Printed: November 12, 2019

JEEP FEST 2019

FCA goes all-in for celebration

Company originally had low-key response in its first year

BY JON CHAVEZ BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

On the back of the Jeep Fest 2019 official program are 64 logos of the sponsors and media partners whose contributions will help ensure that the three-day festival to honor the rugged vehicle that brought fame to Toledo is an overwhelming success.

The largest logos are those of Dana, Inc., and ProMedica. And rightly so.

The axle manufacturer and the health care provider have made generous financial contributions to the third edition of Jeep Fest, which begins Friday at noon with the opening of an off-road course at the Monroe Superstore in Monroe, Mich.

But an argument could be made that one of the smaller logos — FCA: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles — should be significantly larger.

The Detroit automaker and owner of the Jeep brand played a minimal role in the first Jeep Fest in 2016, allowing its Jeep trademarks to be used and shutting down the Toledo Assembly Complex so Jeep workers could attend the one-day event. The event was not held in 2017.

But last year when the event drew 60,000 people and went two days, Fiat Chrysler got more involved, sending five concept cars, some posters, and utilizing a Jeep Fest liaison.

For 2019, Fiat Chrysler has leaped head first into the Jeep Fest pool, so to speak, allowing the use of its trademarks and logos, shutting the plant, sending down multiple concepts and historical vehicles, donating a unique Jeep Gladiator multi-tool for registered participants, and most significantly, sending some of its top Jeep designers to participate in a new Jeep speakers series.

“They were able to get a Gladiator for us for our press conference. I have connections with the plant but even they couldn’t get a Gladiator for me. FCA made it happen,” said Jerry Huber, the former plant manager at Toledo Assembly and chairman of the Jeep Fest 2019 organizing committee.

“They’ve worked for us very quickly in developing our relationship with the Mud Hens. They quickly approved a version of the bobblehead we’re going to use with the Mud Hens that has Muddy in a Gladiator,” Mr. Huber said. “They got approval for us for a special jersey for the Mud Hens that features Jeep,” he added.

When Mr. Huber asked for the historical Jeep Comanche Thunderchief — the last show car built at the old Toledo plant — to be brought to Toledo from FCA’s historical collection, the automaker made it happen.

“The big thing is, they seem to be increasing their presence and their involvement each year,” he said.

“In my own heart, I don’t think they needed to show up with a boatload of cash to make this a great event. Their presence and participation is making it great,” he added.

At last count, there were 1,250 official registrants for the key event — the Jeep parade on Saturday — and registrants were from 27 states and Canada, coming from as far away as Florida, Colorado, and Quebec.

The first event drew 40,000 people, last year’s event 60,000. If this weekend’s weather is good, Mr. Huber said crowds should exceed last year.

For its part, Fiat Chrysler did not want to comment about why it stepped up its participation in Jeep Fest, though its motivations and earlier reluctance to get heavily involved seem clear.

“When we did this in 2016, I don’t blame any of the organizations that did or didn’t participate much because it was all pulled together so quickly,” Mr. Huber said.

In 2018, Fiat Chrysler had its hands full with moving the Jeep Cherokee out of Toledo and setting up new product lines for the revamped Wrangler and the upcoming Gladiator pickup.

“FCA did get involved in 2018. We had a program manager from the brand management group that was working very closely with us,” Mr. Huber said. It brought its FCA technology truck to Toledo, concept cars, and allowed area Jeep dealers to put products on display downtown.

But Jeep Fest organizers still sense a slight reluctance on the part of the automaker to fully embrace the Toledo celebration.

During the International Auto Show in Detroit in January, Jeep officials hinted that their view of the first two Jeep Fest events was that of a festival that hadn’t quite jelled. It was a good start, but could it be sustained?

The last thing FCA wanted, some officials said, was to put its imprimatur on an event that would disappear soon and never be heard from again.

“I remember that first year they made a comment that, ‘Well, Windsor [Ontario] would probably want to do a parade for the minivan, which they make there,” said Bruce Baumhower, president of UAW Local 12 which represents the Toledo Assembly Complex.

“To be fair to Chrysler, I suppose every community would like to have a parade with vehicles that are built in their town,” the Local 12 president said. “But I have to say they have been very supportive.”

And to be fairer still, not even the Jeep Fest committee understood the significance of a Jeep Fest event in 2016.

It envisioned a picnic or cookout at the former North Towne Square Mall site in North Toledo with Jeep rally car show. “And then, the Glass City Crawlers [Jeep club] said, ‘We put this on our website and we’ve got people from out West that want to come.’ We thought, ‘Uh-oh, what is this thing?’” Mr. Baumhower said.

But committee members should have known, he added.

Jeep has 8 percent of the North American market, and 22 percent of the vehicles owned by Lucas County residents are Jeeps. As the home of Jeep, it’s reasonable to assume Toledoans would want to celebrate and out-of-state Jeep owners would want to visit.

Mr. Baumhower said he thinks both the Jeep Fest committee and Fiat Chrysler both now understand that Jeep Fest is here to stay and that the automaker wants to be more involved.

“I think it’s been a total home run, a grand slam as things go,” Mr. Baumhower said. “I think their marketing department absolutely loves this because to pay for this kind of publicity would be astronomical.”

Mr. Huber agrees wholeheartedly.

“The exposure on social media and so forth is pretty phenomenal. I think [Fiat Chrysler] are benefactors from that without doing a whole lot,” he said. “I suspect there’s some pretty shrewd marketing people at FCA that understand that.”

Contact Jon Chavez at jchavez@theblade.com or

419-724-6128.