* Cross-train office staff in defensive driving, local geography and customer service so they can get behind the wheel if unexpected calls come in. * Keep drivers on standby during peak periods. * Train dispatchers and reservationists to understand traffic patterns and to accurately assess your capabilities. * Use industry associations to develop relationships with multiple operators for farming out work. * Make sure farm-out jobs go to operators who will not try to steal customers. * Build a sufficient profit margin into farm-out jobs.
Operators are adapting to a growing trend of last-minute corporate bookings by developing farm-out relationships with competitors and cross-training employees. A growing percentage of these calls are coming in as close as two hours before a scheduled airline flight.
Even as operators are reacting daily to the logistical challenges posed by these last-minute bookings, the business is welcome after two lean years, most agree.
Some say the trend was exasperated by 9/11, while others noticed its onset years before. Operators also disagree on what caused it, citing everything from customer buying patterns to a greater availability of low-fare airline tickets.
“If a client calls with an hour’s notice, you have to make it happen or risk losing them as a customer,” notes Robert Euler, president of King Limousine in King of Prussia, Pa. “You pull a rabbit out of a hat enough times and they come to expect it.”
Euler, who believes clients have come to use limousine companies as they would a cab company, now sees 30% of his business booked on the same day as the run. That number is up from 10% three years ago.
“The toughest part is not knowing how many drivers to keep on the schedule,” continues Euler. “Tomorrow might look like a slow day, but then the phones start lighting up and you are trying to bring in drivers to handle the load.”
Sam Amato, president of Burlingame, Calif.’s Gateway Limousine, has experienced the same pinch. His company struggles to cover bursts of calls demanding immediate service.
Gateway books 40% of its business same day. Prior to February of 2001, that number was 10%. To complicate matters, Amato reduced his staff by nearly 20% and is running 30% fewer vehicles than two-and-a-half years ago.
Amato has built flexibility into his employee scheduling by cross-training his staff. A portion of his office workers have been taught chauffeuring – which includes defensive driving and etiquette lessons – to alleviate some of the pressure when the work piles up.
For Jeff Bellagamba, vice president of Concorde Worldwide Transportation in Freehold, N.J., relief often comes from his competition.
He recommends building strong relationships with local companies for farming out last-minute jobs. Selecting operators with a variety of vehicles provides the arsenal to handle everything that comes in. During a mad rush, Concorde’s dispatchers will often call around to see if a competitor has a vehicle near a pickup location.
“If they already have a car at Kennedy [Airport in New York] dropping off a client and it’ll take us 45 minutes to get there, it makes sense to use them,” says Bellagamba.
An operator must run clean, late-model vehicles and be available 24 hours a day to receive Concorde farm-out work. Chauffeurs are not permitted to hand out business cards from their company and are required to leave an emergency beeper number and cell numbers on file. Bellagamba also checks that all licensing and insurance information is current.
These details are established ahead of time through an evaluation process that may include visiting a competitor’s office.
“The end result is, we feed them work and they treat us like VIPs,” he says. In addition to farming out work, RMA Chauffeured Transportation in Rockville, Md., has been keeping more drivers on standby since 9/11.
“There are always going to be times – for us it’s between three and six in the afternoon – that you need more cars, but can’t justify buying them because it’s only for a few airport runs,” says Lauren Gische, RMA’s director of client & affiliate relations.
Broker Also Experiencing Last-Minute Bookings
Operators who specialize in large group movements are seeing a similar trend of last-minute requests that leave little breathing room and force providers to frantically cover difficult requests.
First Impressions Transportation, a broker whose workload is 95% large group movements, books 30% of its jobs one week before an event. An additional 50% is booked two to three weeks out. Prior to 9/11, 50% of the company’s work came in three or more weeks out.
“It’s normal now to get a call on Thursday for a group of 100 people arriving the following Thursday,” says Dan O’Toole, president of First Impressions in LaGrange, Ill, a company that serves corporate and group clients in major cities across the country.
Strictly a broker, O’Toole does not run vehicles. Instead, he distributes every job to his network of operators.
He relies on reservationists – his own in the Chicago area and those working for the operators he uses elsewhere – to survive rushes. They must know the local geography, traffic patterns and have a sense of how long it takes to get from one destination to another.
“They need to know that during rush hour, it will take ‘x’ amount of time to get to the airport from a particular location,” explains O’Toole.
O’Toole expects a lot as well from the dispatchers working for the operators he uses. They must know the capabilities and location of their vehicles at all times.
“It’s a challenge, particularly when you get last-minute changes to last-minute bookings,” says O’Toole. “Sometimes, we don’t even get a flight manifest until two or three days before the arrivals, and even when we do, we’re seeing an inordinate number of changes to flight reservations.”
O’Toole remembers seeing flight manifests that were 90% up-to-date, with 10% of the information being subject to change. Today, only 65% of the information is accurate, with up to 35% changing on the day of the event.
Gateway Limousine’s Amato is experiencing a similar pattern and attributes it to the fact that his company requires a deposit based on the group’s total spending.
“On large groups, they’ll keep their numbers low so the deposit is smaller,” the Burlingame, Calif., operator says. “Then a week before the event, you’ll get a 30% to 40% increase on the total group. People used to be afraid they wouldn’t get a flight if they didn’t book in advance… not anymore.”