Stepping up customer appreciation

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Businesses offer VIP treatment for the most exclusive executive clientele

Story by Lee Marie Reinsch

Forget the yearly fruit basket, the customer appreciation dinners, the company-logo T-shirts and the chintzy key chains. Everyone else will.

If you really want to say ‘thank you’ to your best client or court a prospective one, you’ve got to stand out from the herd. Many local companies are doing just that and injecting a surge of adrenaline into their tokens of gratitude. They’re blowing off steam while upping morale, too, by creating memories rather than clutter.

Flying high

Every year, a handful of companies treat their special guests to a view of the Fox Valley by bird’s eye – in a “Tin Goose.”

Experimental Aircraft Association’s antique aircraft takes them a step back in time.

“The 1929 Ford Tri-Motor passenger plane was one of America’s first successful airliners, back when everybody dressed up to go off flying and you got real silverware,” said Dick Knapinski, a spokesman for the Oshkosh-based organization which runs AirVenture, an annual international aviation convention hosted at Wittman Regional Airport.

The Tri-Motor seats 10 and is one of eight in the world still in operation. Renting the entire plane for a brief flight costs around $1,000.

Knapinski called it a unique opportunity for companies, especially if their client is an aviation buff.

“It’s something completely unusual,” he said.

For a lower-key diversion for one person at a time, Knapinski suggests an open cockpit biplane ride in a classic two-seater barnstormer.

“You get to put on a leather helmet and goggles,” Knapinski said. “You sit out in the open air, the pilot sits behind you, and you go flying with the wind in your hair and bugs in your teeth, and everything else.”

A 15-minute flight costs around $90, according to Knapinski.

Pedal to the metal

Every spring, for $300 per person, the Lamers Racing Driving Experience event at Road America near Elkhart Lake, lets dozens from the suit-and-tie crowd pretend they’re Jeff Gordon.

“They come back with a big smile on their face,” said Denny Lamers, founder of the annual charity fundraising event and president of engineering firm McMahon in Neenah.

Most bring their own cars including Porsches, Corvettes, Mustangs and Lamborghinis – but some choose to take a ride in Lamers’ customized stock car, a Winston Cup car once belonging to NASCAR driver Matt Kenseth.

“That’ll go 170 miles per hour out there,” Lamers said. “We get them belted in with a fire suit on – just like a race car driver, except you don’t have the steering wheel or the pedal.”

Lamers had the car retrofitted with a passenger seat specifically for the annual benefit.

Lamers Motor Racing Inc. and its partners pay for the event: corner workers, wreckers, fire trucks, ambulances and track rental, plus lunch.

The $300 ticket is 100 percent tax-deductible, and all of the proceeds go to youth-related charities.

Lamers brings a couple of his own one-seaters and barely gets a chance to take a spin himself.

“We’re primarily there to let them drive their own cars around the Road America race track, with nobody coming the other way, as fast as they want, and safely,” Lamers said.

Participants consist mainly of business executives and CEOs, Lamers said.

“It’s a good day to hang out, especially for ‘car guys,’ and to talk about how well or how poorly they did.”

Lamers and Cliff Ebben of Appleton race professionally for Lamers Motor Racing in the Trans Am Series. Lamers has three other drivers who race stock cars at Wisconsin International Raceway in Kaukauna.

Other side of the track

Think of Road America and you automatically think of race cars, not geocaching and paintballing or go-karting.

“This facility here isn’t your traditional motorsports facility,” said Mike Kertscher, director of programs with the 640-acre Road America. “It’s multipurpose.”

Even though they only have two race tracks, Road America hosts around 470 events a year there.

“The majority of our events are off-track,” he said. Think motorcycle schools for beginners and driving schools for teens or winter driving.

“Our corporate entertaining niche has grown exponentially, probably in part due to our beautiful facility and our centralized location,” Kertscher said.

The four-mile track intertwines throughout the entire grounds.

“We do on-track experiences like pace-car rides and racing schools,” Kertscher said. They offer off-road ATV tours through the grounds’ wooded areas.

