 teams, matching each individual’s personality with that of the brand and dealer. In the following ten months leading to the show, Lewis worked with the team captains to design and plan their displays. All executive board members do daily walk-throughs of the show to ensure that team members are doing their best, and to help them do all they can to make each display the best it could possibly be.

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Lewis’ automotive and general marketing classes prepared him for speaking with upper-level executives at the largest American car manufacturers. "My classes gave me a feel for the professional jargon so I could speak on the same level with them," said Lewis. "We all realized our show was not the biggest thing on their minds. I was able to prove that I understood their business and knew how to make this opportunity beneficial to them." Lewis also developed his motivational skills by working on the show.

 

"The students who put this show together work for no pay. I had to find other ways of motivating people to put in their best work," stated Lewis. "I explained to them that every team has vehicles; having great cars doesn’t make you stand out from the crowd. It comes from what you put into it. You’ve got to have a sense of pride and let it show."

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A team captain’s job begins in early spring when they are selected by a divisional chair on the E-board. His or her responsibilities include communicating with dealers, manufacturers and fellow students. They work with dealers to determine specific vehicles to display at the show, as well as the logistics involved in physically getting the venues there. They contact manufacturers to request printed materials and giveaways, signage, display items and concept vehicles. Captains are encouraged to make their display as creative and unique as possible, but are allotted a very small sum of money. Any other money they need has to be earned, so they may also request monetary donations to develop their ideas. The students contact local and national businesses and organizations and explain to them the exposure and recognition they will receive for supporting the Auto Show. They also recruit team members and train them on every aspect of the vehicles they show.

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Students working as captains receive experience unlike what they would receive anywhere else. Sarah Matthews was the captain for the Toyota Scion team.

 

"Working as a captain was invaluable," said Matthews. "It gave me the opportunity to put into practice what I have been learning in class. I got to lead a group of people, manage resources and work with other businesses. The NUIAS is an excellent tool for helping students prepare for the business world."

 

Bryan Watkins was co-captain of Team Mazda for the 2004 show. He values Northwood’s Auto Show for the broad experience he gained in management.

 

"Working in the Auto Show was an incredible experience. I learned a lot about myself and how I deal with problems under pressure," said Watkins. "At times it seemed like nothing was going right, but everything I’ve learned at Northwood about general management and how to manage people really paid off in the end to solve our problems."

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While most other shows can take days or weeks to set up, the entire Northwood show is built from the ground up in one day. This is where the team members become indispensable. Together with the captain, they retrieve vehicles from dealerships, position them in the display space and arrange all materials, furnishings, landscaping and decorations. Team members also interact one on one with every guest at the show. They perform "Six Point Walkarounds" explaining the features and benefits of each vehicle.

 

Guests of the show appreciate the student-run nature of the Auto Show. The students are under no obligation to sell cars and get no reward for doing so. Their goal is just to educate consumers on the vehicles in their display while learning how to communicate effectively and professionally. According to Jim Fleming, a retired engineer from Midland, "I love how there’s no pressure to buy here at the show. I get to sit in a car, learn about its features and compare it to hundreds of others, but there are no salespeople around worrying about making a commission."

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Corporate sponsors, generous alumni and Northwood supporters donate the funds necessary to run the show. These donations go towards funding a luncheon honoring VIP panelists, promoting the show and paying other general operating expenses.

 

Northwood is a leader in automotive marketing education, which is what has made its Auto Show so successful for the students involved and the school as a whole. There is no formula other schools can follow to recreate this success. It is the product of decades of hard work, several unique curricula, faculty and staff with experience in the field, dedicated students and a lot of teamwork.

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Students who would like to implement a similar program need to first consider their own school’s strengths. The first step should be to establish the edge you can offer to prospective supporters. Develop a marketing plan tailored to your niche and objectives. Present your plan discussing your ideas and explaining how participation in your show will ultimately benefit everyone involved. Be warned – it is going to take a lot of time and effort to execute any event. Perseverance is the most important factor during this type of process. When you get turned down, don’t give up! As Lewis explained, "The first answer might be no. The first ten answers might be no. You’ve got to keep trying because the next one could be yes." The end result will definitely be worth the effort.

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We’ve all heard the phrase practice makes perfect, and that stands true in this case. As time has passed, the show has dramatically improved and that will continue into the future as well. In 41 years, Northwood’s show has gone from 40 cars and a handful of students to more than 450 cars and 700 students. The time and effort put forth by students and staff has tremendous rewards and only improves the educational process.

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