Interior Insights: How to Promote Your Upholstery Shop at Car Shows

Aug 11, 2012

This installment is geared more toward new and aspiring shop owners, though, hopefully, all types of shop will be able to benefit from the advice I share here.

Every functioning shop has to have a mainline of business or primary specialty. Whatever it is that’s fundamentally the type of business you’re in, that service has to be placed in front of your target audience.

Car shows are a closed-fish-bowl environment of your primary audience. You won’t find a higher concentration of potential customers than in this setting. Cost can be prohibitive for small shops at some of the larger, better-recognized shows.

One way to offset your costs is by partnering with other small businesses in the industry to share booth or display space. Never approach a competing business to share. Always network with shops that can be mutually beneficial relations.

For example, I’m primarily a custom interior shop and I do several shows throughout the year with paint shops that I’ve done work for in the past. Generally, as a group we try to bring a standout customer vehicle that they’ve done paint and body work on and I’ve upholstered. This puts all of our work in front of the audience, shows that we have a good working relationship and also helps develop customer confidence in your abilities.

Everyone benefits by sharing space. Create an attractive display that shows examples of your offerings. This is a great way to put what you’re capable of in front of potential customers. The more time and effort you put into the curb appeal of your display, the higher the likelihood a potential customer will approach you. A card table and a picture book are good when you’re starting out. Banners, business cards, stickers, promo items and whatever else you can afford to get your name in front of your target customer are worthwhile investments when you start displaying or exhibiting at car shows.

My shop has a 38-foot enclosed trailer (pictured above with our shop rig) vinyl-wrapped with our shop logo that we use as a backdrop at shows. Not only is it a great focal point for our display, it also stores gear at overnight shows and provides additional security for our property. The biggest benefit the trailer provides is in transporting cars that we can put directly in front of potential clients. If you’re starting out, a shop trailer may not be a viable option but should be a direction to aspire toward. Use the show environment to inspire confidence in your work. Another benefit of promoting your shop at car shows is that they’re a great platform to sell products associated with your offerings. I often take sets of already-upholstered bucket seats and smaller benches to shows to display and sell. As you grow in offerings in your shop, you’ll undoubtedly start picking up items that are retail sales as well. Create a small display to showcase your most-popular and easy-to-move retail items.

Have plenty of business cards ready with contact information to hand out to customers who do purchase items from you or show an interest in what you’re displaying. Keep in mind a majority of revenue that you’ll generate from this type of function will come weeks, or even months, after the initial meeting. You’re creating relationships here with potential clients for years to come. Shows are seldom immediately profitable but instead pay off tremendously in the long-term.

I have several customers who offer their vehicles to me to use at shows. Most of the time when I accept and agree to display, the vehicle owner’s pride absolutely soars. Try to choose vehicles that complement the type of show you’ll be attending. Muscle cars seldom have the desired draw at a street rod show and vice versa. Establish a presence at certain shows and grow from year to year. Continue to evolve and display higher levels of work. Keep in mind many enthusiasts take four to six years to complete their builds. A customer can meet and decide to use you several years before he’s ready to have you work on his interior. Time spent networking at car shows is an investment in your future bottom line.

Build a buzz around your name to create interest in your shop and work. Show genuine interest in client builds and offer any helpful advice or referrals to shops you trust to help them.

One of the most important things to remember while at these shows is to never talk badly about other shops, builds or customers. Use professional courtesy inside the industry no matter what your thoughts or preferences are. Even when attacked by other professionals, rise above any drama. It’s hard to grasp if it happens to you, but realize that the greater a success you become, the larger the target you’ll also become. Remain professional and let your work speak for itself.