For the past 3 years, PrairieLand Partners’ Emporia, Kan., location has led hundreds of participants through the scenic Flint Hills riding on Gator utility vehicles as part of a charity fundraiser. The annual “Gator Rally” happens over the course of 4 days and each night employee volunteers from the dealership prepare and serve a meal to participants under the blue June sky.

About 240 people participated in the sold-out event this past June. More than $40,000 was raised for local charities through attendee donations and sponsorships from 21 local businesses. The event has raised thousands more since its beginning — and is building loyalty and brand recognition for the dealership.

Paul du Toit, branch manager of PrairieLand’s Emporia location and one of the event’s organizers, says organizing the rally takes commitment and help from the entire dealership, but has helped them grow as a team. An added bonus: carrying out the planning and logistics has helped develop strong leadership skills in the employees. The John Deere dealership has 9 other locations throughout Kansas.

Creating Value for Sponsors

The first annual Gator Rally, held in June 2012, was planned solely as a customer appreciation event and an avenue to demonstrate and garner interest in the dealership’s utility vehicles. It was free for attendees and du Toit says this first event was so popular that people kept asking when the next one would be held.

With the success of the first rally, PrairieLand decided to up the ante and use the event to help give back to the community, turning it into a fundraising event with local sponsors for area charities.

However, finding sponsors for the first fundraiser Gator Rally took considerable effort. The essential first step was convincing key leaders and businesses in the community to show their support.

“I first took this idea to someone prominent in the community, who had no loyalty to me or the dealership, and asked their opinion on the idea to get a neutral point of view,” he says. “The next thing we did was create a flyer to promote the event and our dealership to sell us as a partner that local businesses would want to work with and sponsor. Our slogan on that first flyer was ‘Partner with Us,’ a play on our dealership’s name.

RLD Promotion

This is one example of a promotion PrairieLand Partners’ Emporia, Kan., location uses to advertise the Gator Rally in the community. Paul du Toit, branch manager of the Emporia, Kan., location, says it’s important to have the event’s sponsors prominently displayed in promotions to add value to the event for them.

“We took that flyer around town to prominent businesses and they gave us some constructive, but very helpful feedback. They told us our flyer screamed our company’s name and if they were going to be persuaded to sponsor our Gator Rally, they would want our promotions and event to scream their company’s name, too,” says du Toit.

The dealership learned an important lesson: If they were going to create a successful event with sponsors, the dealership was going to need to make the event worthwhile for everyone, not just PrairieLand.

“The dealership gets automatic recognition because this is our event — it’s the PrairieLand Partners’ Gator Rally,” du Toit explains. “But if a sponsor is going to participate, they need to be able to see a value, too. Based on the initial feedback we received, we completely revamped our promotion and made it more neutral so it reflected our sponsors just as much, if not more, than it reflected the dealership.”

The new promotion has the PrairieLand logo smaller and in the corner while the logos of the sponsors fill up almost the entire promotion.

With the revamped promotion, PrairieLand was able to secure its first sponsors for the event by going door-to-door. But du Toit says once they had a few businesses on board, they’ve now been able to garner more interest from local businesses each year.

“It’s critical to establish credibility early on with an event like the Gator Rally. If you maintain a level of quality and consistency each year and find the icons in your community and get them on board, the rest will come. For our most recent Gator Rally, we had businesses who told us ‘no’ 2 years in a row and now they are coming to us and asking to be put on the sponsor list for the next rally,” he says. “The first year, we asked for a $500 sponsorship and we thought that was a lot at the time. With the interest we had this year, we have now been able to offer a $1,000 sponsorship level and a $1,200 sponsorship level.”

Promoting the Event

PrairieLand does most of its promotions for the event through a local radio station and newspaper, which provide the dealership with free promotions for the event as a value add for the advertising it does throughout the year. The event’s sponsors are mentioned frequently in these media promotions for months leading up to the event, and du Toit says this is one of the ways the dealership adds value for the sponsor.

“Don’t hesitate to leverage your business relationships to benefit your fundraising efforts,” he says of the dealership’s partnership with the local radio station and newspaper.

In addition, banners with all of the sponsors’ names are placed on the backs of the utility vehicles for the event and the dealership offers a utility vehicle for the company to use at the event as well.

