“A Night Under the Tahitian Moon”

Posted on May 1, 2005 by LCT Staff - Also by this author

As guests approached the ballroom, two larger-than-life Tiki statues stood guard at the entrance. Upon entering, each guest was greeted with a colorful, authentic-looking lei. Throughout the room, tables and chairs were adorned with Hawaiian-print material. Tropical flowers decorated the center of each table.

The evening of enchantment, sponsored by Ford Motor Company, began with a cocktail reception with guests mingling among each other sharing stories.

During the four-course dinner, NLA Board Members Jeff Greene and Gary Bauer showed no shyness as they auctioned off wonderful prizes to benefit the NLA Endowment and the Harold Berkman Charitable Funds. Due to the generosity and compassion of participants, the auction raised $32,450 for the Harold Berkman Fund.

The Harold Berkman Memorial Fund is maintained solely through direct contributions from NLA members. At the gala, Scott Solombrino, president of the NLA, and Fran Shane, executive director of the NLA, presented a check for $30,000 to Jim Weaver, director of Angel Flight-West. Angel Flight is a volunteer organization of more than 5,000 pilots who provide private air transportation to hospitals for patients (and their families) who require medical treatment.

The Alliance for Lupus Research also received a donation of $20,000 to assist in the organization’s important research to find a cure for the debilitating disease.

One of the most touching moments of the evening came when Solombrino presented Cheryl Berkman of Music Express with the NLA Lifetime Achievement Award. Solombrino praised Berkman, who is a six-year member of the NLA Board of Directors, for her incredible generosity to the NLA, its members and many others, often including total strangers who are simply in need.

Next, invited onstage was Doug Walczak, limousine and livery manager of Ford Motor Co., who gave a special presentation to attendees.

As always, the highlight of the industry gala is the awards presentation honoring the Operators of the Year, the Association of the Year and the Marketing Award winners.

The Association Award of Excellence, co-sponsored by the NLA and LCT, measures an association’s recruitment methods, the level of legislative activity, satisfaction of legal requirements and education of its members. The finalists for this award were the Great Lakes Limousine Association, the Greater California Livery Association and the New England Livery Association.

The Marketing Awards honor creative marketing and advertising campaigns, which is what sets companies apart. Marketing tools reinforce a company’s mission and bolster its image.

Criteria for the Operator of the Year Award include five specific areas. Companies were judged on industry involvement, innovative services, customer relations, staff training and safety driving records.

LCT broke from tradition this year and decided to change the operator categories of small, medium and large to actual fleet size to better reflect the shape of this evolving industry. In the 1980s, most of the entries LCT received were from operators running 1–10 cars. Then, there was a shift in the ’90s as operators began to expand their fleets. And now entries pour in from operators running 20–plus vehicles. To accommodate this evolution, LCT now awards winners based on the total company-owned fleet size in the following categories: 1–10 vehicles, 11–30 vehicles, 31–50 vehicles and 51–plus vehicles.

Chatting With THE BEST

Winners from each category of LCT’s Operator of the Year Award share secrets of their success

OPERATOR OF THE YEAR 1–10 Vehicles Wayne Blanchard and Matthew Valentine, Starlight Limousine Service, Scottsboro, Ala.

Starlight Limousine Service is well positioned geographically. Located in Scottsboro, Ala., in the northeastern corner of the state, the company serves its local community and drives clients longer distances to larger markets like Atlanta, Nashville and Chattanooga, Tenn., and Birmingham and Huntsville, Ala.

Starlight is distinguished by its all-female chauffeur team, its involvement in the local community, and the boundless energy of co-owner Wayne Blanchard.

Q: How did you decide to use an all-female chauffeur team? A: It started when we hired a woman who’d worked for her fathers’ business driving trucks. She had a commercial driver’s license and experience driving cattle delivery trucks and dump trucks. When I rode along during her training, I noticed how much attention she was getting. We hired another lady driver and she worked out well, then hired a woman friend of hers who also had a background driving commercial vehicles. Our female drivers wear formal uniforms and look very professional. Q: What benefits does Starlight receive from all of the charitable service work you do in the community? A: It gives me a feeling that nothing else compares to. Last Christmas, the town of Scottsboro asked a terminally ill man with little money to put together a “wish list.” One of the things he wanted to do was to take his wife out on a nice date, something they hadn’t done in years. When the limousine pulled up in front of their house, he just started crying. Scottsboro is a great community that has supported us. It only makes sense to give back.

