Troy Blackwell of NuVinAir: The Future of Travel in The Post Covid World
An Interview With Savio P. Clemente
Contactless customer experience: Rental cars will be app-based and optimized for digital automation. Many industries have already gone in this direction because it offers convenience for consumers and cost savings for the company, but the evolution will continue over the next several years. The last thing consumers want to do when they get to their destination is stand in line at the rental car counter. And, when they drop off their car, they want to just drive into the return area, drop the key in the cup holder, and go.
As part of my series about “developments in the travel industry over the next five years”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Troy Blackwell.
An accomplished automotive executive with 20 years of experience working in key leadership roles for prominent, industry-leading brands, Troy Blackwell is currently Chief Operating Officer for NuVinAir, a franchise-supported company that creates healthy vehicle interiors for the automotive industry. Before NuVinAir, he worked at AutoNation, where he helped them streamline their car-buying process, and earlier in his career, he worked as Regional Sales Development Leader at CarMax. While driving strategic business decisions, Troy has a true passion for empowering teams and positioning them for success, and his areas of expertise include executive leadership, team management, operations management, retail operations, and networking. An undeniable jetsetter, Troy’s business travel has him poised to garner 100 hotel nights this year, and he has proudly earned membership into the Avis Chairman’s Club, the Hertz President’s Circle, and Emerald Club Executive Elite.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I spent 20 years in the retail automotive space. During that time, I had the opportunity to work with many start-up companies, but I never thought I would personally be part of one. Then, in 2019 I found myself on the short side of a company restructure, and due to my non-compete clause, I was unable to seek work in the retail auto space. So, my career search led me to explore NuVinAir, a company that offers a suite of patented and proprietary products that safely creates healthy vehicle interiors.
The NuVinAir leadership team invited me to attend one of their “Discovery Days,” which they created for franchisees to learn about the company. This experience taught me a lot about the NuVinAir culture, and I could tell right away that it was aligned with my own values. I was impressed by the CEO and founding partner, Kyle Bailey, who has passion, energy, and vision — everything you want in a startup CEO. I knew I could offer my experience and network of connections, so our strengths would be well-matched.
They say, “Things happen for a reason,” and I believe it. I’ve enjoyed every minute of my three years with the company so far.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I have met some of the most interesting people in my career, and I’ve made some close friends. The great thing about being in the business for so long is watching others develop to the top of their fields and knowing I had some impact on that. For example, years ago, I got the chance to mentor Cal State Fullerton student Jenny Saab. She started as a part-time associate at CarMax, while finishing her degree. I convinced her to join me on the sales side of the business, and today she’s the General Manager for a San Diego CarMax. When she got the role, I was honored that she reached out to me to thank me for influencing her career.
I’ve also had the opportunity to do things that a lot of people don’t get to do. Because CarMax was a sponsor of many major sports teams, I got to fly on the team jet with the Lakers and the Clippers. I also got to attend games and have dinner with the players. I talked about “opportunities of a lifetime” so many times that my wife started teasing me about it!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When working in southern California, I was standing in the showroom of a CarMax next to a 30-foot-tall glass window. Suddenly there was an earthquake, and it was clear that we were close to the epicenter. All the staff rushed to hide under a counter — it was like a clown car at the circus, with all of us trying to squeeze in. And, in my mind at least, I was confident and calm throughout the whole situation. Thankfully, no one was hurt in the earthquake.
Later, after the earthquake passed, my operations manager suggested that we review the video of the showroom during the event. Again, I was confident I had displayed excellent leadership characteristics during a crisis. Here’s what actually happened:
At some point, we realized we wouldn’t all fit under the counter, and many of us ran to the door to get out of the building. In my rush, I accidentally pushed one of my managers to the floor, who had had a foot injury and was in a recovery boot. Then, I stepped on her injured foot as I ran to the door. What’s worse, she wasn’t the only one I knocked over in my rush to escape! Until that minute, while I was watching the video, I hadn’t even realized what I was doing.
This experience reminded me how important it is to laugh at yourself and about how the people you work with become your family. When you laugh together as a family, you’re forging incredible bonds.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”? Can you share a story about that?
Growing up on a farm, it took me a long time to learn to step away from work. My grandfather always used to say, “The cows don’t know it’s Christmas morning.” This meant that no matter what was going on in the rest of the world, the animals would need to be fed, and farm work would never stop. The work ethic I learned on the farm carried me through the early part of my corporate career. I put in many hours and made a lot of sacrifices, and it paid off. But, at some point, someone said to me: “If you have kids and you get one vacation a year, that’s only 18 vacations with your family — and some years it may not even happen.”
This really hit home, and I realized that I had to force myself to take vacations. Not only that, but I had to shut off from work when I was there. When you don’t take a laptop or a phone, and you don’t make yourself accessible to your team 24/7, it empowers your people to grow as leaders in your absence. The truth is, your team wants the responsibility, and as a leader, you need to give them the space to step up. I remember putting the keys in the hands of an associate just before leaving on vacation. I told him, “This is your show.” And, in the end, it helped with his development and success. In his annual review, he used this as an example of how he was empowered to learn and grow.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Yes, there have been many! Early in my career with Target, I reported to an amazing leader — Rajeev Krishnan. He asked lots of questions of his team. He always challenged me to be a stronger strategic thinker and problem-solver. He had a passion for high standards, and he accomplished this by developing his team. He impacted the lives of many of the best leaders I know, and he eventually became a good friend. He went on to be the managing director and CEO of SPAR markets in India.
He taught me to always ask “why” and to challenge my team to think in new ways. I have carried these lessons with me throughout my career.
Thank you for that. Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the travel and hospitality industries?
