MILWAUKEE – You might be out of luck if you try today to book a restaurant or nightclub reservation for New Year's Eve.
But a limo ride to the party is relatively easy to find, even at this late date, thanks to a deepening recession.
Several Milwaukee-area limousine service operators reported that bookings are down this year for New Year's Eve, traditionally a big night for their businesses.
The signs of economic distress - layoffs, foreclosures, bailouts and a stock market with a hangover to rival anything that crops up Thursday morning - have led some party-goers to cut back.
"They're not booking yet," said Samer Abulughod, owner of Crystal Limousine & Coach Inc. "Usually, people start booking three months before."
"It's the economy. It affects everything," he said. "What can you do if people have no money?"
Branko Djurica, who owns Branko's Limousine Service, normally gets one to two daily calls in the month or so leading up to New Year's Eve.
"Now, we're getting one to two calls a week," he said.
"I've never experienced this before," said Djurica, who's been in the limo business for five years.
It shouldn't be a surprise that limo bookings are down, said Jim Knoblauch, who operates Bestway Limousine Service.
"The first thing to go (when the economy sours) is luxury items," Knoblauch said.
That's true throughout the country, according to Richard Kane, president of the National Limousine Association, a trade group with 2,400 members. The industry's bookings from corporate customers are down 10% to 15% this year, while bookings from individual customers are down 40% to 50%, said Kane, who operates International Limousine Service in Washington, D.C. The bookings from individual customers include wedding parties, and that business has remained relatively stable, Kane said.
"People still want that once-in-a-lifetime experience," he said.
But business for New Year's Eve parties and others nights on the town is down sharply, he said.
Some local operators, including Benjamin Limousine Inc. and Badger State Limousine Service, say they're seeing around the same level of bookings this year as for the 2007 New Year's Eve.
"We're booked solid," said Adam Delap, Badger State Limousine owner.
Bookings have been slower for Beverly Hills Limousine Service, but owner Steve Brick was confident that he would have his entire fleet reserved by New Year's Eve.
Some small, part-time limo operators have shut down over the past year, and Brick said his company has gotten bookings that would have otherwise gone to those competitors.
"That's actually how we've picked up the slack," he said.
While this year's decline is tied to the economy, there may be larger forces behind a longer term decline in New Year's Eve bookings, said Jim Mortle, owner of Premier Limousines.
"I think people are staying home more," said Mortle, who's been in the limo business for nearly 20 years.
In addition, the novelty of booking a limo for a party has worn off, Mortle said.
"Fifteen years ago, you pulled up to a club in a limo, and people would say, 'Wow, who's in there?'" Mortle said. "Now, it's no big deal."
Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel