Operators are saving money, better serving clients and streamlining their companies with new offerings and advances in GPS tracking, mobile credit card processing and wireless Internet
Each year, the chauffeured transportation industry is inundated with new gadgets and improvements to existing technologies that promise an increase in efficiency, decreased costs and an improvement in the client experience.
Comparing features is often confusing. Determining who has the best product can be sketchy, so operators should seek information from friendly competitors, request industry references and then follow up on them.
The bottom line on any investment: Will the return pay off in the long run? For technology, the payoff can be direct financial relief from insurance costs, lower maintenance bills and the sales/ marketing benefits of being able to promote your new services to clients.
“You have to look at cost of the product and compare that number to the efficiencies and savings you would get,” recommends Ibrahim Quadri, managing partner for Bridgewater Limousine Service Inc., of Bridgewater, N.J. “All of this must also fit into your budget.” With Global Positioning or GPS technology, operators can save on fuel and better the response time to customers with more efficient dispatching capabilities. An in-vehicle video monitoring system forces chauffeurs to drive more carefully, thereby saving on maintenance, lowering insurance and reducing downtime caused by vehicle abuse, all of which translates into a smoother ride for clients.
A device that allows for credit card swiping – rather than keyed entry – reduces charges paid to credit card companies by up to 60 percent.
Then there are creature comforts that can help increase the business coming from individual travelers and corporations, such as satellite radio and television, plus wireless in-vehicle Internet.
Products that bundle some of these technologies together in a single package are valuable but still hard to come by, since individual technology continues to evolve. Quadri has spent months shopping for in-vehicle cameras, credit card swipers and GPS for his nine-vehicle fleet. He is looking for an integrated solution and has budgeted about $1,000 per month for everything from hardware to service charges, plus an additional one-time fee of $1,000 per vehicle for the equipment.
“The technology has to be easily scalable and should not become outdated for at least three to five years,” Quadri says.
Investing in Technology
As the third largest provider of chauffeured transportation in North America, BostonCoach has seen the recent industry boom as the perfect time to upgrade its technology platform, differentiate itself from its competitors and eat up market share. A groundbreaking new dispatching program called Focus was created for the company by IBM, taking feeds from weather stations, the FAA and traffic updates to match drivers to rides.
BostonCoach GroundControl, SM, a suite of online tools specifically designed to assist travel managers with management of their global ground transportation program, was also unveiled.
While BostonCoach will not disclose exact numbers, COO Bill Kavanagh admits his company’s technology expenditures reaches into seven figures – not counting the Cadillac sedans.
Efficiency and cost-reductions are key points for taking the leap into such a massive technological overhaul, but client satisfaction also weighed heavily on the company’s decision.
“We are able to deliver better on-time performance and give our passengers a better experience when they are riding with us,” Kavanagh says. “That’s valuable.” Cadillac’s OnStar Directions and Connections package includes directional assistance for drivers, airbag deployment notification and emergency roadside assistance. But, according to Kavanagh, the feature most often used is the onboard concierge service that guides clients traveling from out of town to make reservations at a restaurant while in transit from the airport.
For travel managers, BostonCoach’s GroundControl, found at www.bostoncoach.com, offers a real-time GDS booking script along with advanced reporting tools for tracking total spending, fare breakdown, spending by airport, spending by service area, top passenger listings and reservation channel usage. Travel managers can also develop customized reports to meet specific needs. “It allows them to manage compliance issues and scheduling and saves them money,” adds Kavanagh, who is still considering adding WiFi (wireless) capabilities into BostonCoach’s vehicles. This would allow clients to dramatically improve productivity by having wireless Internet access while traveling.
Unwire Your Office With WiFi
The conveniences long enjoyed when using cordless and wireless phones are now readily available and relatively inexpensive for Internet service at your office. With wireless networking, you no longer need to run yards of cable and drill holes through drywall to equip multiple computers with Internet access.
With a wireless router, networking cards and a primary broadband Internet source – such as cable or DSL – you can equip multiple computers with Internet capabilities. Most laptops and desktop computers come equipped with the cards these days, but if you have older computers, the total cost for the router and three cards is about $200. Like a cordless phone, the Internet service travels through most walls and floors, although metal structures may cause problems. A signal booster, which runs about $100, may be required in some cases. You may also want to consider looking into securing your connection, if you don’t want to broadcast your wireless signal out to anyone driving by your location.
