Working closely with Fort’s Toyota of Pekin in Illinois, the dealership’s vehicle service manager, Eric Stahl, has established an organization of Toyota owners known as the Fort’s Trail Team. Responding to questions posed by Aftermarket Business World, he recently described the details of the endeavor:
What is the Fort’s Trail Team?
The Trail Team is a dealership-sanctioned off-road club for Central Illinois Toyota truck enthusiasts.
Mike Fort, our dealer principal, was a Chrysler/Jeep franchisee for years and did Rubicon events with his Jeeps. He kind of predicted the future of retail when we started getting myself and other members of the dealer staff involved in the hobby.
I take customers to events and participate in Toyota Land Cruiser Association (TLCA) events with dealer vehicles, and it’s considered a bit of a perk of the job. Even if it sometimes feels like work, it’s fun work!
Does it bring in business to your dealership, service center and accessories sales department?
The ultimate goal of this was to create an experience that was more than just a retail transaction. A customer who feels comfortable using their Toyota truck off-road and plays at the off-road parks with myself or other staff members is going to be a great long term customer — and an advocate for the product.
It was a slow roll to translate into business at first, but we are now doing lifts, oversized tires and other accessories because of our presence in the off-road community. If you see a lifted Toyota in our area, there’s a good chance we did it in our shop with our techs. Customers who do these upgrades also seem to be very loyal and buy their other vehicles from us when the time comes.
What are some of the aftermarket products that you feature?
I try to be impartial about what brands we will use and install, but we have been very happy with ARB for our accessories because they back up what they sell with solid warranties and hassle-free exchanges.
Meyer Distributing offers a million items with quick delivery, so we use them as much as possible as well.
We see other aftermarket companies on the trails all the time. Nitto Gears, Marlin Crawler and lots of smaller shops participate in TLCA events. I was led on my first trail in Colorado by a Toyota truck supplier named PureFJcruiser. I think these companies have shown the manufacturer that it’s important to be present at events that are dedicated to their products.
Do manufacturers send you products to try out?
I have not solicited from any manufacturer for freebies, but it might be a mutually benefiting transaction for them to outfit the Trail Team main trail rig, a 2010 4Runner appropriately called “Tree Hugger.” This dealership truck has been coast-to-coast and is known at off-road events all over the U.S. at this point.
We see other aftermarket companies on the trails all the time. Nitto Gears, Marlin Crawler and lots of smaller shops participate in TLCA events.
I was led on my first trail in Colorado by a Toyota truck supplier named PureFJcruiser. I think these companies have shown the manufacturer that it’s important to be present at events that are dedicated to their products.
You also participate in other customer-centric and staff-involved events too, correct?
Yes. Motorsports is something our staff of sales and technicians are really interested in. So, we have taken a 2013 FRS and outfitted it for autocross events.
Here is another example of participating in events of local interest to get our name out, but also bond our staff and their families with a “perk” of driving a “racecar!” We are looking at doing a GR Supra for the 2020 season.
Do you emphasize the environmental aspects of off-roading that are increasingly garnering more attention?
I would say that we are very aware of outdoor ethics when doing off-road events.
We want to make sure public lands are used responsibly, and that sometimes means leaving them better than you found them.
I am completely happy if I can bring more trash out of a park than I came in with. Education about this is also shared when we camp or off-road with customers and staff.
Aside from off-roading outings, what are some of the activities that the Trail Team does?
We have a couple get-togethers here in the Fort’s shop throughout the year. Just cooking burgers and opening the shop is enough to get a good crowd out to the store to talk about our rigs between off-road events. We usually do these as a prep night a week or two out before we head out on a trip: Make sure nothing is going to fail on the trail!
Where are some of the places that you go for off-roading?
So, we are in Central Illinois…it’s a really bad location for this hobby (because the amount of suitable sites is limited.) We are fortunate that we have a few off-road parks within a few hours drive. Badlands OffRoad Park in Attica, Ind. is a go-to. It’s large enough to have a variety of obstacles and terrain changes that make it fun for everyone. It’s also got enough easy-to-hard areas that we can take nearly anyone with us. “Stock” to “built,” it’s a fun place to go.
How many people typically participate in a given event?
We have sometimes gone with two or three trucks, and also all the way up to 12 during our last trip to Arkansas for a TLCA event called Southern Cruiser Crawl. Or somewhere in between (relating to the amount of participants).
