Car Wash Owner Shares Lessons From Starting His Business

A couple of short years ago, Travis Benson opened his first Pony Express Car Wash, which soon gained a reputation as “The fastest car wash in the west.” Learn how he got started, what he learned along the way and why he says DRB® is the “gold standard” of car wash point-of-sale providers.


Todd Davy, DRB Senior VP of Sales: We’re joined today by Travis Benson from Pony Express Car Wash with two locations in Pocatello, Idaho and Idaho Falls, Idaho. One thing that they like to say at Pony Express is they’re the fastest car wash in the West. So with that in mind, we’re going to spend a few minutes with Travis today before he gets back out to service his customers and wash a lot more cars. Travis, how you doing today?

Travis Benson: I’m good. Thanks, Todd. How are you?

Todd: Good. Really good, really good. Enjoying some snow on the ground, and as I look back over my shoulder and you can’t see out my window, there’s snow on the ground. So car washers are having a good weekend here in Ohio. We’re really looking forward to it. Travis, tell me a little bit about your wash. When did, how did you guys first set up and open up your first location?

Travis: We opened up our first location in Pocatello at the end of 2019. My brother Kyle and I got together with some other investors. We partnered up and came up with the concept for Pony Express Car Wash, and so far it’s been going really good. We opened up our second location in 2020, and we’ve got our third location coming to Ammon, Idaho in 2021.

Todd: Fantastic. That’s really great, growing three car washes in such a short period of time. What have you learned along the way that kind of helped you as you go to open sites two and three?

Travis: What we’ve learned opening sites two and three is location, location, location. It’s really important. You only get to build the car wash once, so it’s really important to get the site laid out the way that you want it and to pick the right spot. So those are some critical components that we always take a lot of consideration in when we’re selecting a site. Where’s it going to be? What’s the ingress, egress look like? What are traffic patterns like? And then what the overall community, what are the demographics like? What’s average income for people? So a lot of factors go into it, but we feel like we’ve got a pretty good direction there that’s proven to be successful so far.

Todd: Fantastic. So an average site, your sites are express exterior car washes, correct?

Travis: Yeah.

Todd: How many lanes do you do, pay station lanes at your sites? So they’re two-lane, three-lane? Just give me a little background of your site layout.

Travis: Site number one is three lanes, site two and three are both four lanes. In the four-lane sites, we have two SAL lanes and two just XPT® lanes for cash or credit card customers. We really like to have a dedicated express lane or two specifically for our members. We feel that really helps the flow of our traffic through the site. So that’s, if we have four lanes, we go with two SAL lanes so that those members can get in and out as quick as possible.

Todd: Just to give a little bit of background on that for those that might not be familiar with what a SAL lane is, that’s a Semi-Attended Lane for your members only. So a member can just pull into that lane, up goes the gate and they drive in the tunnel, correct?

Travis: Right, and those SAL lanes are super convenient. You know, the semi-attended portion is completely accurate. They’re there so that we can quickly resolve an issue if a, say a member’s plan has expired, our attendant can run over there. They can look the account up right there on the screen. They don’t have to run back into the office to look anything up. So it really helps the flow to go smoothly as we can resolve almost every situation right there quickly at the SAL lane, get people on their way. But the majority of the time they pull up, the gate opens, they go through no problem. Just…

Todd: Fantastic. Great, so in your Xpress Pay Terminal lanes, you offer cash and credit in those lanes, right?

Travis: Correct.

Todd: Okay, good. So if you could give me a ballpark, how many members do you like to see per site? Is it in the 500 range, a thousand range? Just give me, what’s your target for membership at your sites?

Travis: Well, you know, we’re still growing because our flagship wash is only two years old at this point. So we’re still growing, but we’d like to see those memberships be over 5,000, and we’re, you know, we’re working towards that goal.

Todd: Fantastic. What’s the competitive landscape look like in your area? Are there other Express Exteriors, Full-Service washes In-Bay Automatics? Can you tell us a little bit about the area?

Travis: There’s a lot of competitors for Express Washes. There’s definitely a lot of In-Bay Automatics at gas stations or spray bays, that sort of thing. Not a lot in the way of flex-serve, different things like that, but there is a lot of competition with the Express model. There’s been, in Idaho Falls, there’s been two new Express Car Washes open up in 2020. So that, it’s a competitive area. You have to be the best to draw in the members and the non-member traffic because if you’re not doing things right, your competitors are going to siphon that business away from you.

