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Growing with the sport

12/29/2006
Randy Howell's new Zephyr Travel System is a motor home and transport trailer that will carry both his boat and tow vehicle and will feature 75' of "rolling billboard" space. 

When Randy Howell signed with Purolator in 2004, he was hoping their relationship would grow. Purolator was new to the sport of bass fishing, but they had been around the sports marketing block in the '90s when they had been involved in NASCAR. Howell is certainly not new to bass fishing, so he saw the potential a non-endemic sponsor could hold. Neither party realized just how fast, or how big, their relationship would grow.

Last month, Howell and Purolator signed a 6-figure, three year deal that may epitomize the term "growing the sport." From the deal, Howell will get a new home on the road, complete with a transporter for a boat and tow vehicle. Purolator will get 75' of rolling billboard that will traverse the country and spend a minimum of 40,000 miles on the road. That's a lot of opportunity for brand exposure before Howell ever puts his boat in the water or makes a cast.

All of this started with a meeting in the Outdoor Expo at a Bassmaster Tour event.

Shaking hands

"Any time I don't make the cut, I stay over at the tournament to visit with fans and sponsors." Howell said. "I knew Purolator was new to the sport, so I would go over to their booth and introduce myself. They would have different people working their booth and I just tried to meet them all and get my foot in the door."

He finally met Shannon Gibson, marketing manager for ArvinMeritor Light Vehicle Aftermarket products. ArvinMeritor is a global automotive supplier with $8 billion in annual sales, 31,000 employees in 25 countries, and products that are part of virtually every vehicle on the road today. Purolator is one of the ArvinMeritor brands, producing automotive oils, air filters, fuel filters, and transmission filters.

"We entered into a relationship with Randy last year," Gibson said. "With Purolator being a non-endemic for bass fishing we were looking for the right fit. And Randy comes highly recommended. I met him about a year and half ago at the CMA festival here in Nashville, and my first impression was 'This is just a really nice guy.' Then we started talking a little more thoroughly and in depth about what kind of sponsorship relationship we wanted to have. And we seemed to have a lot of the same goals."

But Purolator was just dipping their toe into the sport in that first year. When Howell initially signed with them, it was for a low 5-figure deal. Howell looked past that first year's deal points and banked on the fact that Purolator would reap the rewards of the bass fishing fan as consumer.

"When you're dealing with the non-endemics that don't know as much about our industry, they pretty much have to take your word for what you can do for them, but you have to take their word for what they have to spend," he said.

Marketing 101

"Those marketing groups have budgets set. They have X amount of dollars they are going to spend. And they can either spend that with you or they'll find somebody else that will be willing to deal with them. They said if we like what happens and this market does turn out to be the market we are trying to target with the right age groups and all, we'll be around for a while and we'll grow the sponsorship and the opportunity. I had done some research on the company and I just knew this market was right for them."

Gibson had to do her homework as well.

"In today's business world, every single dollar is highly scrutinized," explained Gibson. "It's a tough world to be a marketer right now and tougher to get dollars to put behind a brand. So when we start into an agreement with an athlete at a low level, it allows me to prove that we are getting a return on our investment and take it up my chain of command. Then they see it and start believing in it and think maybe we should be doing more. That's what happened with Randy but it takes time to get them to see that it is worthwhile and see results."

Gibson is a native of Detroit with a background in the automotive industry. She admittedly didn't know a lot about the sport of bass fishing when she first got involved, but the Bassmaster Classic opened her eyes to the potential.

"When we first started talking about BASS, I thought it was crazy," she explains. "Then I saw some videos and later learned more about ESPN owning the organization and how they wanted to grow the sport. When we really dug into it, we thought this is where we need to be. Here we are two years later, the president of our company has been to two Classics. He talks about it all the time. He talks about how great the fishing world is and how Purolator is welcomed with open arms. It's incredible that we can have this sort of relationship with a sport that is going to become the next big thing. It is already getting so much recognition from outside the sport with all the great coverage ESPN has given it through 'Bass Saturday.'"

Passion of the fans

Gibson experienced her first CITGO Bassmaster Classic and Outdoor Expo in Charlotte in 2005.

"I have been in communications for eight years and have done a lot of trade shows in the automotive world. But to see the fans who came to the Outdoor Expo at the Classic was like a different world. The people that came to the Outdoor Expo are there because they really wanted to be there. They are appreciative of Purolator supporting the sport that they love. You get this energy from them that you don't get from other shows. At Pittsburgh, we found an even higher level of energy and I believe that energy is the passion of the fans."

