Over-The-Road Marketing

Sept. 1, 2000
Truck trailers can do more than haul freight - they can be turned into unique marketing tools as well.What do you call a 53-ft. trailer that can turn into a movie theater, driving simulator, miniature theme park or museum? It's a Mobile Activity Unit (MAU), and it represents a new kind of marketing endeavor - one that relies on trucks and trailers to spread its unique message.Mobile Activity Units

Truck trailers can do more than haul freight - they can be turned into unique marketing tools as well.

What do you call a 53-ft. trailer that can turn into a movie theater, driving simulator, miniature theme park or museum? It's a Mobile Activity Unit (MAU), and it represents a new kind of marketing endeavor - one that relies on trucks and trailers to spread its unique message.

Mobile Activity Units are the brainchild of Pfafftown, N.C.-based Spevco Inc., which stands for "Special Events Vehicles and Creative Operations." The company basically takes two trailer axles and builds specialized trailers that contain museums, movie theaters, and just about anything else you can imagine.

Spevco's customers run the gamut, including European car maker Audi, soft-drink giant Coca-Cola, tobacco conglomerate R. J. Reynolds, the Bank of America, British Airways and Walt Disney World.

What Spevco offers these and dozens of other companies is a new form of marketing that's gained in popularity in recent years: the corporate road show.

"What we provide is a great opportunity for a client to interact with customers," says Timothy P. Flavin, Spevco's director of sales and marketing. "We provide a one-to-one experience for the client's customer. It's a chance to interact with them during recreation time at sporting events, state fairs and other festivals with something that's more entertainment than advertisement."

Since Spevco is both a creative design and an engineering company, it can play a variety of roles for its corporate clients, says Flavin. "Some clients come to us with ideas already fleshed out, so we only have to construct the trailer," he explains. "Others want us to provide the creative ideas as well. We're set up to do as much or as little as our clients want."

Spevco provides several levels of services for its corporate clientele, including itinerary planning, site research, transportation and setup, staffing, marketing data collection, security and maintenance.

The company is divided into several departments to handle that wide range of needs. The creative services department develops artist illustrations, concepts and floor plans for a client's particular MAU. Once an idea is finalized - a creative process that can take months - the engineering department draws up specifications for the trailers involved, as well as any other components the unit will carry.

After the specs are set, the fabrication department takes over and builds the trailer and other exhibits, while the details department takes care of the specialty features, such as woodworking, exterior decals and paint schemes for both trucks and trailers.

Spevco built an MAU that was part drag racing museum and part bar and lounge, complete with two large-screen flat-panel televisions and a ceiling made out of 12,600 Copenhagen snuff cans, for U.S. Tobacco and Don Prudhome Racing.

For R. J. Reynolds, Spevco built one of the world's largest traveling movie screens to promote the company's NASCAR Winston Cup races. Seven tractor-trailers were required to haul the huge display, which consisted of a three-story, 240,000-cu.-ft. outer shell protecting a 20-ft. high, 207-seat, 70-mm theater equipped with 14 amplifiers and 52 loudspeakers.

Then there's the "Down Under Tour" Spevco created for Bank of America to promote its sponsorship of the 2000 Olympics being held in Australia this year.

The end result required two tractors and two 53-ft. trailers. Spevco designed the shell of one trailer to be raised hydraulically and stand on its end to create the exhibit's flaming tower centerpiece. The sides of that trailer unfolded into a staging area, creating a replica of Sydney's Opera House, complete with a 30 x 45-ft. theater seating 90 people. The second trailer, a standard dry van model, carried an Aborigine art exhibit and a fold-out canopy to create a reception area.

It takes a minimum of three months for Spevco to build one of its unique creations, though 16 weeks is the average time the company takes to build something from the ground up, excluding any front-end creative design work.

Hauling these one-of-a-kind creations are 23 Class 8 tractors, 12 of which are Kenworth T-2000s leased through Paccar Leasing.

Drivers operate in teams of two and work three weeks on and three weeks off. Spevco could have 15 tours on the road at any one time, some consisting of several tractor-trailers and chase vehicles to haul support equipment.

Each of Spevco's trailer designs is so different that they tend to be purpose-specific: intended for use by one client alone. However, the company keeps five or six special multi-use trailers in its inventory that can be reused several times for clients who don't require large-scale exhibits and need something on the road quickly.

Spevco's operations staff is responsible for those rental units, as well as for the company's trucks and drivers. Joe Patrick, Spevco's operations manager, recognizes the important role transportation planning plays in the business.

"Flawless execution of tours is a critical element in our success," he says. "The same essential qualities needed on the creative and engineering side of the business - creativity, flexibility, and reliability - are also needed on the transportation side. We have absolutely no room in our schedule for breakdowns, so preventive maintenance and emergency roadside assistance is key to keeping our tours rolling."

According to Flavin, the trucks themselves are also integrated into the touring package. "They're built into the whole concept," he says. "We use a variety of decal systems to coordinate thelogos on the trailers with those on the trucks."

Spevco actually began life in 1975 as an automotive body shop called Special Vehicle Co. That's because Frank "Marty" Tharpe Jr., Spevco's president and CEO, is an auto buff at heart.

A self-taught mechanic, Tharpe left his job at Southern Bell to work with local auto body wizard Paul Hill. After gaining much-needed experience, he opened his own shop 25 years ago with his brother Craig. They provided automotive painting and body work services, built full-scale replicas and restored antique cars.

Then R.J. Reynolds asked Tharpe if he could build a full-scale tractor-trailer display the tobacco giant could take to PGA golf tournaments. At this point Tharpe changed his company's name to Special Events Vehicles and Creative Options, and left the automotive body business behind.

Spevco believes that corporate-road-show marketing is still very much in its infancy, with plenty of room for growth. It's also a style of marketing that relies on trucks and trailers for its success. In fact, Spevco is planning to expand its mobile marketing concept to step vans and other straight trucks.

"It's a very diverse program; one that enhances, but doesn't necessarily replace, traditional marketing mediums," Flavin adds. "But without trucks, this form of marketing doesn't exist."

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