SEMA News—June 2011

Project Vehicles: How to Present a Winning SEMA Project-Vehicle Proposal

By Mark Williams

  Each year, the SEMA Show features more than 1,000 project vehicles. Original-equipment manufacturers
Not all successful project vehicles necessarily involve yet-to-be-released late-model vehicles, but the organizational process is essentially the same. Timing, budget, coordination and a good rendering still remain vital considerations.
Each year, the SEMA Show features more than 1,000 project vehicles. Original-equipment manufacturers (OEMs)such as Ford, Chevy, Toyota and Honda regularly work with project-vehicle builders to create SEMA-Show-worthy customs that highlight their newest models and entice enthusiast buyers by showing how they can be customized.

The arrangements may vary, but generally the vehicles are furnished at a substantially reduced cost. There are probably hundreds, if not thousands of exhibitors that would like to work with OEMs on a project vehicle, so there are never enough vehicles for everyone. The question that comes to mind, therefore, is how these vehicles are allocated. To shed some light, we talked to manufacturers about what they are looking for and how they go about sorting through ideas before dealing out a limited supply of promotional vehicles.

How to Start the Proposal Process

Each year, usually around February or March, provides a place for interested manufacturers to post a detailed request for proposals (RFP). In most cases, these forms will be quite specific about what they want. Read them carefully and follow the instructions closely, and get them in as early as you can. Bob Kern, a 12-year veteran SEMA Relations Manager for General Motors, says, “We hope we receive the proposals early so we can make contact before a final decision has to be made to help modify or adjust a submission, if needed—that type of back and forth can happen a lot until we both come up with a plan that works.”

Even though each OEM has a slightly different agenda and set of priorities, the process used by General Motors is fairly typical, as seen in their recent call for project-vehicle partners, and contains elements that are likely to be part of any winning proposal. They start by defining their focus for the year, including which vehicles are being made available. They also ask for:

  • Three copies of the proposal itself, including an 8- x 11-in. rendering.
  • An introductory cover letter that defines the project-vehicle theme, market-segment appeal and general content.
  • A timeline that includes the date the vehicle is needed and the date it will be completed.
  • A list of specific system upgrades and partners who will provide the parts.
  • A proposed list of events, shows and publications where the vehicle can gain exposure outside of SEMA.
  • Where it will be displayed at SEMA, with the understanding that proposals with guaranteed interior booth space will be given preferred consideration.

A key element of any proposal is the color rendering that illustrates the way the completed vehicle will appear. Investing in two or three views—front, rear and side—can pay off by making clear, at-a-glance communication of your intentions. If the interior is to be significantly modified, an interior sketch is also useful. Working with a well-known design artist is generally not cheap but usually well worth the cost. Incidentally, many manufacturers, but not all, require a degree of preservation of brand identity. That means your design concept would have to work when the front emblem, and possibly the grille design, remain prominent.

As a rule, planning for any given project vehicle begins in January, and the final proposal is often expected no later than May.

One obstacle for project-vehicle applicants is that, in many cases, the specific vehicle an OE wants to highlight may not even be on the market yet. As a result, finding or manufacturing products for your vehicle can be a challenge.

The ideal project proposal will likely be part of a larger strategy for your sponsor OEM. What they will want to see is a fresh, creative proposal that fits nicely within their overall positioning plan.  

Helping to shorten the time it takes to develop new parts, SEMA regularly holds Measuring Sessions with OEM manufacturers. These Measuring Sessions provide hands-on access to new vehicles, allowing SEMA members to gather surface data in preparation for designing, developing and manufacturing aftermarket parts and accessories. Attending a Measuring Session creates a chance to network with other manufacturers who have the same idea, so it’s an easy way to line up partners. This is also an opportunity to speak directly with the automaker’s engineers and technical staff during an OEM Measuring Session, which are generally held at the OEM’s location. By attending, builders get a chance to find out more about what the manufacturer’s plans will be and who they should be working with.

Working along the same lines is the Technology Transfer program, which allows qualified SEMA members to access CAD information on certain products, thereby facilitating product development. Both these programs are especially useful for project-vehicle builders working with brand-new models that have yet to be introduced.

  Top 10 Do’s and Don’ts

Do: Get your proposal in early. The sooner you have all the pieces in to the manufacturer, the more time you have to potentially discuss the proposal with selection board representatives.

Don’t: Keep calling once you get your proposal in. One follow up contact or call is appropriate. Anything else after that is likely to be interpreted as hounding. OEs can get hundreds of proposals, and there is nothing gained by repeated contact attempts.