“Most of our sponsors are local, but we also sometimes get outside sponsors as well because of the exposure the event provides. We have had some shortline manufacturers sponsor the event as a way to get more local exposure. We also get co-ops that want to be acknowledged as having a local presence. Any business that wants to gain some local loyalty is a potential sponsor for the event,” du Toit says.

Planning the Rally

The first step in planning the Gator Rally begins around the end of December, about 5 months before the event, when PrairieLand secures the sponsors. Once each sponsorship has been sold, the team at PrairieLand can begin promotions, which happens in the middle of February, about 3 months prior to the event.

Planning the Gator Rally each year takes commitment from volunteers at the Emporia PrairieLand location and du Toit credits the employees’ commitment to the company’s “Managing by Values” system. Through the system, each location in the dealership creates a committee made up of one person from each department — sales, parts and service. This committee helps plan and organize events that will be put on by the dealership, such as the Gator Rally. Each of PrairieLand Partners’ 9 locations is required to plan and execute at least one community event each year.

Outside the Managing by Values committee, du Toit says many other dealership employees have stepped up and taken an interest in planning the event and have formed a subcommittee for each event that meets regularly during the 2 months leading up to it.

Taking part in the event is not mandatory at the dealership. Instead, employees are encouraged to volunteer their time in an area that they want to lead and are given complete ownership of their area of responsibility.

“Our administrative assistant and senior salesperson at the dealership put a lot of time into planning and setting up meetings to begin laying the groundwork and timeline of the Gator Rally in January,” he says. “As the store manager, I am also openly engaged in the program and finding sponsors for the event. It’s a total team effort. We establish deadlines and goals for each assignment to get everything taken care of.”

Two dealership employees volunteer to be responsible for the meals at the event. Another is responsible for the transportation of the utility vehicles from the dealership into the Flint Hills. One employee secures tables and chairs for the dinner and other volunteers serve as lead and follow vehicles on the ride through the hills.

“We keep the entire location involved from bringing suggestions for local charities, to voting for their charity of choice, to updates on sponsors, the number of available seats left and encouraging each other to take part,” du Toit says.

Asking employees to volunteer to plan and put together the Gator Rally has helped develop and promote leadership throughout the dealership.

“We’ve always wanted employees to be more involved so they can connect with making a difference in the community, so we came up with the idea of having volunteer employees from non-managerial positions give welcome and dinner speeches at the Gator Rally,” he says. “Each night of the event, two employees are given the opportunity to show some leadership initiative by writing and giving a speech. The employees put a lot of effort into their speeches and we guide and help them along the way, but they take on a lot of the responsibility and connect directly with our community. Some of them get very nervous about representing our company publicly, so when they are successful and they receive all of the positive feedback from our team and the community, it takes them to the next level of confidence in their performance and leadership ability.”

Seeing the Benefits

The Gator Rally requires a long-term vision in order to see a direct benefit, du Toit says. That being said, he adds the Emporia location has seen an increase in utility vehicle sales over the last 3 years they have been holding the fundraiser.

“Our location sells twice as many utility vehicles as any other location in our company, and we are not even in the largest potential area,” du Toit says. “The Gator Rally has given us great exposure and we’ve sold more utility vehicles as a result. This didn’t just happen over night, though. It has made a noticeable difference over a few years.”

Another direct result of the fundraiser is an increase in community loyalty and recognition. “We are now viewed as a respected business in our community and have set the example for other businesses in the area. People have seen the professionalism and commitment of out team,” he says.

“We also have some increased flexibility with customers as a result. When things maybe haven’t gone exactly as we planned or hoped, our customers are a little more flexible and forgiving because they know that we care,” he says. “The Gator Rally has changed the way the community looks at our business. We built a high level of credibility because attendees and sponsors make out their checks to the charities and we hand them directly over to the charity, but never collect any money ourselves.”

Dealer Takeaways

  • Think big when it comes to your next community support event and involve your entire team in the planning and implementation.
  • Ask other businesses to participate in fundraising events to build relationships and increase the event’s impact.
  • Find ways to let employees test their skills and develop new ones by serving on fundraising event teams.