High-Energy Level at International LCT Show Indicates Industry Is in Recovery Mode

Posted on May 1, 2006 by LCT Staff - Also by this author

When people talk about the 2006 International LCT Show, what will they remember? The excitement among operators buying limousines, networking with their peers, and discussing new growth ventures? Seminar and keynote speakers delivering high-level content, sometimes to standing-room only audiences? A smooth, well-run show with professional-level entertainment? An exhibit hall full of industry suppliers covering the gamut of available products and services, including several new exhibitors? This year’s show, held Feb. 26-28 at The Venetian Resort Hotel Casino in Las Vegas, will certainly be remembered for all of these things and more. The mood among attendees was upbeat and energetic. Exhibitors were very pleased with traffic at their booths and inquiries from current and new customers. Operators spoke with each other about successes in their businesses and new frontiers.

It was an historic industry event for a number of reasons. For one, with its count of 3,800 delegates, it was the largest chauffeured transportation industry show ever to be held by LCT Magazine. Another first ties in with the new name of the show — it was truly an international event, with delegates attending from 39 countries.

An End to Industry’s Recession?

Perhaps the most important impression one could glean from the show is that the industry’s post-9/11 slump appears to be over. Limousine operators are still working as hard as ever to contain costs and earn profits, but business is building for many companies. Operators are thinking about their next generation of growth, whether it’s through international expansion, affiliate networks, mergers and acquisitions, or spinning-off into an ancillary industry. The reception halls, meal tables, coffee breaks, and other spaces were full of operators talking about their plans with enthusiasm and zeal.

This was certainly not the case at industry events in the aftermath of 9/11, with its devastating impact on the travel industry that coincided with a stock market downturn and economic recession. The fear of going out of business, for many limousine operators, is being replaced by an imperative to grow.

Of course, recurring issues and concerns also surfaced during conversations and question-and-answer sessions during seminars — controlling fuel and insurance costs, the growth of license fees, airport access problems, slow-paying network affiliate partners, and what to do about gypsy operators. Livery/limousine companies are certainly feeling the sting of increasing government regulation at all levels.

An interesting trend is the creative ways relatively small operators are using the Internet and networking relationships to gain access to national and international customers. Tech-savvy operators who present a professional image and have solid reputations for fulfilling reservations are benefiting from the growth of networks and Internet reservations.

The exhibit hall provided the most obvious indicator of the industry’s bullish mood. Coachbuilders packed their spaces with a variety of vehicles, from traditional Lincoln and Cadillac stretches to super-stretches, minibuses and shuttles, and limo buses. Coachbuilders were selling vehicles right off the floor — some coachbuilders sold more than 40 vehicles and reported staying busy for weeks following the show with additional orders.

The exhibit hall seemed to go on forever — nearly as far as the eye could see. LCT Magazine reports that exhibit space increased 60% over last year’s show. Attendees streamed through the entrance and down the aisles at a steady pace. The Demo Theater was filled with audience members listening to exhibitors talk about new products and demonstrate features. One highlight was LCT Associate Editor Wayne Blanchard giving another of his car detailing clinics, taking the crowd through the process from start to finish.

One of the top-of-mind issues for operators concerned with future fleet planning was the fate of the Lincoln Town Car. During a presentation at the Demo Theater, Doug Walczak, limousine/livery manager for Ford Motor Co., asserted that the manufacturer is still very committed to the industry and doesn’t have any plans to leave the market or to make changes to its QVM program. The Town Car will be manufactured for this model year and the 2008 model year, but beyond that, Ford can’t discuss future product plans, Walczak says.

NLA Has Strong Showing

The show was also a big success for the NLA. During the show, the association surpassed the 1,800-member mark. Its officers were highly visible on seminar stages, at its booth in the exhibit hall, and on the show floor.

Four-term past President Scott Solombrino was paid tribute several times during the show. Following a heartfelt testimonial from new President Jeff Greene, the officers turned the tables on their retiring leader by donning Scott Solombrino masks to make light of his dominant leadership style. Always fast on his feet, Solombrino retorted, “I can’t believe they pulled off something without me.”

Greene talked about his goals as president, which include placing committee chairs and co-chairs into jobs where their skills can best be used and based on where they want to serve, and visiting at least two state association meetings per month. With the NLA’s new program of sharing a percentage of new member dues with NLA Association Members, Greene believes the time is perfect for strengthening ties between the national association and the local affiliates.

The NLA’s association super-summit and general membership meeting were well attended and informative. Members gained information on the association’s membership growth, its budget, legislative goals, and other projects. One of the key legislative concerns is resolving problems in weight designations in the Gas Guzzler Tax through a Congressional letter to the IRS administrator and a “clean-up” bill emanating from the House of Representatives. Another strong moment for the NLA was the seminar on Dept. of Transportation (DOT) inspections.

