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Startup Tips from America’s Best Car Show

The Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance is a gathering of prestigious classic cars that is held every March on Amelia Island in Florida. 2015 marked the 20th anniversary of the event’s creation. An estimated 32,000 people viewed a gathering of 315 vehicles.

When car collector Bill Warner created the event in 1996, it was very much a startup – just 2,200 or so people attended. The success that Amelia Island has enjoyed since then offers some important insights for startups.

Mix business and friendship. Folk wisdom suggests that business and friendship should be kept separate or both are in jeopardy. In contrast, Bill Warner leveraged his friendships in the class car world to help build his event. Many classic cars are worth millions of dollars. Moving them around the country (and sometimes across oceans) to reach Amelia Island is expensive and sometimes risky. Luckily Bill’s friends were willing to help him out in the early years by bringing their automotive masterpieces. “I called all my chits in from many years of being around race cars,” he noted. Now that Amelia Island is established as a world class event, car owners in general gladly pay big bucks to bring their cars to Florida. Based on Bill’s experience, startup owners should ask themselves: How can my friends and other close contacts help my business grow and succeed?

Don’t fear giants. Founded in 1950, the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in Pebble Beach, California has long been considered the premier automotive showcase in the United States, if not the world. It would have been easy for Bill to be intimidated into thinking that no other show could reach such heights. Bill instead focused on creating the east coast’s best event. Many observers believe that Amelia Island is now America’s best car show because it is friendlier and less expensive to attend than its west coast counterpart while its displays of cars are just as good. Startup owners should ask themselves: How can I learn from, rather than worry about, the giants in my space?

Complements are key. The Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance is the main course, but it is surrounded by a tasty variety of automotive appetizers and side dishes. The day before the Concours, a “Cars and Coffee” event is held on the same grounds. This is a free event that features more than 250 cars owned by the members of local car clubs. While Concours participation is competitive, any cool or exotic car is welcome at Cars and Coffee.

Just a few hundred yards away from Cars and Coffee, premier auction house RM Sotheby’s offers a set of collector cars. In 2015, more than $60 million changed hands. Thirteen cars sold for more than one million dollars each. Meanwhile, automakers such as Jaguar and Porsche display their current cars and offer test drives to excited patrons. These events and others have helped Amelia Island evolve from a car show lasting a few hours to a multi-day car extravaganza. Startup owners should ask themselves: What complementary offerings might help take my business to the next level?

Facilitate positive publicity. Once the gates open to let in patrons, the Concours gets very crowded. Bill and his team help the media by allowing them on the grounds a couple of hours early. This allows for top quality photos to be taken and for car owners to be interviewed in a low key setting. As an editor for Austin-Healey Magazine, I would struggle to do my job at Amelia Island without this consideration. Media members also are provided free food and drink all weekend long – a move that wins Bill and his team a lot of friends. Startup owners should ask themselves: What can I do to help the people that might want to publicize my company?

Spread the wealth. No discussion of Amelia Island would be complete without mentioning its charitable efforts. Bill Warner’s stated goal is to “put on a world class automotive event that honors our heroes, the cars they raced and to contribute to worthy charities of North Florida.” Since 1996, more than $2.5 million has been donated to causes such as Community Hospice of Northeast Florida, Inc., Spina Bifida of Jacksonville, The Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, and others. Startup owners should ask themselves: How can I serve the community through my business?