Biggest success: The couple says they believe their biggest success is the fact the company still exists. “For two people who didn’t even finish high school to go out with a dream, get a small personal loan, buy a car and follow it through” is a major accomplishment, Marlo says. They lost their first house because they paid off their $100,000 stretch SUV to avoid defaulting on loans. “Here we are 10 years later. We survived the economy crash, have six cars, a wonderful team, and a 3,000 sq. ft. showroom,” Mike says. “I’m proud we’ve built a business that sustains itself and is now paying us. I don’t want to sound cheesy, but it’s a real American Dream story.”
Mike and Marlo know how to run a business near a world famous beach and have fun while doing it.
Customer Service: They’ve implemented changes to the reservation system to win over customers who don’t want to deal with paperwork. In the age of “I want it, and I don’t want to click more than three buttons to get it done,” the couple has learned the importance of having an online reservation system, but taking phone reservations as well. Marlo ensures their vehicles are decked out for special occasions. For example, if the clients are celebrating a birthday, she’ll put up a “Happy Birthday” banner, balloons, and streamers.
Marketing Strategies: The company has five different websites. Why? “We live in a rural area, and there are so many cities we focus on. We service all the way from Jacksonville to Orlando, and want to advertise in every major city,” Mike says. The Dennings favorite marketing method, however, is Facebook. The two purchased an older vehicle in complete disarray, and documented its restoration process on the social networking site. After spending two months and upwards of $20,000 to fix everything, they posted photos of the end result. A man called them the next day and said he’d been following their updates and wanted to be the first customer to ride in it. “To get that kind of connection with a customer is just amazing,” Mike says.
Origins: After struggling to find a company professional enough to help them reserve a limousine for their wedding, Mike and Marlo wanted to use their talents as a mechanic and nursing home caretaker to start a limousine business that would make people feel safe and cared for. The couple found an older Lincoln for sale online, but when they came to pick it up, it was a total mess. “Betsy” had to be cleaned from top to bottom, and Mike got her working like new. “Every inch of that vehicle had to be in tip-top shape before someone could ride in it,” Marlo says.
Start-up costs and methods: The Dennings bought their first vehicle with a $10,000 personal loan. In addition, they also paid a lawyer to help them incorporate and purchased ads on limos.com. Business quickly followed. Mike was working as a mechanic, and Marlo at a nursing home, so juggling their day jobs and a limo company became difficult. After two years, business slowed, so they developed a website. Luckily, Marlo worked with a woman whose husband created websites for a living, and Mike was able to offer a trade of services: He fixed the man’s car, and the site was built in return. Once complete, Elegant Limousines generated its own business.
Lessons learned: Marlo says, “Keep your prices where you must to stay in business and attract the proper clientele.” While change has been difficult for her, Mike came back from the 2016 International LCT Show with lots of knowledge from wise operators that helped her learn to accept constructive criticism. “The best thing you can do is learn from your mistakes,” Mike says. Double check reservations so nothing ever gets missed, and learn from others.
Advice: Marlo suggests operators who want to break into the business do their research. “Call companies and make friends with them. Tell them, ‘I’m just starting out. I’d prefer not to consider you as competition and vice versa.’” As long as you act like affiliates rather than rivals and keep your rates similar to others, they will treat you kindly. Mike adds you should check insurance rates and follow the rules of cities and airports where you plan to provide service.
Future plans: The couple hopes to add more corporate work and affiliates to their portfolio, and get more use out of a second sedan recently purchased. “We don’t want to change what we are already doing, we just want to add to it,” Mike says.