While we are still at the stage where no one can accurately predict what the long-range outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic will be for businesses of all types, we can reasonably assume that our traditional perception of what “normal” operations look like will be altered in many ways. One thing that will remain constant, however, is that the businesses that are able to achieve post-COVID-19 success will be the ones that can position themselves as a provider of essential services to their customers, old and new.

Soft-touch wash media delivers a best-in-class wash experience.

That means that an updated and robust marketing program that acknowledges the new realities of a COVID-19-influenced world that is heavy on social-distancing protocols must be developed and implemented. In this regard, the operators of conveyorized tunnel vehicle washes are well positioned to serve the changing needs of their customers since the nature of their operations are well-suited for limited person-to-person contact.

Anyone can equip a tunnel wash with the equipment necessary to produce clean cars, but the ones who go beyond that to create a memorable wash experience are the ones who truly succeed. Knowing this, wash operators must work tirelessly to make and keep the vehicle wash itself the most prominent marketing tool at their disposal.

Pandemic or no pandemic, the first step toward a good marketing program for every wash operator should be performing basic maintenance and upkeep on all of the assets at the site. Pick up any trash in the interior wash bay and around the exterior, keep the pay station clean, wash the windows, make sure all of the lights are working, apply a new coat of paint, if needed, and patch any potholes in the forecourt.

While keeping the wash the focal point of the operation through the development of and adherence to a basic maintenance and upkeep routine should be the foundation for a strong marketing program, there are three significant areas that can be optimized if you are to experience true tunnel-wash marketing success:


Like they say about the news, all vehicle-wash patronage is local. That makes it imperative that wash operators know who their customers are and what their driving and buying habits may be. These days, this goes well beyond performing demographic studies and reviewing vehicle counts. Your marketing program must take into account the new, more immediate forms of communication that are available to both you and your customers. The days of putting a clip-out coupon in the weekly newspaper are a remnant of the past. That being said, there will be a cohort of your customer base that still favors more traditional forms of communication and may not be as amenable to downloading a vehicle-wash “app.”

Tunnel equipment features are all customizable.

In other words, you must take into account the needs and preferences of a diverse group of people and come up with ways that can attract the widest array of drivers. Determining who is buying and how they want to buy should be a guide in how best to attract and keep customers.

One thing that has — and will — remain a behavioral constant is that buyers want to know that the businesses they frequent are in partnership with the community and not just a receptacle for their hard-earned cash. Simple things like sponsoring local sports teams, social groups, and community events like festivals or fundraisers will go a long way toward building that “this is my car wash” attitude that is attractive to customers.


Being visual creatures, human beings are attracted to things that draw their attention — whether it be an unusual design, flashing lights, or an eye-catching color. This makes the signage that is the welcome mat to your site extremely important, with a common refrain among wash operators being, “Throughput begins at the curb cut.” The street sign, at its most basic, should create immediate awareness that this, indeed, is a vehicle wash, while also possessing the ability to capture drive-by traffic.

Signage helps personalize the wash.

Once the driver has entered the lot, the on-site signage should continue to tell the brand and value-proposition story that is introduced by the street signage. Once the driver is hooked, menu signage at the transaction point should be clear to read and easy to understand while allowing the driver to quickly make decisions regarding his purchase. An easy-to-use transaction screen moves the vehicle into the wash quicker, which allows the next transaction to begin, thereby eliminating lines that can be off-putting to other potential customers.


Once you’ve identified your customers and welcomed them with open arms to your site, the next step is making them customers who choose to return again and again. Loyalty programs play a huge role in creating a repeat-business revenue stream for wash operators. Coming up with a compelling message that motivates them to sign up for the loyalty program is only the first step of the process. With a base of customers built up, it is important to stay connected to them via regular communications lest they begin to feel ignored. The overriding goal is to make drivers feel “part of the team” while offering incentives for them to return consistently to the same location that they have determined will meet their needs reliably and without fail.

After establishing regular communications, it is important to reward customer loyalty by ensuring that the level of service and performance that they have come to expect does not waver or decline. The old business-school bromide, “It takes years to find a customer, but only seconds to lose one” is definitely still in effect. Even the slightest perceived deterioration in performance can cause even the most loyal customer to begin to look elsewhere.

In today’s market, there are tunnel washes that deploy soft-touch wash media that delivers a best-in-class wash experience with no risk of vehicle damage. They also feature full-cover chemical dispensers, whisper-quiet wash wheels, programmable tire dressers, and touchless dryers. All of these features are fully customizable, which gives the operator unprecedented flexibility in constructing a tunnel wash system that can be marketed to satisfy the demands of the specific characteristics of the wash’s operating environment.


As mentioned, conveyorized tunnel washes have a built-in advantage as society continues to adjust to the social-distancing demands of a post-COVID-19 world, but those advantages are rendered moot if the wash is not providing the customer experience that is expected. Making sure that the customer experience is enjoyable, fulfilling, and satisfactory is the most important marketing tool that wash operators possess and a critical component in determining if the driver will return and trust you to provide the service that is expected.

From the time the vehicle enters the property until it exits the tunnel, the experience should be easy, non-stressful, and comfortable. The wash operator delivers this by maintaining a clean and appealing site, offering clear and easy-to-read menus, and an overall wash experience that engages the senses in a memorable way that will help earn repeat business. The best sign that your wash and its associated marketing plan are doing their jobs is when a group of satisfied customers make your business a must-go destination while sharing their positive experiences and recommendations with family and friends, which will help create a self-perpetuating cycle of success.

Mark Tentis is the vice president of global sales for OPW Vehicle Wash Solutions and can be reached at mark.tentis@opwvws.com. OPW Vehicle Wash Solutions was formed in January 2019 and consists of PDQ Manufacturing Inc. and Belanger Inc.

PDQ is a provider of in-bay automatic wash systems and payment terminals, while Belanger offers soft-touch tunnel and in-bay automatic wash systems.

A third member of OPW Vehicle Wash Solutions is Kesseltronics, a specialist in electronic car wash control systems. Together, these companies create a single source for all vehicle-wash needs. For more information on OPW Vehicle Wash Solutions, please visit opwvws.com.