Todd: Absolutely. Well said, well said. What’s your mix from a membership standpoint versus non-members as far as a 60, 40 mix, a 70, 30 mix on washing cars? Any?

Travis: It really varies according to the weather obviously, but when the weather’s good it can be anywhere from 60, 40 to even 50, 50. That varies site-to-site as well. Our, one of our locations is a little bit higher on the member to non-member ratio.

Todd: Right.

Travis: Where the other one gets a little bit of a better mix. And then it also varies time of year. This time of year where winter’s nasty, those members really take advantage of the membership to wash a little more frequently, keep that salt off their cars. So we see some variety throughout the year on that.

Todd: Fantastic. Now in my house we’ve got four cars. Two sons that drive, my wife and I, and we have four memberships. So what I know, what I’ve seen is that my membership, I wash every other day. I’m the guy that they hate to see coming, but the other three aren’t washing as much. Are you guys doing any kind of family plans or multi-site car discounts, and what’s your experience with that?

Travis: We don’t do multi-car discounts. I have done that in the past when I worked for another car wash.

Todd: Mm-hmm.

Travis: I didn’t like it. I think it complicates the membership scenario.

Todd: Sure.

Travis: Because really there’s so much value in the membership to begin with. We have prices starting at $19.95 for unlimited car washes. Most of our memberships, people are looking at spending the cost of two car washes. So when you put that into perspective, you have to wash your car two times in order to save money. There’s a tremendous amount of value right there already. So that’s how we explain it to customers. There’s already a lot of value there. A multi-car discount just doesn’t really add anything to what we’re doing, but in my experience of using a multi-car discount, I felt it overcomplicated things and could kind of throw a wrinkle into people’s memberships that didn’t always produce the best results from a customer-service perspective. It tended to cause more problems than it solved, and the extra $5 or whatever that a customer might save a month in doing that, it really isn’t worth the headache to me.

Todd: Perfect. Great. Okay, let’s move on a little bit and talk about your buying decision. When you opened up your car wash, you chose a different point-of-sale system other than a DRB system. What was your criteria when you opened up that wash or bought that site.

Travis: Well, I had used DRB for the first five years that I was in the car wash industry, so I was very familiar with how DRB worked. I knew all the good things about it. There was a competitor that had some things that looked really sexy and seemed like they were innovative and going to work really well. And so we decided to give them a try. It was a much cheaper option than DRB, and so when we opened up our Pocatello site that’s what we did. We went with a different point-of-sale system. We used that system for about 11 months before we pulled it out and switched to DRB. It just didn’t work the way that we wanted it to. We experienced a lot of problems. It seemed like we were always on the phone with tech support trying to get one issue or another resolved, and some of them were very just routine things like the cash dispenser not functioning properly or tearing money in half when it was either accepting or dispensing it or just slowing down the process. I mean, throughput’s very important. You want to be fast, especially us. We’re sitting here billing ourselves as the fastest car wash in the West, but it’s going to take eight to nine seconds to process one dollar bill?

Todd: Mm-hmm.

Travis: That just didn’t work for us. So it was really important to get back to being streamlined, having things work efficiently, not spending our time on the phone with tech support and actually spending it dealing with our wash, our throughput, our customers and to start our every day things that are important to keep our business operating as it should. So we made the decision to switch back to DRB, and we’ve never looked back. It was the best decision. I have to apologize to Rich Hays. I’m a total sinner because he tried and tried to warn me to stick with what I knew and not switch, but I’ll tell you straight up. There were some things that just, this is a very, in this day and age technology is huge, and things evolve so quickly that when you see some of these things that are coming out with apps and just different technological advances, it can really sway you to go try something. And we got caught up in that. We did it, and it was a huge mistake. But now it sounds like DRB is coming up with some of the very things that made us want to switch and go somewhere else. It sounds like DRB is getting some of those very same things. And I’m really excited about that because one thing that I know with DRB is their stuff works, and we don’t have to call in to tech support a lot. We’re not spending a lot of time there trying to diagnose and resolve problems. And so when DRB puts out an app, I have no doubts that that’s going to work. And when they come up with new innovations, I’m sure that they’re going to be tested, tried and true and ready to go when they’re actually released to the customer. Because the one thing I don’t want to be is a guinea pig and testing things out live in front of my customers and not having them work as they’re supposed to. So it’s just been a phenomenal decision for us to link back up with DRB and to move forward with all of our locations down that path.

