It wasn't the food. It wasn't the entertainment or the decor. It wasn't even the guests. For the 10th anniversary meeting of Lexus dealers, the cars were the stars of a gala evening.
The Torrance, Calif., office of Auburn Hills, Mich.-based George P. Johnson Co. took on the challenge of staging the three-day event, which included the elaborate "car salon" on the second night. Here, 1,100 Lexus dealers from North America and dignitaries from Toyota headquarters in Japan gathered in a custom-built 3-acre staging area to dine and preview 15 new Lexus vehicles.
IF WE BUILD IT The only space available for the car salon at the meeting venue-the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua on Maui, Hawaii-was a 3-acre abandoned baseball field on the beach nearby. "And you couldn't play baseball on it because the ground was so uneven," explains event producer Charles (Chuck) Huddleston Jr., group sales director of GPJ.
With a team including GPJ senior account executive Bradley Gosser and account executive Sean Lenihan, Huddleston set about refashioning the field into a suitable showcase.
The team contracted to excavate, grade and pave 18,000 square feet of the field with concrete that was stamped, dyed and sealed to resemble cobblestones. More than 80 tons of crushed volcanic cinder went in to create walkways. The team laid an irrigation system and seeded the site, bringing in more than 60 15-foot palm trees and more than 300 tropical plants.
Tentnology of Surrey, British Columbia, Canada, provided more than 70,000 square feet of structure for the salon. This included a custom tent joining three saddlespans to create a 15,000-square-foot clearspan unit to showcase the cars. Additional tents housed catering stations and production facilities; the salon used more than 20 tents in all. "It took a full crew one week just to load the six 40-foot containers" to ship the structures, according to Tentnology co-owner Suzanne Warner.
For the look of the salon, "we did not want to suggest the 'new millennium' because we're already in it," Huddleston says. Instead, the team took its inspiration from the Devils Postpile National Monument in California, creating an elemental yet elegant stage for the cars.
A fountain and brass sculptures threw the spotlight onto the main stage. GPJ's designers created lighting to play over custom spandex "space articulators" from Tentnology. GPJ staffer Terry Carder served as lead designer on the project.
The team had to navigate a maze of permits from the state of Hawaii to complete the work. The excavation was always in danger of inadvertently turning up a native relic, which could have halted work. Then just 10 days before the event, the team learned that to enable guest access to the salon site from the hotel, "we had to build a 40-foot pedestrian bridge over a culvert," Huddleston says. "And we did it."
START YOUR ENGINES As the guests arrived at the salon, they were greeted by islanders waving from canoes just offshore. While enjoying cocktails and a buffet, the dealers could mingle and, of course, inspect the new cars. "It's their chance to see and touch them," Huddleston says. Entertainment included a jazz quartet, native Hawaiian music and dance, and the Jim Belushi rock band.
The theme of "the cars are the stars" also applied to the catering at the car salon. San Francisco-based McCall Associates developed a menu for the salon of "straightforward, high quality food-there was no junk," explains president Stephen Denison.
This translated to 6-foot buffets, each focusing on a single, top-quality dish. "One featured a huge rack of lamb, another grilled tenderloin and so on," Denison explains. "We didn't want to offer little pieces of this and that. The guests didn't have to make decisions; everything was easy to eat. We wanted the focus on the cars."
The showpiece of the menu was McCall Associates' "caviar shooters" bar. Along the lines of shooting tequila, guests receive a bit of caviar on their hands, which they flick into their mouths followed by an icy shot of vodka. "Your sense of taste is in your sinuses, and the alcohol carries it," Denison explains. "You get a caviar rush. It's food as entertainment."
With these premium food products, "it's important to have tight specifications," Denison says. "But if you buy properly and portion properly, there's no waste."
Huddleston's goal for the car salon "was to make you say 'wow,'" he explains. "Many of these guys own multiple dealerships; they attend sophisticated events. The Lexus event has to be the best."
And according to the guest survey GPJ conducted after the event, the dealers agree: They gave the event an average score of 95 out of 100, Huddleston says.
Caviar Station Beluga, Osetra and American Paddlefish Caviar with Sour Cream and Housemade Potato Chips
Variety of Iced Vodkas
Seafood Station Iced Prawns with Traditional Cocktail Sauce
Freshly Shucked Oysters on the Half Shell with Wasabi Ketchup, Island Remoulade, Hawaiian Mignonette and Tabasco Sauce with Lemon Wedges
Served from Stations Pulehu Rack of Lamb Pineapple Chutney and Chilled White and Green Asparagus
Grilled Tenderloin Pipikaula Crushed Potatoes and Red Wine Sauce
Onaga Wapped in Ti Leaves Pohole Ferns and Hearts of Palm Salad with Lime Vinaigrette
Smoked Chicken Breast Roasted Red Peppers, Eggplant, Zucchini and Sun-Dried Tomato Tapenade
Pasta Station Wild Mushroom Ravioli and Cheese Agnolotti Choice of Tomato Basil Coulis or Saffron Sauce
Assorted Soft Cheeses St. Andre, Cambozola, Brie
Dessert Station Coconut Bombe with Pineapple and Berry Sauce
George P. Johnson Co. 3541 Challenger St.; Torrance, CA 90503 310/965-4300; Web site: www.gpjcocom