Amping Up the Restroom Trailer Experience

Online shoe seller Zappos brings its trendy brand of marketing and wacky new features to portable sanitation event service.

Amping Up the Restroom Trailer Experience

Users of the Zappos Porta Party restroom trailer are greeted by colorful lighting and positive messages on the walls. (Photos courtesy of Zappos)

Awhile back, the soles on a seldom-worn expensive pair of shoes I owned split apart — something I’d never seen happen before. Though the shoes were several years old, I decided to contact the company that now distributed this line of shoes.

It was my first contact with Zappos.com, an online shoe seller growing by leaps and bounds through cool marketing and a reputation for over-the-top customer service. A representative of the company immediately responded to my complaint and, after I emailed a photo of my shoes, promptly shipped me a free replacement pair ($140 value) with an apology. It was a remarkable customer service experience that made me want to buy my next pair of shoes from Zappos.

Fast forward to this summer, when I read with great interest that Zappos, now owned by Amazon.com, was dipping its toes in the portable sanitation industry with the Porta Party restroom trailer. Led by dynamic CEO Tony Hsieh, the company is hoping to bring its customer service acumen to special event service, developing a mobile bathroom experience with new bells and whistles that won’t disappoint.

Introduced at the Life Is Beautiful festival in Zappos’ hometown, Las Vegas, in 2016 and hauled around the country this year to high-profile events like the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and the Super Bowl, two Forest River restroom trailers (outfitted by California company Grandesign) sport many interactive features that the company says shock and amaze users.

YOU FLUSH, YOU WIN

The unit has an arcade-like prize dispenser (condoms, temporary tattoos, lip balm) that rewards users who flush. To encourage hand-washing, activating the soap dispenser allows users to vote yes or no on a survey question on an electronic screen. Guys who carefully aim at the urinal activate a special light show. And after you’re done, you can step into the perfect selfie station, which offers flattering photo lighting and a breeze to tousle your hair.

We’ve never seen anything like this in the portable restroom industry — and that’s just what Zappos had in mind.

The company convenes a large committee of employees, led by Loren Becker, the Zappos community and experience manager. This group brainstorms about experimental and experiential businesses where the company could bring the same extreme customer service I experienced when complaining about my shoes.

“Where could we apply really good customer service to an industry that may be underserviced? What is the worst experience that we can turn into a wow experience? We thought of restrooms,” Becker told me in an interview. They talked about the Life is Beautiful festival in Las Vegas, how the restroom experience was smelly and dirty, and they felt they could change that.

Their reaction underscores an unfortunate reality about the public perceptions of the portable sanitation industry. Unlike returning a defective pair of shoes, we know a bad restroom experience leaves an indelible memory among users and builds a negative reputation that’s hard to shake. Despite the best service efforts of most PROs, a few bad actors can sully the reputation of the entire industry.

CLEAN COMES FIRST

For Zappos, the first focus was on how to improve the basic restroom user experience. The Porta Party is well-stocked, air-conditioned, and maintained during events by a Zappos ambassador who monitors for cleanliness and makes sure the array of electronic features continue to work properly.

Secondly, they looked for innovations to make the experience memorable and provide valuable feedback on how guests are using the trailer. After a recent event, the company reported that a whopping 77 percent of people took a photo at the selfie station. Also, 53 percent activated moving feet that transport the user to and from the toilet seat, but unfortunately, only 38 percent of users washed their hands with soap and water.

Of course, users love receiving the free prizes, so much so that at one recent event about 100 users flushed the toilet 400 times, filling up the holding tank prematurely. “We didn’t think someone would go in and flush four times in a row. We wondered if they wanted the prizes,” Becker explains. “We need to make adjustments to make it functional.”

Zappos has yet to determine if portable sanitation can become a profitable division of the company, but they will forge ahead with new products and going to new venues. Grandesign is hauling the company’s two prototype trailers farther across the country as event planners hear about them and make requests. Wherever the units go, Grandesign contracts with local PROs to pump out the waste tanks.

In the works are designs for single-stall units and a restroom bus built on an RV-type platform and with six to eight stalls that the company believes will be easier to maneuver in and out of crowded festivals. Also being considered is a unit with changing rooms and showers for running events.

POSITIVE MARKETING

At this point, Zappos doesn’t charge festivals to use the trailer. They are currently happy to spend about $5,000 to transport and set up the unit in exchange for the positive exposure the shoe business derives at the high-traffic locations.

“To get a tent or a booth at a big music festival could range from $50,000 to $75,000,” Becker says. “We’re able to get into the festival, provide a great service for the event, and provide that experience without paying a large amount of money.”

If portable sanitation doesn’t develop into a major service business, Becker says the company would continue to provide a few units to festivals as a way to build exposure for its main business. Along the way, he hopes to learn from the restroom industry and maybe contribute a few good ideas that other PROs may be able to use.

“We remain humble and know we have a lot to learn about the industry. We’re not looking to disrupt the industry or turn it on its head,” Becker says. He knows there is a risk that other restroom companies will look at Zappos as the big internet company trying to “come in here and shake it up, but that’s definitely not our intention.”

As part of the internet giant Amazon, Zappos is well-positioned to spend some capital on new ventures and experiment with ways to improve portable sanitation. Becker says he hopes others in the industry will benefit from the experience: “Maybe they’ll see Zappos do something untraditional and it works, and maybe it inspires them to look a little outside of their comfort zone. We’ve done that with the shoe industry. We want to inspire people to take the next step.”



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