Last year DuPont Corp. brought its employees for a one-day course in winter driving techniques, lane-change maneuvers, and unpredictable situations.

“It’s our way of getting new people here and doing good things for the facility and showcasing the facility for a new generation,” Kertscher said.

Packing it in

It’s practically expected in some professional strata that if you do business with someone in Green Bay, they’ll take you to a Packers game.

Private suites or single game suites (indoor and outdoor) can make that experience cozy.

“Each suite has amenities and benefits including parking passes and in-seat food and beverages,” said Jennifer Ark, director of stadium services with the Green Bay Packers.

Plus, suite-holders have been known to get extras such as invitations to training camp and mini-camp practices, draft-day parties, autographs from Packers alums, and before-game field visits, according to the Packers.

On non-game days or after a game there’s Curly’s Pub, which is open during construction, or a tour of Lambeau Field.

“Private stadium tours are a hit for companies to entertain employees, families and potential business clients independently or in addition to their already booked Lambeau Field event,” Ark said.

While the Packers Hall of Fame is closed until April 2015 for redevelopment,  a temporary exhibit at the Neville Public Museum opens this April.

Rent a PGA chalet

For between $165,000 and $270,000,  a private hospitality chalet can be rented for 50 or 100 people near the ninth hole at the 2015 PGA Championship at Sheboygan’s Whistling Straits. Two others, near the 17th and 18th holes, are already booked: Companies have been reserving space since July 2013.

Chalets don’t have sleeping quarters like resorts – but companies can get their chalet personalized with their own unique brand by décor specialists.

Jason Mengel, 2015 PGA Championship director, likens chalets to private box seats at a Brewer’s game.

“You have a private area that has tables, chairs, food and bar services just for your company,” he said. “Out front there’s a patio that would offer your guests a ‘proximity-to-play.’”

These chalets sell in 50- and 100-person allotments and include tickets to the championship.

For smaller parties, there are other packages available, which may share amenities with other smaller groups. A shared hospitality facility (basically a big tent) right off the 1st hole can be rented in 10-person increments.

The Gene Serazen Suites on Hole 16 combine the private chalet concept with shared foodservice in 30-person increments.

Champion’s Club guests also share food and beverage areas with others.

Mengel says that when companies treat their people to PGA tickets, they’re making an investment in that person.

“We have clients who are hosting not only local customers but regional, national and even international,” Mengel said. “They’ll bring customers from all over the world, specifically (to) the chalets … They may use that as a venue to roll out new products. They’re inviting their best customers to come and have a unique experience around that new product.”

Two appreciation events between now and the 2015 PGA Championship include:

Taste of the PGA Championship in September: Chalet clients meet their service providers – interior designers, caterers, transportation providers, etc.

The Corporate Cup in Spring 2015 gives certain clients a day of golf on the course just months before the PGA.

The little museum that could

How about getting your guests on the right track with a private train ride?

The National Rail Road Museum in Ashwaubenon offers 20- to 25-minute rides on an open-air rail car (weather appropriate) or enclosed cab as a standalone activity, or with a tour or facility rental.

“One of our conductors comes on board and he’ll give a narrated tour with information about the various pieces so guests know what they’re seeing on their journey with us,” said Deanna Novak, the museum’s director of sales. “We have a 1.5-mile track, so we go around a couple times, and during that time, the conductor would tell them,

‘This is one of our pieces, this is what it does, this is where it came from, and that kind of thing.”

Depending on season and weather, guests take either an open-air car with benches or a single-level coach with an enclosed cab. The latter can accommodate 65 people.

The National Railroad Museum is among the oldest of its kind and has a number of historic trains from the United States and Europe, representing over 100 years of railroad history.

Train ride and facility-rental package prices vary, so it’s a good idea to call for rates once you’ve got an idea of your group’s size and needs. A typical facility rental of 3 ½ hours with 200 guests might cost $500, plus $250 for three departures of train rental.

Lee Reinsch writes and edits from Green Bay.