Page 1 of 3
ORLANDO, Fla. — Besides California and Nevada, no other state took the recession harder than Florida. It was a Ground Zero for the mortgage bubble collapse, which burst across the state.
Although the slump officially ended in June 2009, the recovery has been slow and bumpy for the Sunshine State operators. Today, all indicators are turning positive for the future of the chauffeured transportation industry.
During a January visit to Florida operators and industry suppliers in the Tampa Bay area, Orlando, Ft. Myers and Miami, the mood was upbeat as business has increased statewide. Of course, not all operators are smiling — especially some small-fleet companies that grind it out every day for tight profit margins, but generally the business for 2014 and beyond is healthy, interviewees say.
In addition to a general uptick in the state’s economy, other contributing factors spurring growth for private transportation operators include increases in tourism, conventions (slightly), airport expansion, corporate business and farm-out business.
Orlando, the biggest region for tourism, has had three straight record years, welcoming more than 57 million visitors in 2013. It has been cited as one of the fastest growing cities in the country, now topping two million residents. The Miami region is recovering as high-end visitors from South America, Russia and Europe don’t blink at $1,000 per night luxury hotels and some rent penthouse suites, such as one at The Setai, that costs a mere $32,000 — per night. Further north, the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport is undergoing a $2.3-billion expansion, which will better compete against the bustling Miami International Airport.
On the flip side, Florida operators also are paying more for airport fees and fuel. A surge in insurance costs is a common topic of concern coupled with the state’s recent stepped up enforcement — and fines — on operators who are not DOT compliant.
Luckily, Florida has involved regional and state limousine associations that are winning regulatory battles and challenging other anti-business rules and codes that hurt small businesses. The West Florida Livery Association (WFLA), Greater Orlando Limousine Association (GOLA), Florida Limousine Association (FLA), and the South Florida Limousine Association (SFLA), are all active and growing associations that represent the interests of operators at the municipal, county and state levels.
Florida Limousine Association member Rick Versace (A1A Limousine) reports a victory over a long-standing regulatory issue, and stopping Uber from entering Miami.
For example, a long-standing Miami-Dade County regulation limiting limousine companies from picking up a client in less than one hour was reduced to 15 minutes. “We’ve been fighting this for 30 years and we finally won,” said FLA Treasure Rick Versace (A1A Limousine). The regulation was originally enacted based on fears from area taxi operators that limousines would compete with taxi service, but was finally reduced due to constant pressure by the association.
Versace also noted that the FLA has succeeded in keeping Uber out of Miami, but added he expects the private transportation app company to take its fight to the state capital, Tallahassee, to lobby for permission to operate.
“We’ll continue to fight Uber and we’re looking to hire our own lawyers and lobbyists to stop Uber,” he added.
The FLA also worked with Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International airport officials regarding improvements for operators who deliver and pick up passengers at the airport. Although vehicles must now pay a $3 fee to enter and exit the airport, in addition to an annual permit fee that jumped from $75 to $150 per year, there are more improvements, including new chauffeur reception kiosks inside the baggage area that have digital signage displaying the names of arriving guests. There are new designated blue-painted curbs outside of baggage claim for arriving clients to wait for pickup, and a new chauffeur parking lot closer to the airport where drivers can respond quicker when clients notify them via cellphone that they have arrived and are waiting at the blue curbside area.
“Overall, I guess it’s a good deal because we will pull more business away from Miami due to the expansion, and they (airport officials) have been good about working with us,” Versace said. “Somebody has to pay for the airport expansion, but they said they will review the fee structure in a year to see if it can be adjusted — but you know how that always goes.”
At the WFLA and GOLA January meetings, increasing enforcement of U.S. Department of Transportation compliance and regulatory codes was the main topic. Until recently, enforcement has been soft. But when the state recently handed it over to the Florida Highway Patrol, enforcement and fines increased. DOT regulations state that any vehicle designed to transport nine to 15 passengers (including the driver) must be in compliance, as well as with other mandatory liability insurance and driver rules mandated under code.
WFLA President Dave Shaw (Olympus Limo, New Port Richey) a board member of the National Limousine Association and FLA member who regularly travels across the state to attend industry meetings and events, concurs that business is growing. As an indicator, Shaw said Olympus was booked solid for a January Billy Joel concert.
“That tells us the retail market is coming back because it has been tough going for major concerts the past few years,” Shaw said. He also mentioned that the company is adding to its fleet — sedans, SUVs, stretches and Sprinter vans — to handle surging business. Shaw noted that the company is seeing more corporate business, group bus transportation business, affiliate work, and cruise business at the Port of Tampa, Port Canaveral and Port Everglades, as well as at the Tampa and Clearwater airports.
Shaw echoed other operators who are being stung with higher insurance rates. “We’ve seen this before and I think we’re just getting caught up in the market right now. There are only a certain amount of carriers in Florida and we have some good agencies. It’s just something you have to grin and bear,” he said.