It was during the Pittsburgh event that Howell brought an idea to Purolator that would put some legs on the phrase "Growing the sport."

A gentle breeze

The dictionary defines zephyr as "the west wind; a gentle breeze." Gary Bean and Taylor Barnes are principles in a start-up company called Zephyr Travel Systems and their Zephyr is poised to become a mighty gust.

Bean and Barnes come from the automotive world as well and have a passion for bass fishing as a hobby.

"Zephyr Travel Systems is an idea that was created two years ago," says Bean. "I do a lot of marketing in and around the dirt racing world, the World of Outlaws Racing. I was at one of the shops one day and a new transporter came in and I just thought, if I could put an SUV in that box and also put a boat in that box it sure would simplify the pro angler's life. Two years later it spun into Zephyr Travel Systems. It has patents pending for about a year. There has been a lot of blood, sweat and tears, trial and error, building and rebuilding to make this work."

The Zephyr Travel System is more than a trailer. It involves a motor home that pulls a transporter that can carry a boat and SUV stacked in the back. The SUV is carried on top with the bass boat beneath it. It also includes a workshop and generators so that it is totally self contained. There are private living quarters in the coach, with custom interiors created by the same craftsmen that create buses for country music's biggest touring stars; the system offers a true home away from home for a professional angler.

The key for Howell is that it had 75' of space that could be wrapped in the same way a boat and tow vehicle are wrapped.

Classic pitch

At the Classic in Pittsburgh, he pitched the idea to Purolator.

"At the '06 Classic I presented all the information to them," Howell explains. "I showed them pictures of the Zephyr Travel System and explained how I thought it would be great for them to be the first to do this."

"In the beginning, they were a little bit skeptical about it because I asked them for a 6 figure deal to put the whole thing together with the Zephyr wrap, the truck wrap and my boat wrap."

"They talked about it for a while and I really didn't know what was going to happen. After the Classic and spending all that time with them, they called back about a week later and said that the president of the company and all the guys liked it and liked me and thought I was the guy who could fit what they were looking for in marketing."

With that, a deal was born. Shannon Gibson sees two distinct groups that will be exposed to the Purolator brand through this new opportunity.

"The people that come to the events are obviously fans of BASS. Through all of our research conducted in the last two years, we have seen that the same fans that love bass fishing are also automotive do-it-yourselfers, people that take time with their vehicles and maintain and take care of them," she says.

"We've seen a huge up-tick in our brand recognition and sales since we began our involvement with BASS. So you have these people at the events who might say 'Wow, Purolator just made a stronger commitment to this sport and one of our own — Randy Howell who's been involved since he was 18 years old. So these two entities got together and are really trying to take this sport to the next level."

"People who are driving on the highway won't be able to miss this thing. They will be seeing the name Purolator and hopefully when they walk into their auto parts store there will be brand recognition there."

That's how it works in sports marketing. Gary Bean sees an even bigger advantage.

"We've got something here that is an asset to the angler. A bigger asset than he's ever had and it's capable of generating a huge revenue stream for him. This is a rolling billboard, but it can also change the quality of life for an angler and his family on the road," Bean says.

Zephyr Zone

Bean has future visions of a "Zephyr Zone" at BASS events, where anglers traveling in Zephyr Travel Systems park their trailers together and create hospitality opportunities for fans and sponsors.

"Imagine all the Zephyrs parked together alongside the Outdoor Expo and we put up tents and chairs. Fans can visit with their favorite pro and buy his hat and T-shirt. Sponsors can bring their clients and associates to sit in comfort and enjoy the day."

Bean continues, "You can't measure relationships. Sponsors are after more than impressions. I can see us changing the way revenue is generated for professional anglers — changing the lifestyle of the pro angler on the road and at the tournaments and changing the tournament experience for the spectator. That's the future."

Shannon Gibson has a positive view of the future as well.

"Three years from now, Purolator will still be in BASS — absolutely, no question. We would like to continue to build our brand identity by getting involved in more things like we're doing with Randy. I see limitless possibilities."

And what does the future hold for Randy Howell?

On November 7, he and his wife Robin are expecting their second son, Oakley. Randy's older son, Laker, is a regular on the Tournament Trail and a favorite of pros and fans alike.

Randy's family is growing right along with the sport.

And his new son already has a new house.