caring for cars in vegas

Thousands of carwash operators, equipment manufacturers and vendors filled the cavernous Las Vegas Convention Center to “clean up.”

By Ross Markman, Retail Relations Editor

Cruising the show floor at the annual Car Care Expo in Las Vegas, dozens of current and would-be carwash operators perused new products that caught their eye, considered the future of the industry and marveled at the impressive size of some of the manufacturers’ booths, some of which were nearly the size of Rhode Island.

Thomas Jorgensen, a 30-something former banker and venture capitalist from San Francisco, Calif., was a rarity at the threeday, 400-exhibitor show at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Jorgensen spent the past year voluntarily unemployed, searching for what’s next. It was only recently when the epiphany struck—he would open a carwash.

“I’ve had this internal spark, actually I’d say an internal itch to do this,” he said. “I just have this draw to the carwash industry.”

These days, Jorgensen favors the fullservice wash, and the concept that ambience—even in carwash—matters.

“My car is an extension of me. When it’s getting washed, it’s almost like I’m getting a little massage,” Jorgensen said. “I feel like the bar can be raised a little bit. It can’t be that hard to get those teeny little crumbs from in between the seats.”

From the looks of the show, the largest ever hosted by the Chicago-based International Carwash Association, equipment manufacturers and suppliers are striving to do just that—raise the bar.

Some vendors really went out of their way to lure customers to their booths, offering live presentations on the show floor, while others opted for less traditional methods. One company, Zep Manufacturing, set up a basketball hoop, complete with hardwood floor and glass backboard, and hired a national three-point shooting champion to challenge all comers.

The convention, though, was about much more than folks working on their jump shot.

“The most important thing about a carwash is making money, and that’s what a feasibility study will allow you to do,” said Doug Talbot, an engineer with Bentonville, Ark.-based CEI Engineering, which presented a seminar on site selection.

“Most people think what’s important is how much you pay for the land for a carwash,” Talbot said. “But the land cost is not nearly as important as many other features.”

Talbot spoke in detail about factors such as environmental conditions of the site, obtaining an accurate traffic count and understanding how to deal with city councils and planning boards.

“The zoning of a site might allow commercial development, but did you find out if a carwash is allowed there?” Talbot asked.

Matt Robinson, a fresh-out-of-college aspiring entrepreneur, also attended the show for information about the carwash industry. He likes the idea of running a business that requires few employees and little maintenance.

“I already have a site picked out and am learning so much at this show,” Robinson said while checking out the latest offerings from carwash giants Mark VII, Ryko and Belanger.

Smaller vendors were also on hand, hawking everything from detailing chemicals to vending machines to foot massagers, in attempts to persuade owners like Phil Wecherly to try their product.

A nine-year carwash owner from Prescott, Ariz., Wecherly operates a 42-foot express tunnel with hopes to build several more. His Richie’s Express Carwash and Detail features an unattended pay station and little prep work on vehicles, but all cars are towel dried.

“We service everything from the unpaintedcar to the $125,000 Mercedes,” Wecherly said. “And people enjoy the fact that we don’t go in their car, that we don’t invade their space.”

Marcus Kittrell, a 23-year industry veteran,-operates two carwashes in Alabama, the first of which he converted from full service to express three years ago. That location also has a $20 full-service tunnel that accounts for about 6% of his revenue, which covers his labor costs.

“There are a lot of challenges converting to express,” Kittrell said. “But, for this generation, it’s essential. They don’t want the hassle. They want in, they want out.”

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