In a recent article in the Daily Press newspaper, many Virginia limousine operators stated that they looked toward a busy prom season to alleviate the hardships caused by the recession and downturn in the travel industry.
PROM SEASON HELPS LIMOUSINE SERVICES PICK UP THE PIECES INDUSTRY AFFECTED BY AIRLINE DOWNTURN
SARAH SUE INGRAM Daily Press
Bring on the evening gowns and tuxedos, the corsages and boutonnieres.
Get those wedding veils ready, too.
Limousine operators are counting on proms and weddings to propel their industry, which slammed on the brakes on Sept. 11.
"Since last September, business has been down tremendously," said John Corbett, owner of Prestige Limousine Service in Newport News.
He said limousine companies lost practically all of their corporate work when Americans quit flying.
"It has been way down," agreed Jerry McCardle, owner of Towne & Country Limousine. "What we experienced here in Williamsburg -- a big conference and tourism town -- was that those type calls really fell off for us."
Prom season accounts for 20 percent of the yearly business at All Occasions Limousine in Hampton, said company president Carl Butler.
"They like to dress up in their tuxedos and their gowns, take a lot of pictures, and the limo makes it complete," he said.
Corbett said prom season -- from April to early June -- accounts for 20-25 percent of Prestige's business. He said teenagers started renting limos 18 or 20 years ago.
Tom Mazza, executive director of the National Limousine Association and author of "Stretching It: The Story of the Limousine," explained the appeal: "I really think it came from the Academy Awards -- limousines became the standard of elegance. People rent limousines because you might not be able to be Tom Cruise or Nicole Kidman, but for one night, you can be."
Prom-goers get reduced prices. Most limousine contracts require a six-hour minimum and charge from $45 to $70 an hour plus a 20 percent tip. Normal prices, with the six-hour minimum, range from $65 to $110 an hour, depending on location, vehicle model and year, and whether the limo seats six, eight, 10 or 12 passengers.
Corbett pointed out the prom pledge that most licensed companies have with promgoers: "There's no alcoholic beverages, no smoking, and no illegal substances in the car, or we'll take them right back to their family. We have the family sign that they understand this."
Because the Williamsburg area has only three high schools, prom season isn't as profitable there as in Hampton and Newport News.
"We've got several white Cadillac limousines that are really pretty for weddings," said McCardle. "A lot of wealthy people get married in Williamsburg, and they don't spare any cost. They'll use two or three limos on one wedding.
"I really enjoy the airport business, too, especially the people who come in on private planes. We show them Jamestown, Yorktown, Williamsburg, and take the women shopping."
He hires off-duty firefighters and police officers as limo drivers, because, he said, "They're all trained to drive under hazardous situations, they're clean-cut and most of 'em know CPR. All the criminal background checks are already done for you, too."
Small, home-based operators make up 70 percent of the U.S. limousine industry. The companies have four vehicles or less, and prior to Sept. 11 they made close to $50,000 per vehicle per year, according to the National Limousine Association. Before the terrorist attacks, large limousine companies made $100,000 per vehicle per year.
Gregory Crawford operates Custom Courtesy Limo Service as a part-time business at Langley Air Force Base. Although an equal mix of officers and enlisted men use his service, he said prom season is crucial, much as Christmas season is crucial to retailers.
"This is Christmas for us -- you either make it or break it," he said.
Crawford's awesome day on the job was chauffeuring singer Gladys Knight to sound checks, lunch, her concert and visiting friends afterward.
Corbett said clients who've ridden in Prestige's limos include The Beach Boys, Natalie Cole, Anne Murray, the Judds, Tom Jones, Patti LaBelle, Johnny Mathis and Tanya Tucker.
Celebrities, dignitaries and ordinary people are using limos again.
"The phones are ringing more, thank goodness," said Randy Throckmorton, chairman of the Virginia Limousine Association. "From Sept. 11 to three weeks ago, it was slow. Calls were down about 80 percent except for the Christmas light-tour season. People will go ahead and spend the money on proms and weddings to ensure they have a safe ride home."
Mazza said, "We have the statistics to prove it: Professional drivers are five times safer than the average driver. So we think we're not as much a luxury as a good value."
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
The Peninsula has 19 limousine-service companies that are licensed by the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles and insured.
To see the list on the Internet, go to www.dmvnow.com and click on Citizen Services, Operating Authorities, Limousines, Portsmouth District, and then on the city of your choice.
Tips for selecting a limo service are also on this Web site.
Citizens can also find out about limousine services by calling the DMV at 1-866-878-2582.