Do: Have a bullet-point summary of your important details (two pages at most) so the vehicle concept and your own credentials can be presented quickly and succinctly.

Don’t: Include a picture frame around your rendering or send in a poster-sized image. It doesn’t help, and it only makes it more difficult for the deciding members to move and display your proposal.

Do: Remember this is a process, and our industry is built on relationships. Keep track of all your contacts, and keep in mind, just because you might not succeed this year doesn’t mean that’s the end of it.

Don’t: Ignore how the finished vehicle itself would ride if driven on the streets. For 99% of OEs, keeping it real is good. There’s a place for wild and crazy, but most times the goal would be to produce a vehicle that respects the OEM’s engineering strengths without compromising practical driveability.

Do: Have some kind of long-term plan, whether it includes media coverage, car show dates, school assemblies or even hypothetical events. The more detailed, thoughtful and plugged into the automotive world you show yourself to be, the more you appear to be someone they can’t turn away.

Don’t: Submit an unoriginal plan you know will be exceptionally popular. If your proposal duplicates what everyone else is doing, it may become irrelevant no matter how well it’s designed and executed.

Do: Keep your OE sponsor involved in any changes that might happen along the way. The last thing they need is a surprise at the Show when they come to find your project vehicle and don’t see what they were expecting.

Don’t: Change your theme midway (without informing your OE) because it’s easier or more likely to get done in time for the Show. You made a commitment during the proposal stage, and that’s what you need to deliver.

Once the proposals are generated, many manufacturers, including Ford and Chevy, have committees and panels to review and decide which candidates will be selected to embark on a promotional relationship based on a bright, shiny, new car or truck.

Sherry Kollien, Ford’s Aftermarket Support and SEMA Director says, “Imagine a bunch of people from my team, from marketing, the brands and engineers in a big conference room with a bunch of proposal renderings all over the walls and their files in the middle of a big table…That’s what we have to choose from.”

In short, manufacturers do not just hand out a car, pocket a buck and walk away. They’re looking for market-savvy aftermarket partners who know how to build brands. Steve Hatanaka, Toyota’s Auto Show and Special Events project manager, puts it this way: “We think of the project build process as a strong partnership we want to make with creative and ambitious builders…we want to see that they know who we are and have some sense of what we’re trying to highlight and promote.”

At Ford, even if your proposal does not get the green light, all your information will likely stay with the manufacturer. Kollien at Ford says “…we keep a running history of all the proposals that get submitted to us for the SEMA Show. And we get hundreds every year…we rate every proposal and keep them as part of our corporate history…it’s happened a few times where panel members have asked about a past proposal—whatever happened to whoever—and sometimes that leads to a phone call.”

Given that a winning proposal will be singled out from a tall stack of applicants, it’s important to come up with an original concept that will stand out from the crowd and grab as much viewer attention as possible—for the builder, the aftermarket sponsors and the OEM. That said, a smart proposal will always take into account the nature of the vehicle and the market it targets.

Chris Martin, Honda’s Special Projects and Auto Show Manager, agrees that a solid proposal should not contradict the plans the manufacturer may have for the vehicle. “It’s a huge help when we’re dealing with someone who understands we have a plan as well and is sensitive to that.” So in many ways a winning proposal can’t exist without a firm understanding of how the manufacturer intends to position the vehicle and how a given project build will complement that. “A lot of this part of the industry is about relationships, so the better a chosen builder communicates his vision and his vehicle to us, the better we can help them out,” noted Martin.

Not surprisingly, it’s much the same at Toyota. “Uniqueness is always something we want to encourage,” Hatanaka said. “At the same time, if we have a new family sedan hitting the market, we’ll have to think twice about a proposal with a racing theme.”

In addition to their originality, proposals are likely to be ranked by their credibility.

By making a proposal to acquire and build a project vehicle, a builder represents that his or her company is a reliable, credible business partner. By living up to those standards, it’s possible to cement a relationship that may last for years. It’s a great opportunity, but it’s also a significant obligation.

Bill Wolf, SEMA senior director of OEM relations, noted that, “Project vehicles need to be a win-win for both sides; when done right, both sides—the OE and builders—get valuable exposure at the Show and beyond.” The point here is clear—the building of a SEMA Show vehicle is a serious commitment and potentially, the beginning of a long-term relationship. Remember that these vehicles have a real value to whatever OE donated them to your cause. Somewhere, someone’s budget is smaller because you have that vehicle.

Delivering Value

With any project vehicle, the goal is to make arrangements that deliver ROI to your sponsors, for as long as the vehicle is in your hands. To make it all happen, successful project-vehicle builders, like general contractors, need to be prepared to wear many hats.

