smart times is the world’s largest convention for smart fans. In 2016, thousands of smart drivers from 42 nations flocked to Hamburg for this event. Christian Köhler has organized this special meet-up for more than a decade. In our interview, he takes us back to the early days, praises the power of the smart community, and shares some future goals.
In a way, our interview location – the fireside lounge of a Hamburg hotel near the city’s harbor – could be considered symbolic: A mere day before the opening of smart times 2016, Christian Köhler should be aflame with nervous energy. Instead, he leans back, all relaxed. With half a year of thorough planning under their collective belts, Köhler and his team have set the scene for a smooth event. So, before he heads back to the still empty location, armed with two phones and a walkie talkie, the seasoned pro takes a few moments to review the history of the world’s largest smart convention.
Mr. Köhler, do you know who came up with the idea for smart times?
Christian Köhler: smart times is a product of the smart community. I find this very charming – in 2000, just two years after the first model’s market launch, the budding smart community was already meeting in Klagenfurt, Austria. Back then, there weren’t too many participants; around 40 to 50 cars attended the event. Over the years, the meet-up kept evolving and growing, bit by bit. Once they hit 200 cars, they realized that the Klagenfurt location had become too small – and we entered the picture.
What were your first thoughts and impressions?
Christian Köhler: Back then, there wasn’t really a concept: People would simply drive onto the market square and there were some staged events. Refreshments came courtesy of a coffee cart and a local bakery. So, together with Mercedes-Benz Austria, we thought about how to upgrade the whole thing a bit. To us, it was important that it remained a community event, but also reflected and incorporated our brand values. That was the birth of smart times as we know it today.
The new format kicked off in 2006 in the Austrian town of Zell am See.
Christian Köhler: That’s right. Nevertheless, that event still very much resembled a traditional car enthusiasts’ meet-up. But it already attracted fans from Austria’s immediate neighboring countries – and the number of participants kept growing.
Back then, what would you say was your recipe for success?
Christian Köhler: Our motto has always been to automatically infect anyone who attends a smart times event with the smart times spirit and the energy generated on site by the assembled fandom and authenticity. Once you’ve experienced the event up close, there’s a much higher chance that you’ll want to come back next year, even if it means travelling longer distances. The logical result was a European roadshow – stopping in a different region of Europe each year. We’ve already been to Budapest, Cascais near Lisbon, Lucerne, Antwerp, and Riccione near Rimini. And over the years, visitor numbers have continued to increase.
How do you pick these smart times locations – what exactly are your selection criteria?
Christian Köhler: In line with our vision, we want to give as many people as possible a positive impression of the smart brand. True to the event spirit, this means conveying the emotions for all to experience. With an urban product like smart, it naturally makes sense to pick an equally urban location. Considering the strong attendance figures, this can be quite a challenge – just think of the required parking space. After all, our guests are not just the people attending, but also the cars they bring along. You need to factor in enough space for the cars to drive around and look great – that’s always a major challenge.
How do you collaborate with fans?
Christian Köhler: We know all of the larger smart associations by name and have made some very good friends and acquaintances. We’re in constant exchange with both clubs and key protagonists.
Are these also involved in the design and organization of smart times?
Christian Köhler: Our ears are always open. smart fans are always invited to take part and have a say. This year, for example, there is a large round table where people can give us feedback. We’re also very open to criticism, but to be honest – we know pretty well what the clubs and protagonists prefer by now.
So, is there a fixed community-generated item on the smart times agenda?
Christian Köhler: Several items on our schedule have very close community ties. There’s a special community area where clubs can present themselves and erect their own tents. Traditionally, there’s also an on-stage community welcome where clubs and protagonists get to introduce themselves.
With people coming from 42 nations (and counting), it must be true love, right?
Christian Köhler: Absolutely. People not only travel long distances, but also invest quite a bit of money. It’s important to honor this commitment and enthusiasm by, for example, asking for their feedback. This genuine, equal exchange is characteristic of the overall event.
Do you see any parallels between the emergence of fan clubs and communities and the expansion of smart times?
Christian Köhler: To me, the community seems quite stable and very much resembles a real community or association. Our exciting task is to turn more people into fans through smart times. When these people are brought together at an event, they realize that the brand is truly alive and about more than “just” a particular car. Our goal is to generate a different level of community – a shared style.
At which stage of planning do you usually “know” that the smart times you are working on is going to be smooth sailing?
Christian Köhler: Approval for the parade tends to be very short notice – it’s normal to encounter ever-new hurdles. But you reach your goal by being open and solution-oriented. The basic premise and foundation of any smart times is to have a truly dedicated team. Police, traffic regulations, and transport authorities all have different requirements and agendas. As long as you involve all parties and work on a solution together, you will get there in the end. For us, preliminary talks on such matters are a major deciding factor when it comes to location. It helps us figure out whether smart times might work in a particular city – or not.
To what extent does the event reflect the city’s or region’s character?
Christian Köhler: First of all, the actual event venue is obviously quite typical of the location. Above and beyond, we always try to reflect local flavor through food and drink by working with local partners. Similar to an ocean cruise, we also include excursions and specific smart times highlights for added local color.
How important is the fact that the brand’s CEO herself, Dr. Annette Winkler, joins the fun on site to welcome fans and offer the chance for direct exchange?
Christian Köhler: I’m pretty sure that smart times is one of the high points of Dr. Winkler’s annual schedule. Although it is an official business event, it is also a personal highlight for her. She joins the audience, talks to visitors, and asks for feedback – all things that reflect the spirit of the smart community: There’s no separate VIP area. I think it’s very important that she’s part of it all and that she shows her appreciation of the fan community. She also tends to have a few welcome surprises in tow – at the 2014 event in Portugal, she arranged for the new generation of smart fortwo und smart forfour models to be shipped in overnight, a mere day after their global premiere.
Once the event is up and running – do you even get the chance to soak up the mood and atmosphere?
Christian Köhler: Throughout the day, I only catch glimpses of the program since the coordination of the stage schedule is very demanding and intense. Yet I still try to chat to visitors – I always look forward to seeing certain people from the community again and sharing a quick coffee with them. The best thing about such events is feeling the enthusiasm and seeing all those beaming faces. Once people are on site, you can sense straight away if you got it right or not – the positive energy of several thousand visitors is simply too big for words.
What is the craziest thing you’ve seen at smart times?
Christian Köhler: All the way up my list would be the dancing Mexicans wearing mariachi masks and sombreros. But there were so many great impressions, like seeing smart models with trailers for barbequing sausages – the sheer versatility continues to amaze me.
What about the future of smart times – care to share an outlook?
Christian Köhler: At smart times, the size of the hardcore fan community has levelled out, but the overall number of visitors still keeps growing. In future, one of our main challenges will be to find just the right concept to make both groups happy. My second question would be: Just how big do we want to get – and how urban can remain at that point?
smart times through the years