Auto Detailing - March 2010

Tradeshow — Should I Stay or Should I Go?
By Prentice St. Clair

I am, perhaps, stating the obvious when I say that we are in times of economic constraint. Although things loosen up here and there, consumers generally continue to watch their expenditures carefully. This attitude has impacted the bottom line for many detail operators who see a marked decrease in new customers as well as reluctance among repeat customers to make appointments that used to be virtually a given.

These types of trends cause many detail operators to also tighten their purse strings, for example by cutting back on marketing and advertising as well as delaying major equipment purchases. Another line item that is subject to the cutting block is attendance at tradeshows and learning events like seminars and workshops. It is understandably difficult to justify the expense of the tradeshow admission, the travel costs, and the time away from the business.

Yet I strongly believe that this is precisely the time to collect your pennies and do whatever it takes to get to the next industry tradeshow. Now is the time to fill your head with fresh ideas and rejuvenating concepts and to get away from the mental stagnation that our current economy can so easily bring.


There are many benefits to attending an industry tradeshow. I have attended dozens of annual tradeshows since 1992, and I can quickly think of several specific benefits, including:

  • Educational sessions targeted toward your specific industry
  • Educational sessions and presentations that discuss business in general
  • A multitude of vendors displaying equipment, chemicals, products, and services that can help you with the administrative and operational aspects of your business
  • Gathering of like-minded people who are looking for and sharing ideas
  • Establishment of business relationships and friendships that can last for years
  • Time away from the normal routine that allows you to think and be creative

Industry-Specific Educational Sessions
Okay, I realize that the reality is that a two-hour detailing educational session will probably not turn your detailing operation into a multi-million dollar profit center. But you may pick up some tips, tricks, or ideas with which you can go back home and make some concrete improvements in your operation.

You may also have specific questions that have been nagging you for weeks or months — questions that the presenter can answer during the session or in the question-and-answer period that follows. An adage that has served me well over the years is “be the first one to the meeting and the last one to leave.” By doing so, you have an opportunity to connect with the presenter and perhaps get your specific questions answered one-on-one. If nothing else, listen to the conversations that other operators have with the presenter — you my learn something just from hanging around.

Additionally, most presenters welcome follow-up phone calls or e-mails to answer quick questions that may come up. Finally, the presenters are likely to be industry experts to whom you can turn down the line for consulting or training as you attempt to plan or execute major improvements or expansions in your operation.

General Business Presentations
Most tradeshows have a keynote speaker who is typically some successful businessperson or motivational speaker. Some people consider this type of presentation to be “fluffy” or inflated. When you start to think about it, however, most professional presenters are being paid for their time, so they must have something important to say. Even if you only get one or two nuggets out of a talk, those are nuggets that you didn’t have before.

Other general educational sessions might be on topics like “motivating your employees,” or “getting the best results from your bookkeeping,” or “marketing and advertising options.” Sometimes I’ll even sit in on sessions that are supposedly for another segment of the industry. For example, I’ve gotten some great ideas from sessions like, “How to sell more services to your car wash customers.”

I have found over the years that these sessions offer an hour or two of peace and quiet (despite the speaker) in which my brain can actually think about other things besides the daily grind. Make sure to take a notebook to jot down ideas that pop into your head while you sit through the various presentations.

Okay, so everyone hates salespeople. But let’s face it, one of the best ways to find out about new stuff is to see it first hand at a tradeshow. Yes, you will have to put up with sales pitches, but you can cut these short by asking specific questions and taking control of the conversation. The vendor can’t really go anywhere else, so you have a captive audience.

Another great benefit is that often vendors will have equipment and tools on display. You can actually pick up, feel, and try out these devices for yourself.

Vendors can also answer questions about your specific challenges with equipment or chemicals that are similar to those being sold. The way I figure it, if I spend some time listening to the vendor’s sales pitch, it’s fair for me to expect him or her to spend some time answering questions about my specific situation.

Networking with other Detailers
Year after year, show after show, some of the best ideas come from conversations with other detailers. We’re all in the same boat, or at least sailing on the same lake. Between sessions, talk with other operators. Ask them how it’s going. Ask them what’s working for them in this economy. Ask them specific questions like “what’s your favorite way to get out a red stain in carpet?”

You will come away with lots of answers to everyday questions as well as ideas about complicated business concepts like marketing. Bring lots of business cards and collect as many as you can. Jot down notes about conversations you had with specific folks on the back of their card so that when you get home, you can go through the stack of cards and remember your conversations, and perhaps even make a follow-up call or e-mail.

Relationships and Friendships
Most of my long-term relationships in the detailing and car wash industries began by meeting someone at a tradeshow. At some shows, we put together an e-mail group that allows us to ask questions and bounce ideas off of several associates at one time. These e-mail groups go on for years and it’s great to reconnect with the group members year after year at the tradeshows.

Time to Think
There is really something to be said about getting away from the daily grind. It allows your mind to stop thinking about the normal daily details and challenges and start thinking about how to improve your business. Although I know that it is important to stay “connected” with your business at home, I encourage you to disconnect as much as practicable.

Hopefully you can put a trusted manager, supervisor, or top employee in charge of the day-to-day operation back at the shop. Remember whatever problems you leave behind will be there when you get back, so while at the tradeshow, try to stay focused on taking advantage of the many attendance benefits that I have outlined here.


For most of us, the next big trade show and convention is the upcoming Car Care World Expo (CCWE) in May. Now you may think, “what does a car washing convention have for me as a detailer?” Well, as a matter of fact, this year it has quite a bit. Thanks to a collaboration between the International Carwash Association, which puts on CCWE, and the International Detailing Association (IDA), there will be several offerings for detailers.

First, we will have several detailing-industry-specific seminars that will be great for all types of detailing operators, including standalone detail shops, mobile detailers, and those car wash owners who offer detailing. It is recommended for larger operations that as many of the owners, managers, supervisors, and technicians attend as is possible.

Although the exact seminar topics have not been chosen as of the publication of this column, you can rest assured that the educational committee of the IDA will select timely and relevant topics for our industry and will include administrative as well as operational subjects. Check the IDA website (

Second, there will be a “detailing pavilion” on the expo floor, stocked with vendors that cater to the detailing industry. You will find a heavy concentration of detailing professionals in this area, which will be a hub of information for the professional detailer.

Third, your attendance will also afford you an opportunity to mingle with members of the IDA’s Board of Directors. You can get some of your questions answered and your suggestions heard for the course of this relatively new organization.


We need to be more careful with our money than ever. However, I ask readers to consider carefully before excluding tradeshow attendance from the budget. A few ideas, tips, tricks, and connections gleaned from attending can easily turn the expense of a tradeshow visit into an investment in your detail operation’s future.

Prentice St. Clair is president of Detail in Progress, a San Diego-based automotive reconditioning consulting firm. To contact him, e-mail or call (619) 701-1100.

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