SBJ/20090316/This Week's News

Petty Experience targets return customers

If membership really does have its privileges, Richard Petty Driving Experience customers will find a reason to return for another loop around the track in an authentic NASCAR car.

RPDE, which offers the NASCAR driving experience to the common fan, will launch a membership program this week called Experience Rewards, which will give returning customers the chance to drive again for lower prices.

The program is the result of an exhaustive survey of 20,000 RPDE customers by PricewaterhouseCoopers. It revealed high satisfaction rates and a willingness to return soon, but most of them don’t.

While a third said that they’d come back for another drive in the next 12 months, only 11 percent did return and it took them an average of 32 months.

“The RPDE business has grown 10 times over the past 10 years with very nominal marketing and in spite of the fact that we’re churning 90 percent of our customers each year,” said Mike Bartelli, chief marketing officer of Petty Holdings, RPDE’s parent company.

For years, RPDE and Petty Enterprises were flagship companies in the Richard Petty empire. Petty Enterprises housed the NASCAR race team, while RPDE was a separate business that gave fans the chance to drive a NASCAR car around a race track, just like the pros do.

Both companies were bought last year by Boston Ventures, which eventually sold off the race team but retains controlling interest of the profitable RPDE. The Experience last year entertained 40,000 customers who drove a race car (packages start at $399) and an additional 55,000 who went for a ride-along (prices start at $99).

Customers who want to come back for another
drive can now do it at a lower price.

Bartelli, who built Millsport’s racing division and joined Petty Holdings last year as part of the Boston Ventures regime, commissioned a deeper study of RPDE business in 2008. In trying to counter the customer turnover, he looked at the entry point of $399 for driving and wondered how prohibitive it might be.

The membership program will grant previous customers automatic entry into “Experience Rewards” and give them the chance to drive for $199 instead of $399. Of the 20-plus tracks nationally where RPDE is offered, Indianapolis and Daytona are the only exclusions from this program. Tracks at Charlotte, Las Vegas and Orlando (Disney) are considered RPDE’s main bases.

A member is allowed to bring up to three guests, each of whom is eligible for a $50 discount from a drive or ride-along package. In turn, that guest becomes a member of the program.

“We’re trying to take price off the table as a barrier to customers who love the product,” Bartelli said. “We need to make ourselves more accessible to everyone.”

Bartelli said that while business has been solid, most RPDE sites reach only 70 percent to 80 percent of their capacity. RPDE’s two primary costs are personnel and track rental, and neither of those expenses change much if the bookings increase.

“We can get considerably busier,” he said. “Like everyone else, the economy is not our friend and we’ve got to get more aggressive and innovative.”

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