PROM SEASON: While better bookings could be a sign of better times, some operators are still feeling the effects of the recession in a traditionally reliable market.
TORRANCE, Calif. -- LCT talked to operators about this year’s prom season and how it’s shaping up compared to 2009. Of the operators LCT talked to, more were doing well this year, reporting better reservation rates than the previous year due to a drop-off in competition and what they see as an improving economy.
Operators who saw no change or a decrease in sales are still feeling the effects of the recession, with more price-shoppers calling and cash-strapped parents hesitant to hand over credit cards to their teenagers.
Pierce Fleming, vice president of operations at Jacksonville, Fla.-based Dynasty Limousine, says this year’s prom season is the best in the company’s 11-year history, with the company beating an all-time revenue record by 22% last month.
“I just think the reputation’s gotten out there for us, in conjunction with the smaller number of operators — that has really helped us,” Fleming says.
Dan Rivera, general manager of Mid Atlantic Limousine Inc., based in West Chester, Penn., says they’ve definitely seen better numbers this year, especially for buses. “We’re booking them faster and without as much negotiating,” he says.
Competition in the area, however, has pretty much remained the same, although he adds, “We’re probably one of the few companies that have added vehicles to their fleet in the last year, where other companies have just kept their fleet or gotten rid of vehicles.”
The prom business has also been good this year for A Blackstone Limousine Inc., based in Renton, Wash., a suburb of Seattle. Owner Tyler Lehmann says the addition of a limousine bus to the fleet and its presence on the company’s Web site has generated more responses. “We are getting a lot fewer shoppers and more people booking,” Lehmann says.
“There are some companies that have gone out of business that had the same client profiles that we do,” Lehmann says. In addition, he credits more confidence in the economy this year, as parents are more relaxed about spending money on proms.
Although Westbrook, Maine-based Michael’s Limousine has also seen good bookings for this year’s prom season, office manager Derek Messenger doesn’t think economic confidence is the reason. “We had more last year booked in advance. This year, it looked like it could have been slow, but it turned out to be good.” Messenger thinks later reservations are a result of people waiting to see how things turned out and whether their income could handle it.
Prom bookings stayed the same this year for Black Tie Limousine in Superior, Wis., and co-owner Cory Bonneville says, “People are definitely shopping a little wiser. They’re a lot bolder, like so-and-so is charging this much. I want you to match it.”
Bonneville, however, doesn’t cave in to these demands. “We sell our services and don’t play that game,” he explains. Prom packages have remained consistent and reservation patterns haven’t changed.
Toughing It Out
Randy Storey, co-owner of Sweetheart’s Limo in Kodak, Tenn., says revenue is down because they sold one of their vehicles. “We don’t have any spare capacity, but the sales numbers are down,” he explains.
Storey adds that the company lost a large competitor last year, which took out 13 limousines from the market. This decrease in supply means fewer options for clients, and certainly less price shopping. “People are going to pay whatever you ask because there are no vehicles available,” Storey says.
Sweetheart’s booked last weekend’s runs (peak prom weekend) three months in advance, whereas in the past, they wouldn’t get those bookings until mid-March. “People who wait until the last minute, they’re out of luck,” he says.
“Definitely, it’s worse,” James Romero, co-owner of In the Scene Limousine in Tempe, Ariz., says of prom season this year. “Customers are more price conscious. We’re not getting the rates that we were last year, or even the year prior. Some of the kids are opting out and not getting limos.”
This is despite the fact that the company has the bigger vehicles that teenagers are demanding, including three party busses and three stretch SUVs.
Romero says the economy is probably to blame. “Families are tighter on what they want to spend for the kids for prom,” he explains. He adds that illegal operators have always been a problem in Arizona, which has lax enforcement on laws. Illegal operators may be running fictitious plates or have inadequate insurance, all leading to lower overhead cost and lower prices for the consumer.
“The number of reservation requests is up, closing ratio is down a bit because we’re not the cheapest,” Fleming says. “Some people are shopping specifically for price, and we don’t get too many of those clients. But the number of actual customers looking for a limousine has increased greatly, so the net result is more bookings.”
Although Richard Perricone, corporate operations manager for Denver-based Limos ETC, was hesitant to compare this year’s premature prom numbers, he has seen a slight change in reservation patterns. “Parents are getting more involved as opposed to students in making the reservations,” he says.
The Bigger, The Better
Limo buses are the preferred vehicle of choice for prom-goers, followed by stretch Hummers and stretch sedans. Fleming says limousine busses were booked by the end of last year for this prom season.
Atlantic Limousine operates a total of 18 vehicles, three of which are limousine buses. According to Rivera, every other call is for a bus, and the company has its buses fully booked through the second week of June. “As prom gets closer and everybody’s out of limo buses, people are breaking their groups up and settling for limos, but that’s as the proms get closer."
Lehman, of A Blackstone Limousine, says, “Our limousine bus is really popular because it will hold a lot more people for pretty much the same price as a stretch Hummer.”
Pricing & Incentives
Most operators haven’t deviated from their usual prom packages, and pricing and packages have remained fairly consistent with previous years.
However, some companies have had to slightly lower prices in order to keep their vehicles booked. Messenger, of Michael’s Limousine, says although they don’t normally lower rates, they did this year in some cases.
In the Scene Limousine’s Romero says where before they could get top dollar for the four or five weekends of prom season, that’s no longer the case. “Now it’s one weekend that we were able to get top dollar, and everything else we’ve had to lower, or we’d be sitting with the vehicles,” he explains.
— Thi Dao, LCT Magazine
ABOUT PHOTO: This limo bus from Dynasty Limousine in Jacksonville, Fla. is ready to take its prom posse out for a special night.