Understanding Community Needs Helps Small-Town Operators Survive

Posted on July 1, 1993 by LCT Staff - Also by this author

Creating unique services and incorporating taxi-type programs contract work, and tours leads to growth.

When Nancy Dunkel of Special Occasions in St. Johns, MI, drove a couple to Lake Michigan to celebrate their anniversary, she had no idea that trip would result in her transporting a school bus to Alaska.

What Dunkel did know was that being an operator in a small town, she had to be open minded about all business opportunities. “When the man, who turned out to be a school bus contractor, asked me if I would be interested in driving the bus to Alaska, I said ‘sure.’ When he actually called me to arrange it, I was a little shocked, but it turned out to be a terrific experience that never would have come about if I didn’t drive a limousine,” she says.

While weddings, nights on the town, and proms will probably always be the mainstay for small-town operators, in order to maintain growth, these operators must constantly be on the look out for other opportunities as well. Smalltown operators must understand the needs of their communities and work to maintain a public presence if they plan on becoming successful.

Understand Your Clients

In addition to transporting school buses to Alaska, Dunkel, who is located 20 miles north of Lansing, has explored her market and has been able to expand by meeting her client’s needs. “Even though Lansing is the state capitol, it is by no means a large city. We’re just a bunch of Michigan farmers up here,” she says. “When clients call us up, we discuss what their needs are and try to offer them the most economical service.”

Because she is located in such a rural area, many of her clients are in need of simple transportation. To meet this need, she started a “Need-A-Ride” program. “There are no taxis or buses in this area, so when someone gets stranded or just needs a ride to the airport—which is 100 miles away-we use our van to transport them,” she adds.

Still, the majority of Dunkel’s work comes from weddings and nights out. “Our newest limousine is a 1992 model. This is the only new-body-style limousine in the area. People love that vehicle and use my service because of it. I just booked a wedding for someone who is located 100 miles north of here because of it,” Dunkel explains. For her wedding clients she creates personalized banners for the couple and decorates the limousine with balloons. “No one else in this area does that,” she admits.

Lon Kaufmann of Lon’s Limo Scene in Santa Rosa, CA; is another operator with a good understanding of his clientele. Although he is located only 70 miles from San Francisco, the small portion of his work that goes into the city is strictly airport transfers. “We are in an agricultural county. People up here would rather spend their money on tractors than limousines,” he says.

What his area does have to offer is a small tourist trade and a number of wineries. Being from the area, and having been in business for the past 12 years, has allowed Kaufmann to offer his clients what others can’t. “I’ve worked with many winery people over the years. My specialty is winery tours and since I am from the area, I know a lot of the secret spots that aren’t on the tour maps. That is something I can offer to my clients that a competitor who has only been here a few years can’t,” he adds.

Approximately one-third of Kaufmann’s business comes from corporate clientele. And even though he operates only two stretch limousines, he finds that the corporate clients are more interested in reliability. He adds, “They are not interested in what amenities you have in the vehi­cles. They just want to know that you will be there for their guys.”

Maintain Flexibility

When a client once requested a complete lobster dinner served in the back of his limousine, Jon Dodge of Classic Limousines of Maine in Belfast, ME, was happy to oblige. While he is willing to accommodate special requests, Dodge advises: “Don’t cut your prices to sell your service.”

Dodge, who runs three jewelry-related companies in addition to the livery business, originally began his two- limousine fleet as a counterpart to a retail jewelry store he owned. “I had a package where if someone bought a bridal set worth a certain amount, I would include free limousine service. The problem was that all of the limousine companies in this area were at least one hour away. I was spending too much money on this program, so I bought my own limousine. Local people started calling me about renting out the vehicle, so I started the limou­sine company,” he explains.

Weddings and prom work still make up the majority of Dodge’s business, but he is always looking for ways to increase his client base. Some of the ways he accomplishes this is by working with chambers of commerce on upcoming events, sending anniversary notices suggesting a night on the town to celebrate, and being listed in the Official Airline Guide and working with hotels to increase airport transfer business.

One way Dunkel has found to maintain flexibility in the services she provides is by offering programs her big-city counterparts might not consider. This has helped her keep her three- limousine and one-van fleet busy. In addition to the Need-A-Ride program, she also rents her vehicles to local funeral directors and will drive her client’s personal cars for them and bill them an hourly rate.

Also, Dunkel recently won a contract with Meals on Wheels in her area which helps occupy her fleet during the day. “Between 9 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. everyday, I drive between 125 miles and 150 miles to deliver meals to drop-off sites,” she explains. When she first started her company, it operated only in the summer months. This year, her new programs have enabled the business to run year-round.

Visibility Is Key

All of the operators agree that one of the major keys to success in a small town is to maintain a high level of visibility. This can be accomplished through person-to- person marketing and comprehensive public relations programs.

“The key to survival for us is staying visible and constantly finding new ways to improve our service,” says Dodge. One way he has found to increase his community visibility is by offering “red carpet” service to his wedding clients. All of his chauffeurs wear white gloves, roll out a red carpet, and place a champagne stand outside of the limousine. “Not only are our drivers finding that their tips are going up, but we are getting a lot more calls from people who either drove by the wedding or who actually attended the event,” he adds.

Being civically involved is always a boost to a small-town operator. As the original operator in his area, Kaufmann has been able to obtain a coveted spot in the local parade. “Every year, we are the first car in the local parade driving the Grand Marshall,” he says.

Dunkel finds that donating her services to charity has gotten her a lot of coverage in the local media. “Nine out of 10 clients come to me,” she admits.

One of the things that these three operators have in common is their lack of advertising. “We do very little advertising. We only have a very small box ad in the yellow pages. Most of our marketing is hands-on. I am either calling potential clients or working with hotels to get our brochure into their lobbies,” says Dodge.

Kaufmann agrees, “We dropped our yellow page ad two years ago. Since we have one of the highest rates in the area, rate shoppers don’t come to us anyway.” Most of the work operators get from yellow page ads Kaufmann doesn’t accept. “We shy away from proms and nights out—any type of drinking situation. We have very strict rules. We don’t allow smoking or excessive drinking in the vehicles. Party crowds cause a lot of stress. I could have made more money by now, but I like the reputation we have instead,” he adds.

Understand Limitations

For those who are looking to start a livery operation in a smaller market, Dunkel offers this advice: “Go slow and steady, I have had people come to me saying they want to start a service with six vehicles. That just won’t work in an area like this. There have been companies that started up here and then left. They found they couldn’t get enough money fast enough.”

“Operators can survive here by working only on weekends,” Kaufmann adds. “But they aren’t necessarily successful. To make a decent living requires dedication and perseverance. I could have had five cars by now, but I chose to keep it simple. We make a comfortable living and are able to purchase a new limousine about every two to three years.”

In a state that has only 53 legal operators registered, Dodge has found one of his keys to success has been maintaining good working relationships with other operators. According to Dodge, who is one of the founding members of the Maine Limousine Association, “Most operators in this state have three vehicles or less. Because of this we all need to work together as much as possible.”

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