When Jim Bell’s uncle won a two-car taxi company in a card game some 50 years ago, no one guessed it would mark the beginning of the largest livery company in the United States. And few could have foreseen how Bell Transportation would remain virtually the only livery company in this fast growing market by operating limousines profitably at $17 less per hour than the industry’s average rate. By providing lucrative airport charters and shared rides, catering to the bustling hotel industry, and sharing overhead with 132 cabs operated by two sister companies, however, Bell Trans is virtually unchallenged as the industry’s largest and most efficient operation.
Jim Bell credits his company’s success to the sheer volume of transportation in and around Las Vegas. Some credit is also due to the fact that Bell introduced formal limousines to Las Vegas in 1971. In that year, he put two limousines in service at the Sands Hotel and reached the first agreement to operate limousines at the airport. With ten limousines providing shared ride service at $2 per person and charters at $18 per hour, Bell was well positioned to expand as limousine use increased in the 1970s.
Airport transfers served as a foundation for the growth of Bell’s hotel business and still generate about a third of the company’s $14 million annual revenue. Bell Trans has a booth with a telephone at the airport and is the only company allowed to solicit limousine business at the airport. Grayline and Lucky Seven Limousine are permitted to solicit for shared rides in vans and buses.
“We got the booth by meeting with airport personnel and promising to give them 10 percent of all our airport business. This amounts to over $80,000 a month,” says Bell. “We also have five parking places up front and we keep the rest of the vehicles in a holding area,” he explains. “We have two starters at the airport who can call the vehicles down as needed. We also usually keep between 30 and 45 vehicles in the holding area.”
Bell Trans’ parent company Whitdesea Bell also operates cabs from the airport under the names Whittlesea Blue Cab Company and Henderson Taxi. Jim’s brother Terry Bell is president of these companies. Whittlesea Bell also owns a charter livery service called Presidential Limousine and the Las Vegas Strip Trolley which runs eight trolleys up and down the Strip.
These companies share overhead, in a variety of ways. Bell Trans’ parking facility, for example, is leased from Whittlesea Blue Cab. While some maintenance personnel strictly service limousines and buses, cabs share the same body shop and vehicle prep personnel.
In addition to the Las Vegas companies, Jim Bell is involved in Bell Limousine in Reno, NY which his brother Larry started and another brother, Tim, currently runs. Today, Bell Trans operates 235 vehicles and employs 930 people, including over 300 chauffeurs.
All chauffeurs are full-time employees who voted to unionize three years ago. Terry Bell and Bell Trans general manager Richard Gull represented the company in negotiating the contract which was signed in 1992. The main result of the contract, according to Bell, was a more comprehensive health care program which currently costs Bell Trans $162 per employee.
WORKING WITH HOTELS
Las Vegas has been on a continual growth spurt ever since Bugsy Siegal built the first luxury hotel and casino—the Flamingo—in the 1940s. Bell’s company has been along for the ride in this desert boom town. Every new hotel room built means more potential customers for Bell. With the recent openings of the Luxor and Treasure Island, well over 5,000 rooms have been added in the city. According to Bell, the main convention months, and his busiest times, are September through April.
Of the main Las Vegas hotels, only the Mirage and Treasure Island rely primarily on their own limousine fleets. Most others have at least an informal operating agreement with Bell for service. Even hotels with their own limousines call on Bell frequently.
“We have 30-day operating agreements with the hotels,” Bell explains “It’s really not much of a contract, we just offer them our service. At the end of the 30 days, either party is free to end the arrangement.
“We provide the vehicles and drivers. If the hotel management wants the drivers to wear specific uniforms, they would be responsible to provide that. Otherwise, we only keep track of the actual hours the vehicles are used. They’re not charged a dime if the car doesn’t move.
“While each arrangement with the hotels is different, some provide us with a desk and phone,” he adds. “I believe there are currently three hotels that do this. It gives our drivers an area from which to work. And it is an advantage to the hotel because it allows us to give their clients the best service possible.”
Depending on the hotel’s needs, Bell assigns a certain number of vehicles and drivers to each hotel. Hotels sometimes request specific color limousines, such as emerald green for the newly expanded MGM Grand, and some vehicles carry hotel logos.