How long do the trips last? How far do you travel?
Most of the trips we do are weekend getaways. Southern Cruiser Crawl, which we do every year like clockwork, usually starts off with us leaving on a Wednesday and coming back on a Sunday. We have some Colorado and Moab, Utah trips over the year and those are generally a week. The farthest I have driven is to California. Three years ago we went on a trip to Mojave Road, and then participated in Cruise Moab on the same trip. It was 10 days and a lot of driving from Central Illinois.
You stay at hotels along the way? Or does everyone camp out?
When you are driving to Colorado or California a hotel is an easy stop for the night, and that’s not a big deal. We use KOAs as an easy stop as well for a quick campsite.
Do you camp out at your destinations? Or stay at hotels, lodges and other resort-type accommodations?
When we are in Colorado or Utah, we are trying to camp at all times. Even at the local off-road park, we will try to camp if we stay overnight. When it’s guys and kids nobody seems to mind. My wife, on the other hand, she is not so patient with more than three days on the trail without facilities, so we usually find a nice stop in the middle of the trip as needed! Hot showers.
How do you decide where to go? Is that something you do, or does the membership provide suggestions?
We start making plans the day we get back from the last trip. There are some places that are easy and everyone enjoys – Moab and Ouray. The online communities are always sharing and posting information about places to take trips and where to wheel. So, as we see opportunities and interest the group as a whole, we throw those ideas around.
How do you attract participants for the trips? How do you get the word out and sign people up?
It’s all social media. We do a great job of sharing video, pictures and life footage from the events we are participating in. Southern Cruiser Crawl and Badlands are our immediate go-to’s for anyone. We have a little bit of a vetting process for folks who have never been out with us. We prefer to go to the local off-road park first so we can all get familiar with the skill level of the drivers involved.
What happens if there’s a breakdown or wreck along the way or at an event? People double up in vehicles and tow the carnage home?
I don’t want to jinx myself, but we have never had to tow a rig home. We have had some serious breakdowns in the field…upper control arm in Moab…timing jump at 9,000 feet in Ouray…or a busted tie-rod at the off-road park. Fortunately, as a dealership with the resources and knowledge we have we have fixed and repaired everything as we have come across the problem. It’s not always pretty, and it will sometimes lose a day on the trail, but its part of the adventure!
How much does the typical trip cost the participants? Do they pay in advance? Do they pay for things along the way, or are most expenses covered in advance by the trip fee?
It’s no charge! You get our expert tour services and cooking for free. We have helped pay gas and compensate employees as they participate in the events. We want to get interest in the hobby, and that is a small price to pay if it keeps an employee motivated.
How much do the trips cost Fort’s? Do you make money from them? Or is it more a public service thing and/or a promotion for the company? Or is it an efficient method for providing the staff with a vacation and friendship-building excursion?
I consider it advertising. That’s one of the reasons I stop and take so-many pictures of the trucks and post what we are doing. The trip is fun, but it’s still work, and I need to bring back “content” for the store to use over the following months in media. Coupons, Instagram or Facebook posts will benefit from the content.
The cost is not extreme. Even when we ran a couple employees and a few trucks one year to Colorado, I don’t think we spend more than $2,500 total. Camping and eating on the trail is cheap. Gas is 80 percent of the cost of a trip.
How many trips do you organize per year?
Usually one big one and the trip to Southern Cruiser Crawl are on the schedule. We can do a short trip to an off-road park with little prep time.
Do you personally take care of the organizational details? Or do you hire a guide, etc.?
I never thought of myself as a guide, but as we have gotten deeper and deeper into this duties and roles have come up. The first responsibility is making sure that I could recover or repair anything out in the field. So we equipped my 4Runner with the gear needed. Winch, straps, tools…you name it. We also had CBs and radios installed. It took a few trips and experiences with recovery situations before I felt comfortable being one of the guys in charge.
As a scout leader, I have always considered myself the camp chef, but as we have added members some of the guys are raising the camp food game! We eat really well when we are camping. I honestly think I look forward to the cooking and camping the most. I think this also gets to the point of the trips. We are using our Toyota trucks to get to places that are off the beaten path. This sells the lifestyle that goes with the purchase of the car. Any truck could probably do this, but if you’re with us and part of the group, you are in for an experience!