Exploring FordHub at Westfield World Trade Center

We speak with Elena Ford and Michele Silvestri on the automaker's experiential destination

NYC’s Oculus, known officially as Westfield World Trade Center, might seem like an unlikely place for Ford‘s experiential retail space, but defying expectation is exactly what the auto brand is going for as they transition to being a mobility company and not just a car manufacturer. Elena Ford, Ford’s Vice President of Global Dealer and Consumer Experience, along with Michele Silvestri, the EVP and Global Director of Design at GTB, Ford’s agency, walked us through the FordHub and explained its contents and design with us.

The Hub is not a dealership and there are no real or full-size cars there. Unlike a dealership with salespeople, the FordHub is staffed with highly trained FordGuides who are versed in all things mobility as well as cars, and they are happy to introduce you to a local dealer if you’re interested. But the FordHub is about informing and engaging people about mobility and Ford’s thoughts about it. The FordHub, along with the Ford Pass program, is about mobility in all forms and use cases. In the FordHub, one can build a custom Mustang on top of the Empire State Building through virtual reality or interact with an art piece constructed from 5,412 die-cast model Ford cars (at 1:64 scale). Visitors can also submit ideas about travel in NYC to Ford’s Mobilize NY program, which offers an award up to $30,000 to help bring your ideas to life. The goal of the FodHub is to engage, collaborate and entertain. The entire experience begs the question: what does Ford look like outside of a dealership or auto show?

“This was our dream: to make a physical space where we could show people the different mobility ideas we had for Ford,” says Elena Ford. Some 300,000 people pass through the Oculus each day, and Ford tells us, “We wanted to talk to tourists who are new to New York, but also commuters.” This is immediately noticeable when you encounter a very large display at the store’s entrance, visible through the glass store front, which features the latest updates on NYC’s daily commute times. The (physical) key to it all is a Hub card. Visitors can grab one for free and scan it an numerous stations in the space; information from those experiences is added to your account which you can easily access online. The Hub card also activates an itinerary planner for tourists (and New Yorkers), populating a map with must see spots in the city, including directions from the Oculus.

Of course, the Hub card also lets people play with cars. “Let’s say you really want to learn about a car,” Ford continues, as she shows us a configurator that shows your desired car in the mall itself. “Many people are interested in Mustangs, so we built a configurator that actually projects out in the Oculus.” You can move this animated rendering, zoom it, pinch it or turn it. One can look at the interior colors, and all of this can be saved to look at while home.

A large-scale installation uses marbles to highlight “a transportation operating system,” Ford says. “You start at the top. You have a cloverleaf, you have a super highway, you have merger lanes, and your marbles start rolling through it all. This highlights how transportation moves and how traffic goes through.” There’s a city grid system and a “subterranean” subway system, as well. “We want people to have interactions with us, of course, but we also want them to see how we consider the ways mobility works as a whole,” Ford explains regarding the motivation for this exhibit.

Another fascinating addition is known as “The World” and stands 25 feet tall. Here, “We talk about our autonomous vehicles, our self driving vehicles, electrified vehicles and our dynamic shuttles,” Ford says. “It continuously moves. It’s bringing to life the city of tomorrow. You can see it’s a beautiful space [showcasing life] about five years from now.” There are many educational components to this piece, including emphasis on urban greenways and pedestrian assisted devices. The goal, naturally, is to get people to touch it all and learn along the way.

The visual centerpiece of the FordHub is in the rear, the aforementioned 5000+ piece installation. “It celebrates the past, present and future,” says Michele Silvestri. “Everyone has an emotional connection to their first car,” she continues. “As you walk by it senses you and the movement and pattern of the light changes.” There are 66 different types of cars, ranging from a 1903 Model A to a brand new Ford F-150 Lariat (with 12 different wheel base lengths). These weren’t custom-made, but collected from toy car makers around the world. The list includes Matchbox Cars and Hot Wheels, as well as smaller brands. The light patterning behind them all activates in 22 different ways. “These can be complicated, heady subjects addressed here,” Silvestri explains, “But we are in a mall and we want it to be fun.”

The overall messaging and experience in the FordHub is quite clear: “It’s an investment in driving and consumer experience for people who may not have thought of Ford before,” continues Ford. “We want to change the conversation with people who have never considered us before.” This is the first FordHub, with a second in San Francisco launching later in 2017. “I wouldn’t say this is a test but we want to learn from what people’s reactions are. What we put in San Francisco may be quite different,” Ford adds.

“We are not telling people what we are. We are letting them experience it,” Silvestri adds. “There is this openness right now [at the brand] to allow people on the outside to see what’s happening on the inside.” In turn, the people operating the FordHub are keeping track of what pleases visitors—and noting how much time is spent in each area. Everything inside is modular, and Ford plans on updating it all with regularity, based on consumer feedback.

Images by Josh Rubin