Inside Porsche's $100 million Disneyland for dads

A company with $100 million to spend has a lot of choices. The sum represents a down-payment on a new factory, enough to bankroll a moonshot research and development project, or snatch up about 11 minutes of Super Bowl ad time. It's stadium-naming money.

Porsche, however, decided the best investment for nine figures was to build a tight network of driving tracks and a cube of glass right next to a runway at one of the world's busiest airports.

The Atlanta facility is at the same time a dealership, driving school, convention centre, office and shrine. Porsche simply calls it the "Experience Centre".

To the 132,000 people descending every day at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, it's a massive, moving billboard. After a soft opening in May, the facility is already a magnet for Porsche purists.

A bare-bones 911 sports car, the core of Porsche's product line, can sprint to 100 kilometres an hour in less than five seconds, eventually hitting a top speed of 288 km/h. Prospective buyers in Los Angeles, the brand's number one market in the US, will have to trust the brochure; speeds on nearby freeways hover around 30 km/h much of the time.

How can you demonstrate innovation without really driving the cars?

Detlev von Platen

It's not much different on the roads around the 200 or so Porsche dealers around the US. Buying a Porsche is like making a reservation for a $10,000 dinner based on Yelp reviews and online photos: You know it's going to be good, but it would be much easier to commit after a taste. "How can you demonstrate innovation without really driving the cars?" says Detlev von Platen, chief executive officer of Porsche's North America unit.

Speed thrills

In Atlanta, sautéed by the Southern sun, one can really drive the cars.

Visitors typically start with a bit of mayhem that a Porsche spokeswoman, Cristina Cheever, refers to as "the symphony". For $200 to $500 an hour, drivers can speed across a wet slab of polished concrete known as a kick plate, which has a sliding section of road geared to put the car into a spin. Drivers scramble to straighten the course as sprinklers spray the road.

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A few yards away, drivers screech around a similarly slick oval trying to maintain a skid - a "drift" in gearhead lingo - in what amounts to a Fast & Furious casting call. The low-friction handling circuit nearby is a wiggly path of concrete on which drivers try to drift from corner to corner like rally racers. Over on the the off-road course, SUV fans spray dirt and climb hills for a close inspection of Delta landing gears.

On a recent tour, it was the only part of the facility at which a requisite driving coach, who is a former race-car driver, expressed trepidation: "I'm not going to lie to you, this next obstacle scares the hell out of me every time." And then comes a straight section for pure, standing-start speed, as well as a sinuous 2.6km track designed to let a casual driver put a Porsche through its paces without hitting lethal trajectory.

The Disneyland for dads

For many drivers, the Porsche Experience Centre will be what Disneyland is to children. While marketers today can target ads by household and seed promotional messages across social networks virtually for free, Porsche has taken a remarkably hands-on strategy: Get people in cars and tell them when to floor it and when to smash the $10,000 carbon brakes.

Calculating an accurate return on such a facility is far trickier. But even at $500 an hour - the most expensive option on the driving menu - it would take about 23 years just to cover the $100 million cost of building the facility, let alone the expenses of operating and financing it.

Von Platen doesn't subscribe to that math. He prefers to think of the 10-year-old who watches dad zoom around the track today and then imagine that child three decades later, buying whatever 911 descendant the company is making by then. It's not all about instantly boosting sales. "This will be one of the strongest ways to differentiate Porsche in this very fast-changing world," he says from a conference room overlooking the track. "What we are doing here might have an impact on somebody who decides to buy in the next three minutes or the next three years."

Competitors can't keep up

What's more, Porsche hasn't had any trouble selling cars lately. In the past decade, global sales in the US have more than doubled to 189,849. In the first half of this year, they increased by an additional 30 per cent.

Lara Koslow, head of Boston Consulting Group's customer insight centre, says savvy luxury brands are going out of their way to create personalised experiences. "I think it's a brilliant move by Porsche," she says. "Today, you can't focus just on leveraging traditional media or putting your product in certain distribution channels. The customer is demanding bespoke service."

Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Kevin Tynan says some kind of private driving instruction on a closed course has become table stakes for companies selling speed machines. For these vehicles, a traditional test drive is either frustrating or dangerous (or both) for the prospective buyer. "Dealers, in particular, love these places," Tynan says.

Indeed, nearly every premium marque now has some version of a performance driving school. Most, however, have taken a far less aggressive financial course. Mercedes, for example, simply rents famous tracks for its "AMG Driving Academy", a strategy also employed by Jaguar and Lamborghini. BMW has a two-mile track near its plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina, but the facility cost $12.5 million, far less than Porsche's Atlanta site.

An engine room with a difference

The Porsche Experience Centre, filled with warm wood and natural light, is probably the most expensive part of the complex. It also might be the part that pays for the whole shebang. In addition to office space for some 450 Porsche employees, there is 13,000 square-feet of meeting space, a cafe and a fine-dining restaurant, a museum, driving simulators, and a gym stacked with both weights and lab equipment.

In short, for a corporate meeting planner, Porsche's new nerve centre offers far more memorable options than a ropes course or a round of golf. Powerpoints in the morning, and power slides on the track after lunch. As of the day it opened, the centre was already booked two months out. Film producers have reserved the building for shoots that have nothing to do with cars. There has been one marriage proposal on the premises, plus one (unrelated) wedding.

Porsche won't have to worry about the Mercedes driving school if it steals enough business from convention centres and the bachelor party casino/strip-club complex. That's one of the main reasons the site sits at the end of a runway at the busiest airport in America; it's within 2.5 hours of 80 per cent of US residents. "Our intent is to have a business case in which what we are offering here is carrying itself without [vehicle] sales," Von Platen says.

Global appeal

The model appears to be working. Porsche has similar complexes in the UK, France and Germany. Additional ones are in the works for Istanbul, Moscow and Shanghai. It is already building an Experience Centre in Los Angeles that will be double the size of the Atlanta site. That Porsche playground is expected to open in the US autumn of 2016.

In Georgia, however, Von Platen is just getting warmed up. He's thinking about expanding the track and wondering what to do with an empty 30 acres next door to it. A hotel, he says, makes a lot of sense. "The energy of this place is unique and it's not static," he says. "It's a young baby."

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