Everyone has heard the complaints: “The gypsy operators are giving this industry a bad name;” “Airports are charging outrageous fees;” etc.
The problem: Not many operators are willing to put in the effort to fight for their rights.
Bob Buckley of Buckley Limousine Service in Hartford, CT is an exception.
Through his involvement with two area associations, he was able to right what he believed to be wrongs in his state. Buckley, who is currently treasurer of the Limousine Operators of Connecticut (LOC) and has been past president of the Hartford-Area Limousine Operators (HALO), believes, “New operators should become not only members of their local association, but also become very active in those associations.
Being just a member can help you somewhat — being active can help you a great deal.”
Fight for Your Rights
One accomplishment Buckley, who operates four stretches, three formals, and three sedans, is especially proud of is his work with the Connecticut Department of Transportation (DOT). Through his and other’s diligent efforts, they were able to help the DOT crackdown on gypsy operators.
“We tried to get the DOT to crackdown on the gypsies. We told the agency the reason we wanted to get rid of the gypsies was not monetary. The reason was because the public was not being, protected,” he says.
After the first attempt to get the DOT involved, the group was told the DOT had no manpower to enforce the regulations that were in effect at that time and that the statutes were weak. “After hearing that, we took a different route. We went back to our local legislators and started working with them to get the legislation tightened up. We got the fines increased dramatically from $50 for the first offense to $500, and $2,000 for the second offense. Now, if a gypsy can be caught, it is going to have some meaning,” Buckley adds.
Next, the association members supported the DOT’s budget request, with the stipulation that when the budget was approved, enforcers would be put in. “The DOT got the budget approved because the association members were all talking to their local legislators.
“The results were amazing because they had no more excuses. They had the enforcers, budget, and law. We sent the enforcers a list of when and where local proms would be going on. The enforcers went out when the kids were being taken advantage of and made arrests. Last year there were 29 arrests and 21 people were prosecuted,” says Buckley.
In order to avoid any bad press, the association members offered to supply vans for any students who were stranded because of the sting operation. “None of the kids were stranded,” he adds. “In many instances, the parents came and picked up the kids.”
According to Buckley many of the limousines involved in the sting operation were coming across state lines without the proper permits to do business in Connecticut. “Eight of those arrested were second offenders. They are now facing $2,000 fines,” he reports.
As a result of the sting operation, Buckley has received phone calls from indicted operators accusing him of driving them out of business. “I tell them I’m not happy they’re out of business and that I just wished they would have had the foresight to take out the proper licenses and do business legally to protect the people who were riding in their cars,” he adds.
The prom season stings Buckley helped initiate are being continued. This year, Robert Cumpstone, manager of public transportation regulations at the DOT’s Bureau of Public Transportation, sent a letter to area high school principals explaining that the stings would continue and advising them how best to inform their students about hiring a reputable limousine service.
Working With Others
Buckley, working with HALO, was also successful in getting the access fees for Bradley airport lowered. “It takes a lot of work to get people of the mentality that the way to be successful, be it an airport, city or limousine company, is to work together,” he says.
Buckley believes the legislature told the airport to operate as a business and to make money. “The airport administration in Connecticut was wearing blinders and used tunnel vision to try to generate as much profit for the airport as it could.
“We in the limousine business tend to pick up the people who are the decision makers in the community. To alienate those people and make them walk out into the rain and snow to get picked up and to give a preferential parking area to a taxi cab is making enemies instead of making friends,” he adds.
Association members met with the airport’s marketing department to explain their viewpoint and were successful in getting the fees lowered.
Getting Lean and Mean
Buckley, being from the economically hard hit East Coast, has had to change his operation to become “lean and mean.” He cuts down on costs by working out of his home, but does maintain a separate garage facility.
One area he has been watching is personal calls by chauffeurs from car phones. “Before I would let some of that go. Now I tell them if they call, I will charge them the same as I would my customers. You don’t know until things get lean and mean how much that was costing you,’’ he says.
Another area Buckley has been scaling down is advertising. Instead of participating in local bridal shows, he has a deal worked out with two bridal books that do attend the shows. The books use Buckley’s limousines for their promotional give-aways to attract people to their booths. “They pass out promotional materials for my company without me having to pay for the booth,” he adds.
Buckley doesn’t see the end of the recession. What he is doing is trying to figure out how to adapt to the new environment. “Each community has been affected by the recession and we each have to adapt to the new state. In Connecticut, we used to be a very high manufacturing area, now most of the factories are empty,” he says. Since 65 percent of Buckley’s business is corporate work, he is trying to find out what he will need to replace that work.
One potential area of increased revenue is a recently opened casino on an Indian reservation in the southeastern section of the state. The enterprise will be open 24 hours a day. The casino opened the first of the year and so far, Buckley has gotten some business from the gambling crowd, but he sees “great potential” for the future.
Prior to opening his own company, Buckley was an English teacher who would moonlight during the summer months for a friend who owned his own service. Buckley started his own company 12 years ago on a part-time basis while still teaching. “One of the reasons I’m viable now is in the boom of the late 1980s, my cars were out 14 hours a day. That allowed me to pay them off. I don’t have anyone looking to collect money. The companies that had the big leases and payments are no longer here,” he remarks.
Even though Buckley’s company is viable, he sees other companies that aren’t as well established trying to stay afloat. “There is a tendency to lose sight of what this industry is,” he says. We are a service business. We try to provide a higher level of service than that of the taxi industry.”
It is especially troublesome for Buckley to see other companies giving a lower level of service at cut-rate prices. “In our area, three companies have formed new companies with different names, using the same vehicles, drivers, etc., and charging lower rates. They are really decimating their existing company to take advantage of the low-price shopper,” he adds.
Buckley is wary of the limousine industry trying to lower its rates to accommodate the shrinking corporate travel budgets. He believes it is important to maintain the current rate structure and let corporate executives use taxis until the economy gets better. “Lower rates are not going to pay your operating expenses. Operators are going to consume their vehicles and not be able to replace them.
“When we come out of the recession, the executives will come right back to using the sedans and executive limousines. When you discount rates, you discount service. When you discount service, you aren’t gong to be in business very long,” Buckley adds.