HORSESHOE BAY, Texas — Forget the boring training videos and bulleted brochures.
To better acquaint its retail network with the 2021 Bronco SUV, Ford Motor Co. ditched the standard informational materials for a unique, hands-on boot camp in the mud and rocky crags of Texas Hill Country.
The automaker invited representatives from each of its more than 3,000 U.S. dealerships to come to the Bronco Off-Roadeo, a 360-acre driving school it created outside of Austin as a free perk for new Bronco owners. Dealers got the first crack at traversing miles of curated trails before the site opened to customers so they could better sell the new SUV and build excitement for a subbrand that Ford hopes will steal sales and market share from Jeep.
“Most of us are not experienced off- roaders,” said Brian Farnsworth, an inventory manager at Marcotte Ford in Holyoke, Mass., who attended in May with the store’s president and general manager. “When you talk about terms like ‘approach angle’ and ‘stabilizer bar disconnects,’ they really showed us what those things are and what they do so we can talk about it more intelligently.”
Dealer reps received technical briefings on the vehicle’s various components, learned about voluntary facility upgrade opportunities and saw many of the accessories they can sell alongside the two-door Bronco, four-door Bronco and Bronco Sport crossover. Trained field guides helped attendees navigate challenging trails before they finished the day with a communal bonfire and meal at base camp.
“From the time you drive in under the big arches with the Bronco marquee, you recognize you’re in a place Ford has really put some money into and done right,” said Wes Studdard, vice president of Bluebonnet Motors in New Braunfels, Texas. “I’ve been to different trainings we’ve done, but never have I been to a training facility like this.”
Ford built the school’s 5,500-square-foot lodge from scratch and included personalized touches, including historical Bronco artifacts, exterior light fixtures that have the nameplate’s bucking horse logo and benches made with tailgates from classic models.
There’s also a store full of Bronco-branded mugs, hats, shirts and other apparel.
The automaker declined to say how much it spent on the site, one of four Off-Roadeo schools planned across the U.S. It also wouldn’t discuss the cost of the dealer training, which ran over six weeks. Ford invited journalists to see and drive the Bronco for the first time here in June before opening the property to the first Bronco owners last week.
“It’s a significant investment, but we think it’s really important to train the dealers and build the brand,” said Mark Grueber, Ford’s U.S. consumer marketing manager. “The more immersive you can get with the dealers to help them understand — not just driving around a parking lot trying to explain off-road capability — the more they get from it.”
Ford hasn’t offered such hands-on experiences in the past. While the company has an Octane Academy driving school for its Ford Performance products, it hasn’t ever brought out retailers en masse for dedicated training sessions such as this.
The company offered a free pass for one person from each dealership to attend the Off-Roadeo, though many stores paid extra to send additional employees.
Studdard, who was among the first dealers to attend, said he sent about 20 employees from his Ford store, which is an hour-and-a-half drive away.
“As soon as I came back, we registered as many sales consultants as we could get up there,” Studdard said. “We see the benefit where, if they experience it firsthand, they’ll be able to communicate it to the customer much more effectively.”
Ford conceived of the idea for the Off-Roadeo early in the Bronco’s development as part of its plan to challenge Jeep.
Jeep Jamborees have been popular for years, but the program is run by a private company. Jeep last year announced the launch of what it calls an Adventure Academy, which will take place this year and mirror much of what the Off-Roadeo offers.
Ford also is planning Off-Roadeo sites in Moab, Utah; outside Las Vegas; and at a yet-to-be-disclosed location in the Northeast after a Vermont ski resort pulled out in response to opposition from nearby residents.
Ford found the Texas location, which previously was a private ranch, through a consulting partner, Adventure ORX.
Dave Rivers, Ford’s SUV marketing manager for the U.S., said the company heard from many potential Bronco owners who want to go off-roading but weren’t familiar with the specifics.
“We felt a responsibility in that education,” Rivers said. “Part of that is wanting to teach them how to do it the right way, because it can be intimidating. Our goal is to allow that novice to feel like an expert.”
Bronco customers, like the dealers, must pay for their own hotel and travel costs but will have free access to the site’s trails and guides for a multiple-day experience. They train in a fleet of company-owned vehicles so there’s no concern about dinging up their brand-new Broncos — and so they can attend even before taking delivery, as they wait for Ford to work through its two-year backlog of orders.
Studdard, who has a four-door Bronco First Edition on order, plans to do another Off-Roadeo experience as an owner, but next time he wants to try the Moab location.
“It’s a lot of fun to be out there and see how this thing can rock crawl and ford water,” he said. “What they’ve laid out I’d never do on my own, but with the trainers talking you through it, it’s really easy to understand.”
Read More: Auto News