Operations

Lessons From Operators Serving Kentucky Derby

Posted on May 3, 2017

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The Kentucky Derby brings a few images to mind: Fast horses, unique hats, and good times. Now in its 143rd year, the event packs the city with spectators and tourists who need reliable transportation.

And They’re Off

George Doyle, president and CEO of Gold Shield Limousine Co. Inc. in Lexington
George Doyle, president and CEO of Gold Shield Limousine Co. Inc. in Lexington
George Doyle, president and CEO of Gold Shield Limousine Co. Inc. in Lexington, starts prepping the hardest for the Derby starting in January. His company has been providing transportation for the event for about 30 years, so he has an idea of what they have to do (including securing additional equipment, help, and licensing), and how far out they have to do it. “It’s the week that makes the year, so you start looking at getting ready for the next one as soon as the one you are working is over,” he says.
Carey Fieldhouse, president and owner of R&R Limousine and Cosmopolitan Coach in Louisville
Carey Fieldhouse, president and owner of R&R Limousine and Cosmopolitan Coach in Louisville

For Carey Fieldhouse, president and owner of R&R Limousine and Cosmopolitan Coach in Louisville, her 15th Derby is sure to be a busy one. Her company will have more than 200 cars on the road during Derby week, and will be bringing in vehicles from all over the Eastern half of the U.S. “We really have to start negotiating and re-upping those contracts starting in January, and we start taking reservations from returning clients that month as well,” she says.

(l to r) Todd Roberts and Nick Lopez, president and vice president of JACO Limousine with offices in Louisville, Cincinnati, and Knoxville
(l to r) Todd Roberts and Nick Lopez, president and vice president of JACO Limousine with offices in Louisville, Cincinnati, and Knoxville
Todd Roberts and Nick Lopez, president and vice president of JACO Limousine with offices in Louisville, Cincinnati, and Knoxville, say this has been their biggest year demand wise, and is in step with an increase in their regular business. This will be Roberts’ fifth Derby. “We immediately start prepping from year to year, because right after the Derby is when you recognize what mistakes you made and what you did extraordinarily right,” he says.

A line-up of R&R vehicles
A line-up of R&R vehicles
Ready For Anything

While R&R Limousine runs every type of vehicle except antique, Fieldhouse says she tracks revenue numbers starting in January so she has a good overall estimate of the final number. This way she can set some vehicles aside because she knows she’ll be getting orders for them in the two weeks leading up to the event.

Her clients for the event include various celebrities, who she often doesn’t know until the day of the event since they don’t make reservations in their own names. R&R also transports many international groups as Kentucky continues to push Louisville as a destination city.

Roberts says he also sees more last minute reservations year after year. “Even though people have their tickets all year, they still wait right up to a day or two before and start panicking because they haven’t arranged transportation,” he says.

Gold Shield vehicle in front of Churchill Downs
Gold Shield vehicle in front of Churchill Downs
JACO runs every type of chauffeured vehicle in its fleet, but so far SUVs are the most popular for the event. They also drive celebrities, including NFL and NBA players, as well as some politicians.

Gold Shield has many loyal, year-to-year corporate clients, some of whom reserve 10 to 30 vans a year for the Derby. “Even though the event is in Louisville, Lexington is the horse capital of the world. You have a lot of people internationally who own farms around the area who come in for the Derby, as well as people who have a bloodline that goes back two or three generations in the horse business so you deal with them every year. And you always have first timers and corporate clients who want to entertain someone.”

He also runs every type of chauffeured vehicle you can think of, and a great number of them at that. “Normally throughout the year we have about 60 to 65 vehicles we use in our fleet every day, but for Derby we can do anything from about 125 to 150.”

JACO Limo vehicle ready for the race
JACO Limo vehicle ready for the race
No TNC Troubles

Lopez isn’t worried in the slightest when it comes to the inevitable interference of Uber and Lyft. “The only area there might be competition from TNCs is shuttle work. It’s not exactly a higher level, exclusive service. If you look at surge pricing during Derby, their prices are out of sight, so people are going to pay big no matter what kind of transportation service they use. Most of our clientele for this event aren’t on-demand.”

Doyle says it all boils down to what people want. “I believe those who are used to black car service are not going to show up in an Uber. They aren’t going to come out with 150,000 people at the end of the race and not know exactly where their car is, and they won’t drive themselves because the parking is astronomical,” he says.

“Clients who come in on private jets are not looking for a dollar trip away from the airport. TNCs haven’t impacted our business in the slightest bit,” Fieldhouse says.

Chauffeur training meeting at R&R
Chauffeur training meeting at R&R
Be Prepared

On Tuesday of Derby week, R&R Limousine’s IT teams come in and set up computers, printers, desks, and telephones in one of the company-owned garages as a satellite office. “It’s made the center of the universe from Tuesday until Monday morning when they come take it down after the event,” Fieldhouse says.

About 80% of the business’ Derby chauffeurs return from previous years, taking vacation days from the companies they work for full time to participate. This makes everything run much smoother since they are already familiar with policies and procedures.

They, as well as new staff members, go through an hour and a half long classroom training session, at the end of which they are broken down into smaller one-on-one groups lead by veteran chauffeurs for about another half hour.

Fieldhouse provides a KFC lunch for her entire chauffeur staff
Fieldhouse provides a KFC lunch for her entire chauffeur staff
On the day of the Derby, she packs a cargo van full of Kentucky Fried Chicken with her husband and children and serves it to all of the chauffeurs right in the parking lot of Churchill Downs. “Serving over 200 chauffeurs is a lot of work, but it’s our thank you to everyone that works so hard to pull off the event. We usually have chauffeurs from other limo companies join in as well as long as we have enough food,” she says.

Up to 95% of Gold Shield’s chauffeurs who work Derby have done so before. “There are people that work big events like this over and over again even though they may not work for us day in and day out,” Doyle says. The company has a meeting well in advance to go over what’s needed to make the Derby as successful as possible, including what to take with you, what to do, and what not to do.

The event is orchestrated out of the company’s own facility built in 2007. Doyle has increased his wash crew and has them use a unique spot-free water system.

“We haven’t had to wipe down a vehicle in more than 10 years. We rinse them, prep the inside, dress the tires, and then pull it out into the sun. It saves a lot of time and labor, especially since you have vehicles coming back at two or three in the morning that have to be back out at seven or eight. You have a short window to clean a lot of cars, so it helps improve the efficiency of getting that done,” he says.

Lopez and Roberts make use of videos on a private Vimeo channel to help chauffeurs understand procedures specifically for the Derby, and also perform ride-alongs with key personnel. Apps like Zipwhip and Slack help them stay in constant contact with them during every part of the event.

Because they bring in employees from the other markets they serve, they partner up with a local hotel and conference center so they have access to large conference rooms and lots of parking space.

Takeaway Tips For Big Events
  • For any large, recurring event, start looking at getting ready for the next one as soon as the one you are working is over
  • Don't be dismayed by TNCs; focus on providing incredible customer service for the discerning type of clientele 
  • Make training a team effort; take things seriously, but allow time for bonding as well
  • Treat your chauffeurs right; big events take a toll on everyone involved. Provide something extra (like food!) to sweeten the deal.
  • Make use of technology to simplify and streamline processes
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