Cars Not Only Attraction at Auto Shows
Auto-show product specialists dish about the job.
Web2Carz Senior Writer
Published: June 8th, 2012
Hedy Popson said working as a product specialist was almost like getting a master's degree in life.
uto shows aren't just about the cars—they're also about the people. We don't just mean the paying customers, but also the product specialists who attend each display, ready to dole out information to anyone who wants to know more about a particular car.
Once upon a time, product specialists were simply models, used as human eye candy to go along with the automotive treasures on display. That changed in the 1980s, as the term "product specialist" came into vogue and the people standing near the car were transformed from living mannequins into knowledgeable and informal salespeople.
Margery Krevsky, the author of Sirens of Chrome: The Enduring Allure Of Auto Show Models and President of Productions Plus Talent Shop, says that posing humans next to cars—and then arming those humans with plenty of information—makes perfect sense.
"If we go back in automotive history…from the first auto show, be it Chicago or be it New York…there was always a human presence besides the car. Which I think would make a good psychology article," Krevsky says. "It began in 1900, and it evolved in many different ways."
We were curious about what it's like to work as a product specialist—we encounter them when we're out covering auto shows but had very little knowledge about the job or the work lifestyle. So we spoke to a few folks who've served in the trenches to get an idea about what life is like on the show floor.
For some, being a product specialist is a full-time job. For others, it's part-time. Krevsky told us that there are several hundred applicants every year, even though her shop doesn't advertise open positions; hiring is done through word of mouth.
Those accepted attend a fairly intense training session, usually lasting about five days, in which they drive the cars peddled by the brands they represent on public roads along with competing vehicles, in order to become even more familiar with the products. They also learn about the culture of the brand they're representing, diving into such topics as brand history and design. They might even spend some time chatting with top executives or designers. Of course, no training session is complete without an exam. Also, in order to keep product news from leaking, product specialists are sworn to secrecy and aren't able to drive radically redesigned or all-new models until the last possible minute before the show, in those instances where they're allowed to drive them at all.
Applicants come from all sorts of backgrounds. Krevsky says many were communication majors in college, and the job is attractive to actors, salespeople, and laid-off teachers.
A typical day for a product specialist on the show floor usually begins by reporting an hour before the hitting the floor for a six- or eight-hour shift (there are usually three overlapping shifts, and yes, this means that female product specialists are spending a long day in high heels.). Each display is divvied up among "team members," with a "team leader" overseeing everything, while others are "zoned" throughout the display, standing near whichever car or truck they've had the most training on. Other employees—"information gatherers"—collect contact info from consumers for possible sales follow-ups.
When a shift ends, employees will file reports on what challenges they faced or what feedback they received from consumers.
The auto-show season runs from September to May, so training usually takes place in August. A product specialist who works 100 days on the circuit could make enough money to earn a full-time living with the job as their sole source of income, depending on experience (an experienced worker can make $1,000 a day.). A relative newcomer ($250 a day) would need to supplement his or her income, either by working in another industry or by working as a product specialist at consumer events or auto races. The median ($300-$400 per day on the show floor) salary is probably enough for most to live comfortably. Krevsky says the job comes with lots of perks, such as travel, a per diem, and a nice wardrobe, but she says the best perk is the human interaction.
"They create a lot of really permanent friendships among each other on the road."
Product specialist Becky Decker agrees.
"Friends and people you travel with, they become your family," she said. "It becomes a lot closer than some normal business friendships."
Of course, dealing with the public can have its challenges, especially for good-looking folks who interact with the unwashed masses. But Decker says that even that part of the job isn't too unpleasant.
"There's going to be constant situations where you have customers who are going to come in and be very demanding or very rude," she said. "Just smile even if you don't feel like it."
Hedy Popson, Executive Vice President at Productions Plus and a former product specialist, agrees: "I think the biggest challenge was always the general public, in the most positive and negative ways."
One stereotype is that pretty much all product specialists are female, but about 30 percent are actually male. That might seem odd to readers of automotive blogs that publish photo galleries of female "booth babes" after each major auto show, but it's true. Matt Troyer is one of them, and he says being a male in the industry does provide a unique perspective—and unique challenges.
"We look out a lot for the ladies, let's just say that," Troyer said. "It's funny because heads will turn as you walk in. You kind of forget that you're traveling with a large group of attractive women."
Troyer says there are creepy guys out there who hide behind poles trying to snap covert photos, and says it's better to ask than to be dubbed a "perverazzi."
Still, none of the current or former product specialists we talked to seemed interested in doing anything else for a career. Popson said it was almost like getting a master's degree in life.
"Learning how to deal with people…life is all about people," Popson said.