Todd: We are definitely glad to have you back. I get exactly what you’re saying. I’ve been with DRB for a very long time. Started in the, in what would have been new product development 20-some odd years ago, and I understand what you say about getting things out there, making sure they work well before releasing to the public. And, you know, software has its ups and downs, right? We’re all used to that kind of thing. We’re really proud of ourselves in really testing things out before we roll it out to the field and making sure that the product we deliver helps you stay focused on what’s important, washing cars, right? You don’t, you guys aren’t in the business of supporting your point-of-sale system. You’re in the business of washing cars and delivering a great shiny product, shiny, dry, shiny car fast to your customers so you can be the fastest car wash in the West. So we’re glad to be able to help you support that and keep you guys moving forward as time goes on. So how easy was your switch from one system to another? Can we talk about that process a little bit? When you decided to come back to DRB, what was the process like as we transitioned your customers into the new point-of-sale system?

Travis: For switching an entire point- of-sale system, it was awesome. And we did it right during the Christmas season. So we were actually having our gift card sale go on at the time. And so that’s a sale that we do once a year. We really wanted to take advantage of it. So we actually got our manager station set up first, and we were able to, before we were fully online with DRB with our SAL lane and our XPTs, we had our manager station set up in the office that we were able to sell those gift cards so that when the actual DRB system was live in mid-December, those gift cards we had sold were already set, ready to go and live. The process was really, for as big of a project as that is, it was really smooth, relatively problem-free. We were able to get quite a few of the FastPass® stickers, which they weren’t called that from the other company but same RFID technology, DRB was able to integrate a lot of those. They didn’t all work, but a good portion of them worked, and slowly over time, we’ve switched those old stickers out for the new FastPass stickers. But, you know, within the first month, we were on track, everybody was being charged through DRB, we didn’t see a dip in our customer base from it. And really since we made the switch, our growth on members through DRB has increased, I think even faster than what it was before. We’ve had a lot less issues with customer accounts. So I think the process of switching was as smooth as it could get.

Todd: So what you’re really saying is, after you switched point-of-sale systems, your team and your staff found it easier to sell folks into programs, into plans, and you’ve actually seen your membership grow at faster levels since you made that switch.

Travis: Yeah, I mean, really the growth has been tremendous. It’s been right at a year since we switched to DRB at that first location. To be at the number of members that we’re at right now for, I’ve been in the industry now for almost eight years, it really is mind blowing. I’ve never been associated with a site that’s had the membership growth that we have had at these two locations. But the best part of it is when we sign somebody up for a membership, they just work. They pull in, their gate opens, they go through and they get their wash. The CarPics® makes it super easy to make sure when you’re sending the car in, you’ve got the correct car, getting the correct wash at the time you send it. So you’re not just sending cars through blindly and hoping that your queue is correct. It’s just been a really smooth transition that has helped facilitate our growth.

Todd: Let’s talk about CarPics a little bit more. Talk about how that helps improve your throughput. So for those of you who aren’t familiar, CarPics is a system that we have that takes a picture of the car at the pay station or in the Semi-Attended Lane so that when the car pulls around to the tunnel loader position, you see the picture of that car. If they’re a member, you can see the picture of the car in the previous visits. You can see if there’s a tag shift. How’s that helped your loader become more confident in what they’re sending. Just feeling that things are all aligned, and just tell me a little bit more about that.

Travis: It’s a great innovative product. The first five years that I was in the car wash industry, we did not have any technology like CarPics even though we did use DRB, we just didn’t have that.

Todd: Mm-hmm.

Travis: And so when you sent the car, you really couldn’t see what you were getting without manually going in and taking a look at it. And so if your queue ever did get off, you know, you were kind of relying on a customer to inform you, “Hey, I didn’t get the correct wash.” And then you’re going in trying to figure out how to get your queue straight again. With CarPics, as long as your people are looking at the screen when they send the cars which, you know, that’s a training issue if they’re not, it shows you right there exactly what car’s in front of you, you send it, you know what wash they’re getting. Like you mentioned, it takes a picture of them. So it shows you the previous wash. So it’s really nice because on our top package, if people come in and buy our Triple Crown Wash, they get a three-day clean car guarantee. So it prints them a coupon. So we can monitor that if people come in and they scan that coupon. We can see if they’re trying to scam us and wash a car that we hadn’t previously washed when they purchased it. So we can let people know, “Hey, we can’t guarantee your car to be clean if we didn’t clean it to begin with.”

Todd: The first time.

