MOAB, UTAH – A typical national dealer council meeting doesn’t include staying at a ranch on the Colorado River and off-roading along old uranium mining trails in red-rock canyon country.

But brass from Volkwagen of America Inc., based in Auburn Hills, MI, outside Detroit, wanted to try something different from the usual drill of flying in dealer council members, putting them up at a local hotel and convening there in a windowless meeting room.

So VW’s dealer powwow was held last October outside this remote and rugged community in southeast Utah known for its big skies and striking rock formations.

The agenda included off-roading in VW Touareg cross/utility vehicles at spots with ominous names, such as Hell’s Revenge and Dead Horse Point.

“The dealers were blown away by the experience,” says Steve Keyes, VW of America’s public relations manager. “And it really showed them what the Touaregs can do.”

That got folks at corporate thinking. Why not create an activity program in which Touareg owners, enthusiasts, dealership staffers and anyone else could off-road in Moab and see for themselves the Touareg is more than just a pretty CUV?

That is the genesis of TouaregAdventure, a vacation package launched in June. Ten sessions are planned this year.

Keyes says VW subsidizes the program in part to show the Touareg’s durability and agility. “This vehicle is more than some people realize. We thought: ‘How do we get people to understand that?’”

It was relatively easy getting VWA Executive Vice President Adrian Hallmark to sign on.

“Adrian was very positive and gave us the money to do it,” says Keyes. “He came from Porsche (AG) and Bentley (Motors Ltd.), companies that do a lot of ‘experience’ marketing for customers.”

VW expects many TouaregAdventure participants to learn about it at dealerships. Program brochures went out to all stores.

As incentives, dealerships also might offer the trips to best customers or star employees, Keyes says.

Besides showing off the Touareg’s strong points, the program also plugs into a travel trend of late in which people take action-oriented learning vacations to gain “status skills.”

“It gives them a little bragging rights when they get home,” Keyes says. “It’s a growing part of the travel business.”

TouaregAdventure also aims to create a “viral enthusiasm” to draw more traffic to showrooms and “to assist consumers in acquiring skills to make the most out of their purchases,” he says.

The 3-day trip costs $2,000 per person, putting it in the middle range of similar driving programs. It is about one-third the cost of the most expensive: a 2-day Ferrari Rally costing $5,925.

“We looked at all the programs,” Keyes says, including the Jeep Jamboree, the granddaddy of auto maker-sanctioned group off-roading.

VW’s version features a guide in every vehicle. Guides offer off-roading advice and “spot” drivers through particularly tough terrain and “you’re-kidding-me” rock climbs. (An abandoned Toyota 4Runner wedged between crags on the Hell’s Revenge trail is evidence of one failed scale.)

Lead guide is Dan Mick, a Chicago native who moved to Moab and began off-roading 30 years ago. He has blazed and named several trail segments, including “Mickey’s Hot Tub” and “The Escalator.”

“Someone once described me as a cross between Hoss Cartwright, Grizzly Adams and Indiana Jones,” he says. Did the comparison offend him? “Heck no,” he says.

True off-roading is tip-toeing, not dashing about, Mick says. “Imagine your wallet is under the gas pedal. The more you step on it, the more you pay for repairs.”

Off-roading vehicle casualties include damaged axles, drive shafts and suspension systems. In admiration, Mick says that during “three days of “beating up on Touaregs, we haven’t had as much as a flat tire.”

The VW CUVs come with adjustable air suspensions, hill-descent controls, differential locks and off-road stabilizer bars that disconnect for greater articulation on loose and uneven terrain.

“Clamoring over rocks provided an overwhelming impression of how amazing the Touareg is,” says Richard Fisher, a member of VW’s national dealer council who attended that October session in Moab.

The unconventional setting also gave dealers “a chance to get to know Adrian Hallmark, his team and his business strategy,” says Fisher. “Being away from Detroit made it easier to get to know those guys.”

Fisher’s three Auto Barn dealerships account for 25% of new VW sales and 70% of certified pre-owned VW deliveries in metro Chicago.

Most of his Touareg customers stick to urban paved roads. Nevertheless, he says, “we’re working on getting a video showing what the vehicle can do in Moab.”

The Touareg debuted in 2003. Since then, 76,000 units have been sold. A second-generation Touareg 2 goes on sale this month. Although it has 2,300 new parts, most of the changes are under the skin.

“We’re quietly confident Touareg 2 will sell well,” Fisher says.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com