Q: You’re working on creating a local industry association. Where does that stand? A: We’re in the planning stages. I spoke with some of the NLA staff at the LCT Show and they’ve offered to help us put it together. The operators in our area already have an informal association, we just don’t have a name for it. We get along well, farming work back and forth. Certain cities in our area want to regulate the industry in a way that goes beyond state regulations. We want to legally challenge these cities. We’ve also got gypsy operators charging half of what the licensed operators charge.

Q: You also consult with small businesses, write for LCT and run a detailing business. How do you get it all done? A: It’s all about personnel. If you’ve got the right people, you can take on any amount of work. My business partner Matthew Valentine and I complement each other well in our skills. He comes from a family business where he learned an efficient system for office administration, paperwork, taxes, licensing, etc. Now, Starlight basically runs itself. Before we take on any extra responsibilities, we make sure the current ones can run themselves.

OPERATOR OF THE YEAR 11–30 Vehicles Robert Vaughan, Best Transportation, Huntington Beach, Calif.

Best Transportation President Robert Vaughan focuses his marketing and attention on corporate America. He is constantly seeking new and innovative ways to proactively meet their needs, and Best’s staff often sits down with travel managers to help them optimize their ground transportation budgets.

Large event shuttles have become a staple at Best Transportation, but Vaughan is constantly creating and evaluating programs designed to keep all of the vehicles in his fleet moving.

Q: You hold brainstorming sessions with corporate travel departments to better serve the needs of business travelers. What have you learned about corporate America from those sessions? A: Companies want to deal with one main point of contact, such as an account manager. There is also an increasing demand for technology and the ability to book travel through Internet booking tools.

Q: What is the largest group you have ever moved for a major event? A: We once moved 40,000 people for the grand opening of a new community in South Orange County. We used 15 buses over a three-day period to get the job done.

Q: What are the most important things to focus on when you are shuttling large groups? A: Safety, consistency and timing.

Q: Your corporate scavenger hunts have worked well for introducing limousines to clients who might otherwise only travel in your sedans. What other programs have you implemented with great sales results? A: Our quarterly newsletter and Web site advertising, which offers a free ride or complimentary upgrade when we introduce new vehicle types, such as SUVs, to our fleet.

Q: You belong to many local and national associations as a vendor. Which type of organization gives limousine companies the greatest return on their dues investment? A: Meeting Planners International and visitors bureaus have given us good exposure. They both put us in touch with the decision-makers behind large group movements.

OPERATOR OF THE YEAR 31–50 Vehicles Michael Solomon, USA Transportation, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

USA Transportation is unique in that its client base is built entirely on work from luxury hotels in the greater Fort Lauderdale area. This has created tremendous stability for the company and gives USA Vice President Michael Solomon the freedom to focus his energy on maintaining strong relationships with hotel decision-makers.

To maintain consistent service, Solomon puts lots of energy into chauffeur training. He also continually develops transportation programs to benefit hotel guests and add to their overall experience.

Q: Hotel work dominates your work schedule. What are your top two tips for developing relationships with luxury hotels? A: You have to join your local associations and participate in them, whether it’s a chamber of commerce or a tourism bureau. It’s also essential to be consistent in the level of service you provide and never ignore service issues when they arise. Always handle them decisively and professionally.

Q: You often contribute free service as part of a contest for one of the many associations you belong to. How do you make sure it’s worth your while to offer free service? A: Sometimes you just have to try something out to see what happens. We like Web contests that market to mainstream America rather than corporate America. The general public needs to be shown the benefits of using a service like ours.