Travis: So it really does help. It helps keep your queue in order, it helps you be able run promotions like that three-day clean car guarantee and actually know that you’re washing a car that you had washed within the last three days. So it’s just, it’s really great to help things run smooth, give your employees confidence that people are getting what they paid for.

Todd: Fantastic, fantastic. So what would you tell a new operator who’s considering a point-of-sale system? What would you tell those folks to watch out for, you know, just important features or things that you might not have known about or thought about till you actually opened up the car wash and learned a little bit more about the day-to-day process? Anything that jumps out?

Travis: Oh, that’s a big question.

Todd: I know.

Travis: I think really the support that you get from DRB is huge because a lot of people when they’re getting into the industry they don’t, they’re focused on what they have to do on a day-to-day basis. Helping the customers at the pay station, sending cars through the tunnel, making sure their, you know, their facility’s clean and it’s operating as it’s supposed to. Those are the kinds of things that an operator is thinking about and worrying about. Just taking care of their day-to-day business, their customers, and you don’t really think about all of the components that go into actually operating a car wash. There’s so much behind the scenes in the mechanical room, the electrical room that actually controls this machine and how it runs. And it’s so nice to have people that you know you can trust that know their end of the business, that you can make a phone call to and get things resolved. You’re not on your own. If I had to solve every computer problem that came up, I’d be a sitting duck because I’m not that techie. So it’s just nice with DRB knowing that if I call in, I’m going to quickly get somebody on the phone that can help me diagnose what’s going on and get it resolved quickly. So I think that support that DRB offers is huge. The last thing you want is to have your car wash shut down and you can’t do anything about it because you can’t get somebody on tech support on the phone. Which the first year that we operated with a different point-of-sale system, that was a constant issue. You call in, and you might get a phone call back eight hours later, or you might not get a phone call back at all. And if your wash is shut down, that’s revenue going out the door that you’re never getting back. And so that was a very valuable lesson that I learned having been with DRB and spoiled by that tech support, going with a competitor and realizing that not everybody has that same capacity to offer support. And that was one thing that Rich Hays told me when I was asking him those questions when, you know, because it’s expensive building a car wash. And so you’re trying to save money anywhere you can to keep those costs down. And one of the questions that I had asked him, you know, what’s better to go with, with DRB versus this guy over here. And that was one of his number one things he told me was the support. And it absolutely, now that I’ve been with DRB, gone somewhere else and come back, I can say with wholeheartedness it is absolutely true. You want to have that support because when you need it, you’ve got to have it.

Todd: Right. Fantastic. Yeah, we really pride ourselves in offering best-in-class customer support, but we also we want a reliable system that can give you access to the data behind it. And if you notice there’s data, reliability and best-in-class support. That’s DRB, right? So we’re really, we, every day when we come to the office or when we, you know, right now a lot of us work remotely. Our first thing is how do we make sure that we’re helping our customers get every possible ounce of every, how do I want to phrase this? We want them to get every drop out of their investment, right? We want to make sure that the large upfront investment and the recurring monthly investment you pay for our support team, that you’re getting your money’s worth. Do you feel like this investment has been, you’ve got a return on investment that you needed out of our system and our products?

Travis: Oh, absolutely. Just as I was saying before, when you need that support and your wash is shut down, you want to be able to call in and get somebody right away so you can get back up and running. The amount of money that you lose every hour that you are shut down, it adds up to a lot over time. And there’s a lot of things in the car wash that can shut you down. It’s not just a technical computer problem. It can be an electrical issue, it can be a plumbing issue, your conveyor can jam up. You know, there’s so many things but whatever it is, you’ve got to get back up and running as quick as possible. And when your tunnel control system is the brain behind your wash, that’s telling everything when to turn on, when to turn off, your point-of-sale system is processing transactions. That’s a critical component that you just cannot risk having something that is less than the gold standard. And in my experience, that’s exactly what DRB is. It’s the gold standard for car wash point-of-sale systems.

Todd: Boy, Travis, I don’t think I could have said that any better myself. I really appreciate you jumping on with me today so we can talk about a lot of this. Anything else you want to bring up before we wrap up this conversation?

Travis: No, I really appreciate you guys. We’re excited to get site number three on board with you and more to come after that.

Todd: Well, again I want to thank Travis Benson for joining me today from Pony Express Car Wash. It’s the fastest car wash in the West, and we’re always really excited to partner with them to help them grow their business and keep continuing to serve their customers in Idaho. Travis, thank you. I really appreciate it.

Travis: Thanks a lot, Todd.

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