Alabama isn’t just the center of manufacturing for Mercedes-Benz in the U.S. It also has become the destination for thousands of the company’s employees on a mission to learn more about the brand.
The Mercedes-Benz Brand Immersion Experience kicked off in September 2014, and since then, nearly 9,000 employees of the German automaker’s dealer network have participated in the program held at the Tuscaloosa County factory.
They come from across the nation, and sometimes abroad, to get an up-close look at the assembly line that turned out more than 300,000 luxury SUVs and cars last year. Then they get behind the wheel for a hands-on tutorial on exactly what those high-performance models can do.
There’s also classroom time and a tour of the newly renovated Brand Center, formerly known as the plant’s Visitors Center.
There, through replicas, pictures and actual vehicles, they can walk through the history of the company, from the world’s first automobile invented by Karl Benz in 1886 to the concepts that will power designs of the future.
“The ultimate goal is to engage their hearts and minds around the brand,” said Philippa Green, Brand Immersion training manager for Mercedes-Benz USA. “We’re teaching them about our legacy.”
The main focus, she said, is the customer experience and showing each participant how important his or her role is in that mission.
“We all have customers, no matter what our position is with Mercedes-Benz. We may not all deal directly with customers buying vehicles, but we all contribute,” she said.
From sales managers to receptionists, the Brand Immersion Experience is designed for all of Mercedes’ U.S. dealer personnel, who number about 35,000. Each dealership is given a seat allocation each quarter, and it’s up to them who they send.
Employees from Mercedes’ U.S. corporate headquarters and financial services division also attend, and starting later this year, Mercedes-Benz Canada and the financial services division in Canada will start participating, too.
In addition, employees from Mercedes dealerships around the world, including those in Japan, Taiwan and Mexico, have either attended or are signed up for the coming months.
“We’re definitely generating international interest,” Green said.
Birmingham’s Barber Motorsports Park plays a major role in the program. There, with the help of driving instructors, participants put Mercedes’ high-performance AMG models through the paces on an autocross track and skid pad to get a better understanding of their performance and handling.
Other exercises show off the cars’ driving assistance systems.
“I’m very impressed that they bring us out here to experience what we’re selling to the clients,” said Sandy Barnhart, who works in sales at a Pittsburgh dealership.
Richard Palm, a salesman at a dealership in Englewood, N.J., agreed, adding that the driving experience is only part of what he’ll use in future sales pitches.
“I can talk about how well the factory is run and how clean and efficient everything is,” he said. “The technology there is just unbelievable.”
Mercedes last year announced a $1.3 billion expansion of its Alabama factory to prepare it for the production of next-generation SUVs. The project pushes the automaker’s total investment in Alabama to $5.8 billion.
Each session of the Mercedes brand experience is set up to host 84 participants for two days. They stay at the Westin Hotel in Birmingham.
During the session, they eat lunch at the Tuscaloosa County plant, where more than 3,500 Alabama workers produce the GLE, GLS and GLE Coupé SUVs, as well as the C Class sedan.
The session closes with a dinner at the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum, among the exhibits that make up the world’s largest motorcycle collection.
Much like learning a new language, the best way to truly immerse someone in the Mercedes brand is to bring them to the place where the cars are made, Green said.
“A lot of people have never been through an automotive plant, and it’s a great experience for them to see their teammates making the cars,” she said.
Tami Menk, a controller at a dealership in Loveland, Colo., said the Brand Immersion Experience exceeded her expectations.
“It was fun, informative and worthwhile,” she said. “The plant was amazing. I’ve never seen anything like that. And the driving experience was so much fun.”
This story originally appeared on the Alabama Department of Commerce’s Made in Alabama website.