If there is a big convention or event in town, Bell will provide more vehicles as required. Conversely, if the vehicles are not being utilized by that hotel on any given day, Bell is free to use the allocated vehicles in his normal fleet operation.
Bell provides a lead driver for each hotel who works to maintain a good relationship with hotel management. “He’s pretty much the liaison with the hotel,” Bell says. This is the person who arranges that the hotel guest’s needs are met whether that means an airport pick up or taking a high roller’s wife shopping.
This arrangement with allocating chauffeurs to different hotels has its management advantages as well. While the company itself has only a certain amount of supervisory positions, these hotel assignments are an added bonus for some chauffeurs. “It’s mainly a driver’s preference, but some of our chauffeurs will specifically request they be assigned to a hotel the next time we are assigning those positions,” Bell explains.
PRICING IS KEY
Bell Trans also gets considerable business from local residents. “We advertise in the yellow pages and on radio and TV to try to get a diversified client base. The good thing about our rates being as low as they are is that we get a lot of prom and anniversary business,” Bell says.
Bell Trans’ rates are $33 per hour for a stretch with a one-hour minimum and $25 per hour for a sedan, also with a one-hour minimum. After the first hour, clients are billed by the half hour. Prices for Presidential Limousine, run by Bell’s son Brent, are slightly higher. “A stretch from Presidential is also $33, but the super stretches are $65 per hour, where a super stretch from Bell Trans is only $60 per hour,” Bell explains.
Even though the rate structure for Nevada livery companies is set by the Public Service Commission, Bell could actually be charging higher rates. “We have permission from the Public Service Commission to ask for up to a 10 percent rate increase each year. But I’m the last one to try to get a rate increase. I try to hold the rates down. If we can do a volume business, then we won’t ask for a rate increase. Other companies in town keep their rate about even with ours. They know that if they go much higher than I am—with all the vehicles I have—I will still keep the largest share of the market,” he says.
By paying his drivers on a commission basis, it is in their best interests to stay busy. Even though all of Bell’s chauffeurs are treated as employees, they are paid between 30 percent and 40 percent of each trip plus tips.
Bell explains, “Since the driver is being paid on commission, he wants to stay busy. So if he is on a charter trip, as soon as that is over, he will ask permission from the dispatcher to go work the airport. The dispatcher will then either tell him to go to the airport or out on another charter. As far as promoting efficiency goes, if a driver drops passengers off at the airport, he will usually stay there to pick up more clients on their way back to the Strip.”
Bell Trans airport limousines carry an average of 1,300 passengers per month at $3.50 per person from the airport to the Strip. Limousines average seven passengers per trip.
Another way Bell promotes efficiency is by operating his own maintenance facilities. All preventative maintenance and repairs are handled at this facility. “We have six full-time people who work in the body shop and 23 mechanics. There are a couple of paint spray booths and a full body shop facility. We try to avoid problems by not buying black cars. They just can’t handle the heat here. I think we only have four black cars in our fleet right now. Air conditioning remains a maintenance problem. We make sure we get the heavy-duty radiators with larger air conditioning systems,” he says.
To help keep maintenance problems to a minimum, Bell only buys his limousines from either QVM- or CMC-certified coachbuilders, like American Custom Coach- works. “I’ve known Jay Meyers of American Custom Coach for over 20 years,” Bell says.
Bell buys approximately 20 new vehicles each year. “We’re always buying new because of our hotel accounts. When a limousine gets between 30,000 and 35,000 miles on it, I take it out of hotel service and put it in the regular fleet,” he explains.
Jim Bell’s biggest challenge today, he says, is trying to keep up with the city’s enormous growth. “Our drivers are tied up in traffic a lot. We can’t get around as quick as we used to. In our cab business, we used to be able to get 30 trips a shift in. Now, we’re probably down to about 24.”
Even though he has worked hard to make the company what it is today, Bell does give “Lady Luck” some of the credit. “I think we’re just lucky here in Las Vegas. We have a good night business, as well as a lot of good day work with all the conventions. That is an advantage we have over most towns. So it’s the same old story—location, location, location.”