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Forget Woodstock These Folks Are Headin' To Spring Hill


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FORGET WOODSTOCK--THESE FOLKS ARE HEADIN' TO SPRING HILL

Question: If 30,000 Saturns are parked in the same lot, how do you find the one that's yours? Answer: Be sure to apply your special I.D. decal to the car before you leave it.

That's the sort of happy dilemma faced by the planners of the Saturn Homecoming in Spring Hill, Tenn., on June 24-25--a huge confab for owners of cars made by the General Motors Corp. unit. Hard as it is to believe, Saturn owners from as far away as Taiwan, Hawaii, and Alaska are flocking to the tiny town (estimated population, 3,500) where their cars were made. They will be entertained by country music star Wynonna Judd, will browse through craft fairs--and, of course, tour the Saturn assembly plant.

Many attendees have planned their vacations around this automotive Woodstock. Bob Steele, a retired oil-field worker, and his wife, Jeannine, are part of a California caravan making the 10-day, 2,200-mile trek, with stops at Saturn dealerships along the way. "We're being treated like royalty," says Steele. "You can't beat it."

"AFFECTION." All this to celebrate a car? Quirky, sure, for an econobox to inspire the loyal following of a fancy sports car. But Saturn's popularity is partly the result of a carefully calculated marketing campaign. Saturn won't say how much it's spending on the Spring Hill event, which fits the folksy image the GM division has nurtured since its 1990 debut. The cult of Saturn "is corporately manipulated," says Stuart W. Leslie, a history professor at Johns Hopkins University and a happy Saturn owner. "But it only works because people feel a genuine affection for the company." Why else have many owners volunteered to work as greeters at local dealerships?

Saturn and its dealers have been remarkably successful in cultivating a bond with buyers. "With Saturn, you feel part of something different," says Joe Hardison, an Apopka (Fla.) owner who's trekking to Spring Hill. Sales staff give new owners a big send-off cheer on the showroom floor when they take delivery of their new car. Then they welcome them back for weekend barbecues and car clinics. Customer coddling has helped Saturn's sales rebound this spring, after several sluggish months. May sales jumped 14% from the year earlier, to nearly 26,000, and Saturn's inventory of unsold cars dropped 46%, to a 54-days' supply.

Saturn Homecoming is just another form of customer appreciation, says Donald W. Hudler, the company's vice-president for sales, service, and marketing. The event was a response to hundreds of requests to view Saturn's assembly line. Still, Hudler adds: "We're kind of astonished that so many people are making the time commitment to come."

Saturn is taking full advantage of the event. Its advertising agency, Hal Riney & Partners, created television ads that wryly poke fun at the notion of Saturn devotees passing up national treasures such as Yellowstone National Park's Old Faithful "to meet the guys who put the window stripping on their cars."

TATTOOS, TOO. More than 2,000 of Saturn's 8,700 workers have volunteered to greet visitors, drive shuttle buses, and staff food booths. Six stages will provide live music, including a performance by Judd that also features Olympic gold-medal skater Dan Jansen and gospel singers CeCe and BeBe Winans. The company is charging admission of $34 for adults and $17 for children, but visitors also can use their ticket for free admission to the nearby Opryland USA theme park.

Saturn picked up some tips by sending a team of organizers to study Harley-Davidson's reunion last year, when nearly 100,000 leather-clad bikers descended on Milwaukee. Maybe that's where the idea for the tattoo parlor came from. (Of course, the ink on the Saturn logo tattoo will be removable.) Can't make it to Spring Hill? No sweat. Local Saturn dealers are staging their own wingdings that could draw 100,000 more folks.

Still, why would so many people opt to spend their vacation at Spring Hill? Says Long Island (N.Y.) Saturn dealer Michael Lazarus: "America is a funny place." And for one weekend in late June, a small town in rural Tennessee will be just a little kookier than most.

SATURN'S HOMECOMING: THE VITAL STATS

EXPECTED ATTENDEES 20,000 to 30,000

LONGEST TRIP from Taiwan

EMPLOYEE VOLUNTEERS 2,000

MIMES, CLOWNS, AND JUGGLERS 12

SIGNS 1,169

TENTS 200

CINNAMON BUNS 6,000

TRASH CANS 92

TATTOO PARLORS One (washable tattoos only)

BIGGEST CHALLENGE Finding your Saturn in

the parking lot at

day's end

DATA: COMPANY REPORTS, BUSINESS WEEKKathleen Kerwin with Deidre A. Depke in Detroit


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