It is a common problem. Small operators throughout the country get angry and frustrated. The reason: high school students and young customers attending the prom or school dance demand the newest, latest and biggest vehicles. This is a dilemma because many smaller companies could not possibly afford to upgrade their fleets on a yearly basis. They hang on to their stretch limousines for three, four and even five years. Then, each year the vehicles become more difficult to rent, especially to a younger, “hipper” customer.
Even small operators who are fortunate enough to own a new stretch limousine often have an older vehicle or two in their fleet. If they promote the new vehicle to the prom customers then they risk having the older vehicles sit. It requires a delicate balancing act to rent an entire fleet on a given night.
When Tony Previte opened Dynasty Limousine in Exton, Pa., in 1997, he was faced with a roadblock. “I had gone through a long expensive process to obtain a Public Utility License in Pennsylvania. When it came time to purchase my first vehicle, the best I could do was a 4-year-old stretch.”
Previte immediately received potential prom charter calls seeking new vehicles. “I had to learn in a hurry how to get these people to book my stretch, which was probably not the exact vehicle they wanted,” Previte says. The new operator’s strategy was to simply offer his callers a look at the vehicle. “That stretch sparkled inside and out every day. It was a non-smoking vehicle and everything in it worked perfectly. It smelled clean, and it looked clean. When someone came to see my limousine, they always booked it.”
Previte also learned that he had to take the customer’s focus beyond the vehicle. “I have to sell ‘me’ to that person calling on the phone. Many times young people call limousine companies, or any company for that matter, and they are not treated with respect. I answer the phone myself every day, and I try to treat every caller with the utmost respect. I also emphasize how important a quality chauffeur will be on their big night. The chauffeur is really just as important as the vehicle. Either my chauffeur or I will wear a tuxedo, and we treat the prom-goers like they were the biggest VIPs in the world.”
Previte also discounts his older limousines by 15 or 20 percent off the price of the newer stretch. “You have to be careful. I don’t announce the discount right away because I don’t want to create the impression that the older stretch is a ‘beater,’”
He explains, “The older stretch is perfect when price is an issue. It’s also great when it is a junior prom or a school dance that the customer wants a stretch, but it is not as important as when they go on their senior prom.” John Riga, owner of California Limousine in Sacramento, Calif., has a 14-vehicle fleet that includes some of the vehicles that young consumers request most, including a Krystal 33 Mini-Coach, and a Lincoln Navigator stretch. Riga sits down with his employees to strategize prior to the January 15 - April 15 period of heavy call volume for school dances.
“First off, we train our staff to treat the younger customer with the same attitude and the same level of service as when their parents call,” Riga says. “So we move them beyond just asking about vehicles. We tell them about California Limousine’s 20 years of experience and what they should expect from a professional limousine service.”
If the parents call, Riga’s staff always mentions that the chauffeurs are drug and alcohol tested, and all prom vehicles are alcohol free. Besides prohibiting alcohol in the vehicles, the only other item that is “prom specific” is that the company requires a 50 percent non-refundable booking fee at the time the charter is booked.
“And the only reason we do that is that we get so many calls for those prom and homecoming nights, and we don’t want to get stuck when someone cancels,” Riga explains. “It would not be fair to our chauffeurs or to the number of callers that we are forced to say we are not available.”
But Riga feels it is critical to treat all customers the same. “I want that 17-year old who has been saving for the prom all year to understand he will receive the exact same quality professional service as his dad gets when he is with a group of business associates.” Riga estimates that his company does prom or school dance charters about 25 to 30 nights a year. “And the number of problem kids we have dealt with over the years is next to....