Computer technology is an ever-changing industry that is constantly being updated and, at times, reinventing itself. Our industry in particular has been slow to embrace the Web, as well as automated systems, as a way of doing everyday business. However, operators are now starting to understand the expectations of their clients. Real-time reservations and other services are now necessary for the sophisticated, educated traveler. The latest in software takes the burden off the operator and makes life easier. So whether operators understand the technology or are still learning themselves, they can offer clients the option to use these services.
What are the latest trends? Vendors report that operators are increasingly moving away from a DOS (Direct Operating Software) system to the current Windows technology. DOS was created in the '70s and was a development platform in the '80s for various software products such as Limo Magic. As recently as two years ago, users could easily run a DOS application and also run Windows. During the Windows bootup, they would simply press an "F" key and exit to DOS. However, with the new Windows programs, that option has been taken away from all of the DOS users.
"Obviously, operators can stay with their current software," says Eddie McCoy, owner of FastTRAK Livery Systems in Phoenix. "But in newly-developed software, like Windows 2000, there is no stopping on the way up. When you get to Windows, you can access a DOS command prompt that will take you back to look at a DOS window. But it's not the same as stopping Windows. When you're running DOS through Windows, I've been told that you can experience lockup problems. There's still a huge following for the DOS programs because that's where the experience is with many of our medium- and large-sized operators out there. But it is becoming antiquated."
Bob Bellagamba, owner of Concorde Limousine, Inc., in Freehold, N.J., is one operator who is preparing to switch systems after many years with one vendor.
"Quite frankly, the system wasn't meeting our needs for years," he says. "What I was looking for was a system to do everything - to move us into the 20th century. To bring us in line with the travel industry, where clients can book trips in real time, view their billing in real time, make and cancel reservations in real time, and make it easier for our clients to manage their accounts."
As the owner of a 50-car operation, Bellagamba estimates a $35,000 to $50,000 cost expense on the application software, not including the required Microsoft licensing. But Bellagamba says that the benefits will outweigh the expense.
"I have 50 vehicles now, and I want software that's going to manage my company at 200 vehicles," Belagamba says. "Likewise, if I stay at 50 vehicles, I want software that's going to allow me to compete with other operators who have 200 or 500 vehicles, so they won't have any advantages over me."
Remember that whatever software you choose, it's only going to perform as well as the network that it's placed on, and the computers that are using it.
"You can have the most high-tech software, and it's able to run as fast as it wants, but if you have an old machine and a network that doesn't work too well - everything's old - then the software isn't going to perform no matter who you purchased it from," says Dennis Adams, owner of Livery Coach Software in Malvern, Pa. "You have to have a good backbone, a good backoffice and a good network."
5 Items Operators Want and Need Now 1. Real-Time Internet Reservations Booking Systems "This is the one request I've heard the most for the last year," McCoy says. "Operators want clients to automatically see their confirmation number, automatically see their bill after the trip is over, and what the receipt is. They're asking for our help in moving a lot of the mundane tasks - faxing or e-mailing confirmations, faxing or e-mailing receipts or invoices. They want us to take these things away from them, put it on the Web and make it accessible to their clients on a real-time basis now."
Customers these days, especially corporate clients, want information at their fingertips. "Customers sit on the computer all day, make their reservations online, and they don't want to be at the burden of someone else's schedule or put on hold," says Todd Holtman, president of CorporateCarOnline. "They want to be able to switch over to a Web site, log on, make a reservation, or click and repeat a previous reservation."
The key, not only for the operator but for the operator's customers, is that the system has to be easy to use.
"We try and build a system on the principle of as few clicks as possible," explains Holtman. "The simpler it is, the more apt they are going to be to use it, the quicker they'll be able to do it, and also return to do it again."
2. Flight Tracking Software "What's important to me in my two markets, which are big convention markets, is having a software system that has the ability to interface with a flight tracking system that updates the flights," says Steve Cunningham, owner of Fox Limousine in Las Vegas and Carey Phoenix. "We do a lot of corporate convention work, so we get large manifests for groups, and on a heavy arrival day we'll have dozens of arrivals. We like the aspect of a software system that updates the flights automatically for you in real time. If a flight's running 43 minutes late, it's automatically updated into the screen for you and giving you that information. That has a lot of relevance for my market."
