Preferential parking already exists for the disabled, expectant mothers and – in some U.S. cities – hybrid-electric vehicles.

It may surprise some that Lexus drivers also are on that list.

For the next three years, anyone behind the wheel of a Lexus gets prime parking at Philadelphia’s Wachovia Center, thanks to a pact inked recently between the sports arena’s owners and Toyota Motor Corp.’s luxury brand.

For the last seven years, Lexus has had significant sponsorship presence at the site, says Joe Croce, senior vice president-sales for Comcast-Spectacor, which owns the Wachovia Center.

“We’ve done a lot of things in our parking lot, from having concerts to having displays of cars,” he says. “So it occurred to us that it’s a great idea to use this parking lot (as an advertising outlet) and that if you had a Lexus car, you could park in a reserved parking spot.”

Two parking areas near the arena now are dedicated to Lexus models. Combined, they account for about 300 spaces, Croce says.

In addition to this anticipated sea of Lexus vehicles, the brand boosts its profile with extensive signage.

This is not the first long-term deal of its kind as Lexus has similar lots at the BankAtlantic Center arena in Sunrise, FL, and at Atlanta’s Turner Field, home of Major League Baseball’s Atlanta Braves.

Shane Sizemore, vehicle merchandising manager-Lexus southern region, says the impact of the Lexus Lot at Turner Field, in place for the past four years, is more related to maintaining brand loyalty than drawing new customers.

“It’s not so much translating directly into sales, that’s kind of hard to measure,” Sizemore says. “But certainly (is beneficial) from an ownership experience, customer appreciation and loyalty.”

However, he’s heard anecdotes from dealers that owners of competing luxury makes have gone into Atlanta-area showrooms and mentioned the lot.

Sizemore says funding for the Turner Field lot comes directly from the 5-member Atlanta Lexus Dealer Assn.

The Wachovia Center is home to the National Basketball Assn.’s Philadelphia 76ers and the National Hockey League’s Philadelphia Flyers. During a recent Flyers hockey game, Croce estimated the dedicated Lexus lots were half to three-quarters full.

Parking attendants report Lexus drivers “get a smile on their face” when they pull into the arena’s lot, he adds. “It’s a big kick for them,”

Mike Bernacchi, marketing professor at the University of Detroit-Mercy, says this type of arrangement is reminiscent of “an old frontier” blazed by Lee Iacocca. When he was Chrysler Corp.’s CEO, Iacocca told staffers they could drive any car they wanted – but if it wasn’t a Chrysler, they had to park in the back of the lot. That policy is still in effect.

Preferential parking for union-made models is a longstanding perk at plants run by Detroit auto makers.

“To make this a permanent (policy) is certainly a unique approach,” Bernacchi says, noting the marriage of two exclusive brands, Lexus and banking firm Wachovia, is a strategic no-brainer.

“It’s certainly trying to put the elite in their seats,” Bernacchi says, adding luxury brands face a never-ending challenge of delivering surprise-and-delight experiences.

“And sports brands have emotionally connected fans. If you can get some of that connectedness beyond sports teams and have it drip down to (Lexus),” that is a win for the brand, Bernacchi says.

However, he questions whether others, i.e. non-Lexus owners, will feel disenfranchised.

For the NBA, the Lexus deal is a slam-dunk because the Toyota brand is an official sponsor. However, the NHL may want to drop the gloves because Dodge is its lone auto industry partner.

Croce is unfazed, noting the Wachovia Center has enough reserved spaces to accommodate spectators who previously parked in its Lexus-only lots.

“We didn’t give (Lexus) the whole reserved parking (area). We gave them a section of it,” he says. “We’re not going to jeopardize our relationship with season ticket holders or other customers.”

However, the reserved parking fee is waived for Lexus owners, Croce notes.

Negotiating deals like this can be challenging because arenas, sports teams and parking lots often have different owners, Croce says.

Talks were less complicated in Philadelphia because Comcast-Spectacor owns controlling interests in the Flyers and 76ers.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com