As you know, the travel industry was hit hard by COVID, and all of our lives were forever changed. Sanitizing and disinfecting became a daily affair — and a matter of life and death. At the same time, we observed a behavior shift in daily rental car users: more people were smoking cigarettes in their cars than ever before. To compound the issue, marijuana was becoming legalized in many states, so rental cars were full of marijuana smells, as well. With our patented technology, we have a fast and simple solution to remove odor in vehicles. We aim to “remove the previous renter” so that every renter steps into a fresh, fully sanitized vehicle every time.
Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing this innovation?
Overall, car cleanliness is an important KPI for the rental car industry. As customers started traveling again, it’s important that they feel safe and have a great experience in their rental cars. And, the applications continue to grow. One of the challenges rental car companies are facing today is having a fleet that includes lots of higher-mileage cars. Because rental companies are holding onto their fleets longer, they need better solutions to preserve their vehicles as the miles accrue. NuVinAir recently expanded its offerings by creating ReTurn. ReTurn allows national rental partners to treat a broader range of vehicles for mild to mid-range odor through our patented technology.
How do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo?
Enterprise CEO Chrissy Taylor has said that the rental car companies that have the cleanest cars will win the highest customer satisfaction scores. Unsurprisingly, customers have always demanded a clean car, and since COVID-19, cleanliness is even more important. Rental car companies are facing several challenges, including inventory and staffing. Because our products refresh and restore vehicles, treat aged inventory, as well as freshen the vehicle’s interior quickly, rental car companies can get more clean cars on the road faster.
As you know, COVID19 changed the world as we know it. Can you share 5 examples of how travel and hospitality companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers will prefer to travel?
- Contactless customer experience: Rental cars will be app-based and optimized for digital automation. Many industries have already gone in this direction because it offers convenience for consumers and cost savings for the company, but the evolution will continue over the next several years. The last thing consumers want to do when they get to their destination is stand in line at the rental car counter. And, when they drop off their car, they want to just drive into the return area, drop the key in the cup holder, and go.
- Complete car sanitation: During the height of COVID-19, rental car companies began partnering with major cleaning companies to show customers that they care about them and are going to make the cars as clean as possible. I don’t see this going away any time soon. NuVinAir products clean and sanitize cars safely, quickly, and efficiently — in an eco-friendly and nontoxic way. This gives customers confidence that they are stepping into a safe, clean vehicle.
- Right-sizing fleets availability: Rental companies are struggling to maintain fleet sizes due to supply chain issues (including the well-documented microchip shortage). So, companies are starting to buy more and older used cars than they had in the past. They’re also shifting fleets according to peak seasons. For example, they will have more cars available in southern states during the peak winter season.
- EV-focused: Undeniably, electric is the future, especially since being fueled by President Biden’s target of making 50% of all new vehicle sales electric by 2030. Although electric vehicles (EVs) comprise only about 2% of new vehicle sales today, rental car companies are a huge lever for early adoption. In fact, consumers who rent EVs — even those who only ever considered buying conventional vehicles — are more likely to make a greener purchase down the road once they “try before they buy.”
- Continued staffing challenges: Companies lose revenue every day that a car sits idle, so they need to make sure the turnaround time from return to rental is quick. If companies don’t have people to clean cars, they sometimes outsource to third-party staffing companies, which creates its own issues (for example, it takes time to train these employees, and there’s often a high turnover rate). Rental companies will continue to seek efficient ways to minimize the staff required to clean vehicles and get them back on the road fast.
You are a “travel insider”. How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience”?
First, I’d have a direct flight. Connecting flights can ruin your vacation because there are more opportunities for delays and cancellations. I’d also fly out first thing in the morning and ensure that all my traveling companions are approved for TSA PreCheck. I’m not one to lay on the beach or by the pool, so I would put together an agenda for a place I can explore. Typically, that means seeking out great food and wine. Having friends travel with you also makes for a perfect experience.
Travel is not always about escaping, but about connecting. Have you made efforts to cultivate a more wellness driven experience? We’d love to hear about it.
Connection — with customers and with franchisees alike — is a core part of the NuVinAir culture. And the best way to make connections is in person. Already this year, I’ve racked up 63 total flight segments and 60 nights in hotels, and I’ll likely be over 100 hotel nights by the end of the year.
In 2021, we created a partnership with a national rental car company at the height of the pandemic. Very few people were traveling at the time. However, I felt that I had to meet with them in person to highlight what our product can do. Face-to-face interaction is so important when dealing with sales relationships, and it’s also important for our franchisees. They needed to see that support and continued commitment from the corporate offices.
I went out together with my franchisees to educate customers at a time when sanitation services were desperately needed. We were already the experts in this space because we were first to market. When you educate customers, and you take the time to get to know them, you build relationships, and the sales just happen.
And NuVinAir has seen great results. Last year, our sales were up 440%, primarily via rental car relationships.
Can you share with our readers how you have used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I make it a point to spend time with employees and listen to them. I advise all leaders to share their stories and teach their team a new skill. I get great pleasure out of developing people to be their best. Quite often, I share my experience in interviews or meetings. I frame it as “here are one or two things you can do to advance your career.”
I apply the same behaviors at home — listening to my children, sharing stories, and helping them make their way in the world. I have three kids, and I’m so proud of them.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
When I think about the time in my life when I needed the most guidance, it was high school. So that’s where I focused my energy when I got laid off. When I was in between jobs, my friends joked that I was the hardest-working unemployed person they knew.
I was proctoring the AP tests at the high school and helping kids understand why their AP scores matter. I was also talking to the kids about their futures. It’s so important to mentor kids, to get them to start thinking earlier about their career options. College might not be the answer for everyone, and that’s okay. Help them develop a roadmap for wherever they want to go and share your own stories and experiences so they can imagine the possibilities for their future.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can follow me at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/troyblackwell
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!