Event Marketing Manager: Think about how to provide value for an OEM partner by getting the most possible eyeballs on the vehicle. One time-honored way is to plan out a calendar of events to show that the SEMA Show is just the beginning of your vehicle’s reveal. Targeting small and large car shows, races or events with appropriate audiences will be attractive to a manufacturer, especially if the car will appear at venues that the manufacturers themselves wouldn’t be able to attend on their own. Sometimes smaller venues allow for a way to reach an audience that complements, rather than duplicates, the audience that an OEM reaches through their mass marketing efforts. Plan the schedule so that the amount of transportation is practical, controlling costs while maximizing exposure, and be ready to send out plenty of pictures so build partners know how the event exposure is going.

Don’t be afraid to submit a simple or milder proposal if you think there’s a market need. OEs have to sell and promote to a wide range of buyers and enthusiasts, so not every project needs to be about ultra-high performance if it offers the right flavor.
Companies such as General Motors will place quite a few cars with SEMA members, if they think it will be popular with the enthusiast marketplace. But they will want help exploring the entire spectrum, from practical, attractive V6 concepts to extreme blown-V8 race cars.  
Media/PR manager: A successful proposal will also bring in appropriate media partners, so there will be guaranteed exposure in print, on the web and across social media. If you have trusted contacts at national magazines, TV shows or major websites, now is the time to leverage those relationships. By making sure they are on board before you submit your proposal, you benefit your sponsors and, in many cases, provide opportunities to the media outlets themselves. You may find that a certain magazine would want your vehicle for the cover, if you guarantee an exclusive. Or it may be that other magazines would be happy to follow along with the buildup process to generate technical content. For magazine coverage, much will depend on how closely your finished product aligns with the target audience of a specific enthusiast magazine or TV show; however, with so many niche websites, YouTube channels and regional magazines, there’s bound to be quite a few ways a well-built vehicle can get additional exposure. And more than likely, there will be media coverage generated from the SEMA Show itself.

Keep a watchful eye on what coverage does occur, and keep an electronic or actual notebook as it comes out so you can present it to your sponsors after the fact. By looking at the cost of buying advertising in the media outlets that feature your project, it becomes possible to calculate return on investment in dollars and cents. Hopefully, it all adds up to a number that exceeds the value of the vehicle many
times over.

Aftermarket Industry Expert: OEMs are going to want to give you a vehicle if you bring them quality aftermarket partners, so it’s important to know your way around the community. Get in touch with companies where you have contacts and line up a wheel company, a tire company, a suspension company, an electronics installer and so forth.

You may not know everybody, but there is a SEMA program that can help match products with project-vehicle builders. SEMA will compile a list of exhibitors who offer free or discounted products to project-vehicle builders. The listing is then posted onlilne on and will appear weekly in SEMA eNews on a first-come, first-served basis. The program continues right up until two weeks before the SEMA Show.

By gathering up a quality list of credible aftermarket partners—manufacturers and jobbers who can be trusted to help execute the plan on a strict schedule—you are bringing a powerful team to the table. As a result, your proposal will carry more weight and more value.

Incidentally, it’s okay to include a bit about your own personal and professional background to give the submission review board information about your experience and passions. At the same time, avoid going on too long about who you are because credibility comes down to what your team can bring to the table.

   Here you see the rendering…and how the finished vehicle appeared on the Show floor.
Here you see the rendering…and how the finished vehicle appeared on the Show floor. Ideally, your project will closely resemble the rendering you originally submitted, demonstrating that you and your team were able to make good on the concept you came up with months earlier.
Financial Planner: A successful project build will take place within an appropriate budget. There are some manufacturers who consider the exposure so valuable that they are willing to supply parts to project-vehicle builders at no charge or at a substantial discount. But very often, costs associated with painting, bodywork and installation are impossible to avoid, so a proper proposal will include an estimate of those costs and who will pay them. On occasion, manufacturers have been known to help defray costs, especially costs of transportation between events. But a sound estimate of the hard costs associated with the build should be part of any builder’s proposal, and his or her negotiations with the sponsors and media partners. OEMs especially want to see that their build partner has the wherewithal to complete the project and do it right.

By now it should be crystal clear that this is not a quick-and-out process you’re entering into. At a minimum, you are likely to be partnered with your OE for 18 months, assuming all goes well. Of course, if things go extremely well, you could be building a relationship that will span many years or longer and could go far beyond the
SEMA Show.

These relationships have the potential to build your career, your company’s brand and add depth to a manufacturer’s portfolio, both now and for years to come, sending ripples into our growing industry and possibly motivating future generations to get involved.


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