Entertainment Plus Content

In a flurry of e-mail messages to LCT Magazine’s staff in the weeks immediately following the show, attendees commented that they enjoyed the quality and professionalism of the entertainment and the valuable content provided by show speakers. One of the entertainment programs that received special acclaim was a performance by “Mr. President.” During a reception hosted by Cadillac Professional Vehicles, a comedian doing a spot-on imitation of George W. Bush captivated the crowd. After his performance, people were lined up to get their picture taken next to the faux president. The general impression of attendees was that this type of entertainment raised the caliber of the show overall and created memorable experiences for attendees and their spouses.

LCT’s annual gala, the Operator of the Year Awards show sponsored by Ford Motor Co., was attended by an enthusiastic and well- dressed crowd. Nominees brought their own cheering sections, who added to the event’s energy level. During the annual charity auction for the Harold Berkman Fund that preceded the awards presentation, a professional auctioneer worked the crowd, building the excitement level and driving up the bidding. Several operators and show exhibitors had generously donated auction gifts, including attractive travel packages.

The 2006 LCT Show’s keynote presenters were well received. Noted business speakers Steve Farber and Dr. Tom Steiner approached chauffeured transportation service quality in separate, distinct ways during each of their presentations.

Farber was more serious while Steiner’s delivery gave away his past experience as a stand-up comedian. Both speakers encouraged operators to incorporate best practices from leading companies and to understand the psychological and emotional components of the service experience their clients expect.

Farber, author of The Radical Leap, outlined the elements of the essential qualities that build success in business and make up his acronym L.E.A.P. — love, energy, audacity, and proof. Love is about bringing your heart into what you do. For energy, Farber asked attendees, “Do you generate more energy when you walk into a room, or when you leave it?”

His definition of audacity is, “a bold, blatant disregard for normal constraints,” which he believes every successful entrepreneur must cultivate. Regarding proof, Farber says that business owners must have an “Oh sh*t! moment,” when they realize they’ve really taken a risk and put themselves on the line, otherwise, they’re just going through the motions. This is the proof in the pudding. Steiner focused mainly on the details that go into creating a tremendous service experience — incredible attention to detail, anticipating your client’s next need, making problem-solving effortless for your employees, and providing clients with a “wow” experience. In a service business, he says, everything you do matters. “Your company is judged by the worst service provider you have,” he says.

Seminar and workshop sessions benefited from active audiences all the way up through the very end of the show. While most of the sessions were considered successes, two in particular played to especially full houses. A seminar on wealth building for small fleet operators featuring Rick Brown of La Costa Limousine, Bill Goerl, formerly of Clique Limousines, and Deena Papagni of A Touch of Class Limousines, focused on how these companies grew from one vehicle to become large, award-winning companies. During the show’s final set of seminar sessions, Limo Bob and LimeLite Coach Works’ President Phil Restivo gave a presentation on building and marketing a super-stretch limousine company. Limo Bob regaled the crowd with his stories of celebrity clients and the media attention he’s received. Restivo drew on his experience as both a successful operator serving retail clients and as a coachbuilder to offer insights on what it takes to succeed in the business.

Several Show Firsts

While the 2006 LCT Show provided a venue for industry veterans to see each other again, there were also a lot of first-timers. Many first-time operator attendees were present, along with new suppliers in the exhibit hall. One of these newcomers was Mercedes-Benz, which showcased a number of its high-end livery vehicles.

The first-timers breakfast meeting, sponsored by Cadillac, hosted about 400 operators. Information on getting the most out of the show experience was presented by LCT Publisher Sara Eastwood. An overview of the NLA and its member benefits was provided by Executive Director Fran Shane. Cadillac Professional Vehicle Team’s Jay Fanfalone talked about the importance of standing out from the crowd and how limousine operators must think about how to distinguish themselves from competitors in fleet vehicle choices.

Another show first was the Women’s Network Brunch. The panel of speakers consisted of women business owners from the National Association of Female Executives, who shared insights into how businesswomen can better market themselves and find ways to balance their personal and work lives.

The hosted parties provided another informal venue for newcomers and old-timers to let their hair down, network, and have a lot of fun. Sunday night’s party at the super-trendy TAO nightclub, hosted by Krystal Enterprises, was a big hit. Attendees loved the Asian-themed architecture and visuals, along with the bar and dance floor.

This year’s show also saw the return of sponsored suite parties. Some of them had live entertainment, including a comedian at the LimeLite party and a DJ and dance floor at Executive Coach Builders’ party.

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