The chauffeured transportation business actually stretches back hundreds of years to the horse and buggy, but its development as an organized industry started during the early 1980s — about 25 years ago. The industry had no trade magazine, no nationwide association, and no major conventions and trade shows.
All of that started to change in 1983 when Limousine & Chauffeur magazine launched. LCT recently interviewed industry veterans who can compare the 1980s business to the one today.
Limousines No Longer Define Fleets
“Fleets were 100% limousines in those days,” says George Jacobs, president of Windy City Limousine, in Bensenville, Ill.
Now limousines make up only about 21% of the industry’s fleet, according to the 2007 LCT Fact Book. Cadillac limousines were the dominant brand through most of the ‘80s. In the 1990s, this trend moved over to Lincoln Town Car sedans and limousines, and now also includes other sedans, buses, SUVs, and vans. And there were more coach builders offering products for sale to the industry in the 1980s than now. Some of the coachbuilders are still around, such as Krystal, Royale, and DaBryan, and others have gone out of business, merged into other companies still in this industry, or have changed their product focus and now sell to other industries.
In the 1980s, some of the large coach builders sold both limousines and armored vehicles. Hess & Eisenhardt Co. and Moloney Manufacturing Corp. were involved in both vehicle types, Jacobs says. Today, the armored vehicle industry is quite separate from this one.
The Big Two Nationwide Operators
Carey International, Inc. and Dav-El (now called Dav El Chauffeured Transportation Network) were the best known brands in the 1980s. Carey is still based in Washington, D.C., but Dav El has moved its headquarters from Newark, N.J. to Boston. David Klein was president of Dav-El back then, before Scott Solombrino took over leadership of the company. Dav-El had affiliate relationships with several operators nationwide. Neil Goodman, CEO of Aventura Worldwide Transportation Services, in Aventura, Fla., remembers working with Klein on serving Dav-El reservations in the Miami area. One of the big events was transporting staff members from the “Good Morning America” TV show who traveled through Miami to cover a space shuttle launch in Cape Canaveral, Goodman says.
Music Express was expanding and became bi-coastal in the 1980s, serving both L.A. and New York City under the leadership of Harold Berkman. Russ Cooke, CEO of Town Car International, in Long Island City, N.Y., talked about his days as an executive at BostonCoach in the 1980s. “BostonCoach started a national network, but it was pretty new back then – everyone was much more locally centered,” he says. The company was heavily focused on a connection between the Boston and Washington, D.C. markets. BostonCoach developed a marketing program alliance with Delta Airlines to cultivate more business from customers traveling this route.
International Business Has Expanded
Foreign visitors using chauffeured transportation vehicles were much rarer in the 1980s compared to now. Middle Easterners, wealthy from the oil business, took trips to the U.S. and used limousines in the 1980s. “A lot of Saudi Arabians came here and spent cash on limos,” says Don Mahnke, president, ABC Worldwide Transportation, in San Mateo, Calif.
Today, operators have more international clients coming to America, along with affiliates in foreign countries. Growth in foreign travel to the U.S., and Americans traveling overseas, are expected to become more important to the chauffeured transportation industry going forward.
Market Mix Flipflopped
In the 1980s, the industry was more focused on retail than corporate travel, which differs from today. In Jim Moseley’s service area (the Philadelphia market and nearby New Jersey), it was about 70% retail and 30% corporate. “In retail, every trip was a sale, and you had to do a lot to get someone’s butt in the back seat,” says Moseley, owner of The James Limousine Service in Cherry Hill, N.J. “With corporate business, in those days it was limited to the top two or three executives in the company. It took years to start driving today’s customers around in sedans, which include managers and sub-managers.” The Miami area had very little business travel in the 1980s, Goodman says. Now about 50% of Aventura’s revenue comes from corporate accounts.
During the 1980s, the Miami area was at the center of the party scene. “We had clients from companies in New York City such as Neiman Marcus, Sax Fifth Avenue, and Studio 54,” Goodman says. “Lots of New Yorkers came to party on weekends in Miami.”
More Difficult to Hire and Retain Staff
Nowadays, chauffeured transportation companies spend more time interviewing and doing background checks on potential employees. “This can eliminate 75% of the job applicants,” Mahnke says. “It can also be a source of litigation. Twenty five years ago, it was easier. We didn’t have to do background checking or drug testing.” Workers’ comp is another expensive, sometimes problematic, part of running the business, he says. And expensive housing in the San Francisco area (and in many other large cities) makes it more difficult for staff members to work in this business.
Technology Now; Paperwork Back Then
Paperwork was the common task 25 years ago, causing sore hands and headaches from squinting eyes. Technology has made a huge difference in the industry, and keeps evolving. It has helped smaller companies improve customer service nationwide through affiliate networks. “We’ve gotten a lot better at consistent customer service around the country through affiliate networks,” Mahnke says. It can be difficult for small companies to fund the technology changes they need to make. “Technology makes things easier in reservations and dispatch, but it’s expensive to get it up and running,” Cooke says.
Pagers were widely used in the 1980s, even before cell phones, Moseley says. Now, chauffeurs get their work through cell phones and Nextel messages, and don’t have to pull over after getting a pager message and find a pay phone. And managers can track fleet vehicles, rapidly handle reservations, and view video from inside and outside the vehicles during collisions. A lot has changed, making operations smoother and better.
Some Things Never Change
George Jacobs was asked what was different about the industry 25 years ago versus today. “It’s not a whole lot different,” Jacobs says. “You put out fires.” On the other side of the coin, he says: “It was fun then and fun now. I had a ball then, and have as much or more fun now.” This does happen in the business – the demand is pressing but the intensity and experiences can be inspiring. And what are the customers like? In the 1980s, there were many times when limo rides were the center of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. This can still happen (just ask a chauffeur), but not nearly as much as in the ’80s. Operators are more entrepreneurial and have plenty of corporate clientele, plus more aggressive government regulation.
Then Versus Now
In this business, some things remain the same, and many have changed:
1980s — 2008
Cadillac limousines dominant -- Lincoln Town Cars Number 1
Stretch limousines dominant —Sedans and buses have larger presence
Weddings, proms, and nights out —Airport runs and business events
Many coachbuilders served industry —A smaller number of coachbuilders today
Everything done on paper —Technology systems evolve constantly
Operators served one main market —Networks expanding worldwide
Few laws affected industry —Laws and regulations becoming thicker
Chauffeurs contacted through pagers —Cell phones and hand-helds do job now
Insurance and workers’ comp an issue —Insurance and workers’ comp still an issue
Limos = sex, drugs & rock ’n’ roll — Still happens, but not as much as ’80s
Well-Known Coachbuilders in the 1980s
Some of these companies are still around…
American Custom Coachworks, Ltd.,Beverly Hills, Calif., Jules Meyer, pres. Armbruster/Stageway, Ft. Smith, Ark., Tom Earnhart, pres. DaBryan Coach Builders, Springfield, Mo., Gary Dabney, pres. Dillinger/Gaines Coachbuilders, Brooklyn, N.Y., Jack Schwartz, chmn. Empire Coach, Brooklyn, N.Y., Al Tortora, pres. Executive Coachbuilders, Springfield, Mo., Rahn Farris, pres. Hess & Eisenhardt Co., Cincinnati, George Strike, chmn. Krystal Koach, Inc., Brea, Calif., Ed Grech, pres. Marquis Coachcrafters, Canoga Park, Calif., Jules Kaplan, pres. Moloney Manufacturing Corp., Chicago, Earle Moloney, chmn. Royale Limousine, Inc., Bradford, Mass., Cabot Smith, pres.