SALEM, OR – Scott Casebeer remembers a 25-year-old travel experience that ultimately affected the way he runs his 5-franchise dealership group.

He and his sons had taken a train, bus and cab before finally reaching their hotel. It was late. A hotel employee who saw how exhausted they were took them to the kitchen, sat them at a table, excused himself and returned with hot chicken-noodle soup.

“It was the best meal of our entire lives,” Casebeer says. “We hadn’t asked for it, we didn’t know we wanted it, but it was perfect. He knew what we needed, how we wanted to be treated, without asking.

“I still remember it,” says the president of Capitol Auto Group in this capital city south of Portland. “That was the kind of experience I wanted to create in my dealership.”

The family business recently made a big move of its own, relocating from an aging facility to a 24-acre (9.6-ha) site in north Salem. Along a lake are Capitol’s complex of new showrooms and service centers for Toyota-Scion, Subaru, Chevrolet and Cadillac.

As Casebeer began the building project, that hotel experience of a quarter-century ago came to mind.

“I thought that if we make this huge investment, it would be a shame to do things the same way we always have done them.” he says. He was determined to create a unique customer experience at the new location.

“I just wanted to try something new, something that would make customers feel better about buying a new car.”

Casebeer takes cues from Isadore Sharp, founder of the Four Seasons hotel chain. “Sharp mastered anticipating what customers wanted before they knew they wanted it,” he says.

Fundamentally, dealerships sell cars, parts and service, but “I didn’t want to follow the same old shtick,” he says. “I wanted to take our business to a new level of care for our customers and employees.”

He began looking for a company that could help Capitol develop a new customer-service plan and retrain the staff. As the construction project got under way, Casebeer and his team thought of other ways to break the mold when it came to customer amenities at the new facility.

Such brainstorming resulted in the construction of a floating golf green on the lake. Customers can avail themselves of that feature to brush up on their game.

A dog park was built at the Subaru store site. Subaru market research indicates the brand’s customers skew toward pet owners.

Around the lake, Capitol installed a mile-long (1.6 km) walking path for customers who didn’t necessarily want to sit while their cars were being serviced.

For the new customer-service project, Casebeer ended up signing a contract with Master Connections, an international consulting firm that has trained staffers of Ritz-Carlton hotels.

Master and Capitol Auto concluded that to effectively transform the dealership, they would need to retrain all 300 employees, even those not having direct contact with customers.

Part of the program calls for employees to meet daily to ensure the established high standards stay fresh in their minds. The “Daily Line Up” sessions also allows them to discuss new ways to enhance customer-employee interactions.

Employee training concluded in October, and it is too early to measure how it will affect business, Casebeer says.

But he reports sales increased significantly since the move to the new facilities. The Toyota-Scion store’s sales are up 94%, Subaru new-car sales increased 80% and Chevrolet sales have doubled.

“We’ve created a whole new experience at these stores,” Casebeer says. “We’re just planting the seeds into this new fertile ground.”

He’s hoping for a bumper crop.