"This is something I would love to own," says Joan Martin, owner of Coachman Limousine Service, Inc., in Statesville, N.C. "We get burned so many times because the airline gives us one piece of information and then we get there and it's something else. And if we get the wrong information, we can't just go back to the office, we've got to sit there and wait. And the climate at the airport these days isn't real great for that." Martin, a five-car operator, currently uses three separate computers and admits that she likes it that way. "Internet does not come into my reservations at all, nor do I want it to," she says.
3. Paging and Messaging Software Another popular technology trend is the ability for chauffeurs to receive and acknowledge reservation information in the field via a hand-held device. "Livery Coach presently interfaces with Nextel, where we can send a reservation to a chauffeur on his Nextel and he can read the information on his message page," Adams says. "The chauffeur can then reply to that message and update the reservation system automatically with his acceptance of it, or determine the status of the customer's trip, or indicate if he's finished with the reservation. So it's kind of like a two-way communication from a reservation system to a hand-held device."
4. Credit-card Processing Software "Many people want the ability to take a credit card in the field," Adams says. Some companies like Virtual Solutions provide this technology with companies like Adams' right behind. "We're in development whereby a chauffeur with a hand-held device will be able to swipe the credit card on that device out in the field, and the credit-card information will be accepted or declined."
Business owners are wanting to put a little dispatching and the handling of the transaction into the field. "Instead of working in a paper environment, the reservation is sent to the chauffeur in the field, he can acknowledge how it's going, and he can also take the payment and swipe the credit card, and all of this is automatically updating the database back in the home office," Adams says.
5. GPS (Global Positioning System) Vehicle Tracking Software "We use GPS tracking systems in our vehicles, particularly in our Las Vegas operation which tends to have a lot of cash runs," Cunningham says. "We use it as a control, so if a driver finishes a run at a certain time, but claims a different time, we can go through and check." The system also works well if a driver is lost. "We can go on there, see where he is, and give directions," Cunningham says.
6 Things Operators Should Know Before Buying
1. Identify what you want the software to do, and make sure the package you're buying does that. "Put a priority list together first before you go shopping, and then go out and see what software packages do those things," says Bruce Davidson, vice president of provider products and services for InterRide.
2. Is it easy to learn and easy to use? "If it's so complicated that you can't understand it, you might want to question how it's going to be for your people," Davidson says.
3. Consider price. "You get what you pay for," Davidson says. "If you buy too little, you may have software that you can no longer change easily. It would cost you a tremendous amount to re-buy and re-train. You want software that's going to last, that's expandable, that will do a lot of things later on, and that you can add on to."
Davidson advises operators that they're better off getting a better quality software package that costs more with less functions in it that can be added back later, vs. buying a cheap package that's complete but can't be expanded on later. "Some packages will give you the five basic features and that's it - no maintenance or security, and the other package which costs more gives you those items," he says. Remember that the pricing structure changes with the additional features you want included in the package. As your business grows, you may need additional features, and these additional features are relative to cost.
4. How is the tech support? Does the company have the tech support to assist you? Do they have employees on board so that when you call, you get a response? Or do you get a call back three days later? Davidson suggests doing a test by calling a company and pretending to be a customer with a problem. "When they connect, just say, 'I'm a prospect and I wanted to see how good your support is,'" Davidson says. "Do it a couple of times because you're going to be living with these people for years and years. And you want to make sure the support people are there, and it's not a one-person operation."
5. Check references. Find a similar sized or larger sized company as your own, located anywhere in the country, and call them and ask about support, how they like the software, and so forth. "Nobody's perfect and they're not always going to report they've had no problems," Davidson says. "But you should leave a reference referral with a feeling like, 'they really like this software, and they do the similar things I do, and they're happy with the support.' That's a big plus."
6. What happens if the company goes out of business? McCoy brings this subject up if a prospective client doesn't ask him first. "The reason I do that is so they know they're not depending solely on me for continuing product," he says. "Many times people look at owners as, 'hey, you're the company' and we, as developers, have to give them reassurance that there's a way for them to continue offering this product even if I go away, even if I retire."
What's on the Horizon "Integration is the big magic word," Davidson says. "Integration, meaning many functions are now going to be available within the software. Functions like credit-card settlements and two-way paging, and integration to the Web, so you can do things like e-mail confirmation."
In the meantime, be aware of the software packages that are available, the differences in the technology and the ability, and the differences in cost