Q: You have said that your company provides a seamless experience to hotel guests. Describe what you mean by this. A: We feel that customer satisfaction on any business trip hinges on the arrival experience. We want their experience to begin the moment we greet them. It’s how our driver interacts with them, handles their luggage, etc.

We don’t use independent contractors, only employees. You need consistency to serve this market.

Q: You provide a number of programs for hotels that transcend a simple shuttle service to and from area airports, namely spouse programs and shuttles to off-site events. Did you develop these programs and pitch them to hotels or did you work with hotels to develop them? A: Over the years, the hotels have come to trust and rely on us to develop programs for them. They’ll tell us they have a certain group coming in and want us to make their experience better. We always do our best to bring fresh ideas to the table.

Q: USA earned a zero-loss ratio in 2004. Describe the programs that had the greatest impact on this. A: We’re proud to say that we haven’t had one chargeable accident since 2001. There are a few reasons for this: Our drivers travel the same roads day after day, which certainly helps. But we also have a comprehensive training program that includes instruction given to valet attendants. This gives them a great perspective on how to drive safely while dealing with distractions.

OPERATOR OF THE YEAR 51-plus Vehicles Rick Brown and Dale Theriot, La Costa Limousine, Carlsbad, Calif.

Situated in the beautiful community of Carlsbad, Calif., La Costa Limousine serves a high-end clientele in the greater San Diego area. Co-owner Rick Brown has his plate full with company activities and serving as president of the Greater California Limousine Association (GCLA).

The GCLA celebrated a major legislative victory last year defeating an Assembly bill that would have created a quagmire of municipal regulations across the state.

Q: How did your role in the GCLA evolve into becoming president? A: I’d served on the board before, including being the treasurer. After previous president Jon Chester died, there was a need for members to get more involved again. I got back on the board and was elected president about a year ago. We have an excellent group of industry people who work well together. We realized we needed help in managing the association, so that’s why we hired our executive director.

Q: What is the real value of local industry associations? A: They’re invaluable; they protect our livelihood. I don’t do this just for the good of the industry, it’s also for selfish motives. We get better representation if we join together and work on a larger scale. We act as members of a group when we go before government agencies.

Q: How did the GCLA nearly triple its membership this past year? A: A few factors allowed us to grow from 70 to 200 members. One was the merging of the Northern and Southern California chapters into the larger association. Another was the bill in Sacramento, which motivated a lot of people to join the GCLA and get involved. A third reason was creating a chapter system and starting up new chapters in Sacramento and San Diego for better local representation.

Q: La Costa will handle any special request from a client. How do you do this and still make a profit? A: Our client base is people who want service and are willing to pay for special treatment. We drove somebody from San Diego to Ontario, Canada, for a family reunion. For one client, we take their dogs to and from the groomer. Another client in Ranch Santa Fe loves food from a deli in Los Angeles. We have virtually no marketing costs since probably 98% of our business comes from client referrals.

Q: Running a business, leading an association and doing charitable work is a lot to keep up with. A: My partner Dale Theriot is very disciplined and oversees the operational details. When he’s away from the office, he usually monitors the dispatch and calls in. He keeps us focused on our primary mission: to show up on time with a clean car. I’m better at schmoozing and being the visionary. I figure out where we need to go and Dale makes it happen. As for the charity work, we’ll typically give away three hours in a limo as part of a package the charity offers during a silent auction. For us, it’s good company policy and great PR.

The Association Award of Excellence: NELA

In size and scope, the New England Livery Association (NELA) is unquestionably a leader in the industry and a deserving recipient of LCT’s Association Award of Excellence.

The organization has 300 members from five states: Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont. It influences legislation, provides ongoing education and vendor programs to its membership, and has built strong relationships with area airports.

The board of directors actively assists members with municipal issues and helps fight potentially injurious legislation. The board also serves as an informal advisory council to local municipalities, apprising them of state and federal regulations that affect the industry.

For 12 years, NELA has put together a successful Show & Expo, which features educational seminars and roundtable discussions, as well as a charity golf tournament. NELA offers pertinent news to members through its e-mail and fax blasts, a quarterly newsletter and a Web site.

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