While there’s no maximum number of computers that can be networked wirelessly, the optimum number ranges between two and 20. For larger businesses with many computer work stations, you may need to install a wireless access point every 150 feet.
By installing a networking card into a laptop, you can freely roam your facility or home office, accessing the Internet on different floors. The source may be in the basement, but you can enjoy wireless connectivity in a bedroom two floors up and on the other side of the house. You may even be able to access the Internet at an outdoor picnic table or on your front porch.
Once the card is installed on your laptop, you can access the Web wirelessly from a number of public “hot spots.” Hot spots are public areas where WiFi-equipped laptops can tap into wireless Internet access, often for free.
Some vehicles are also now being equipped with WiFi service, allowing chauffeurs to check flight times, directions and e-mail from their laptops or PDAs. Places that commonly install hot spots are airports, cafes, hotels and campuses. More hot spots are popping up all the time. To find one, go to WiFinder.com. In most cases, when you visit a location with a hot spot, you merely open your browser to connect to the service or you may need to activate an account.
Swipe to Save on Credit Card Fees
Another technology that can directly impact an operator’s bottom line is mobile credit card swiping. Operators can save between 40 percent and 60 percent off the processing fees they pay to credit card companies because a swiped transaction is considered more secure than one that is keyed in.
This is not always possible with large corporate accounts that do not want each individual rider pulling out a credit card for every trip, but savings can be significant nonetheless. There are dozens of companies that provide mobile terminals and others that offer service through existing wireless phones. As with any technology, it is important to shop around, sift through all available information and find out which one works best for you on a cost versus features basis.
One simple and relatively inexpensive product, called AirCharge, operates through existing wireless phones that support java-based applications.
The technology is provided by ePay Management in Mesa, Ariz., and comes with a variety of options. The first is a small swiping device that is attached to the phone, allowing operators to get point-of-sale approval codes that can be written on an existing invoice. Cost is $450.
A handful of hard-wired and battery-operated swipers that are connected to small thermal printers are also available, ranging in price from about $400 to $800. The cost includes per vehicle equipment and setup charges, but does not include the cost of the phone and various monthly charges.
With these devices, chauffeurs use a cable to attach their wireless phones to terminals that swipe cards and then print receipts and reports. The wireless gateway costs about $12 per month, plus 8 cents per transaction. According to ePay’s Dave Wilson, the cost for a swiped transaction is about 1.36 percent for check cards, 1.76 percent for standard consumer cards and 2.76 percent for cards that are keyed in, rather than swiped. The product’s latest feature, introduced in early 2004, prevents duplicate transactions from occurring.
Another company, Pay Junction in Santa Barbara, Calif., uses both wireless phones and PDAs as platforms for credit card entry technology. Services range in price from about $100 to $1,100 per unit.
For operators who rarely accept credit cards – and would therefore not benefit significantly from reduced rates for swiping – the company introduced a product this summer that allows operators to check transactions by wireless phone for about $100.
For operators seeking greater flexibility and features, the company writes software specifically for PDAs and offers a unit with WiFi adaptability. The Trio 600 can be outfitted with a swiper, printer and digital signature capture to perform real-time transactions through a Web interface for about $1,100, including the PDA.
The unit is built on an open platform and allows operators to e-mail, communicate and process credit cards, says Randy Modos, president of Pay Junction.
“You can use PALM OS software to add on features like sales force tracking or whatever else you want,” he adds.
Pay Junction’s EasySwipe WiFi-based credit card terminal uses a PalmOne Tungsten C WiFi unit to process credit card transactions in real time, anywhere within range of a hotspot. For about $750, or $75 per month for a lease, an operator also gets backup batteries for the unit, a thermal printer, magnetic card reader and software offering real-time credit card transactions, digital signature storage and transaction histories.
Advanced Mobile TV Technology
With the advent of satellite television, it is now possible to get clear reception on your in-vehicle TV screen, rather than just play videos, DVDs or games.
One example, the TracVision A5 from KVH Industries, includes a satellite receiver that mounts under a seat or in the trunk, plus a roof-mounting antenna that easily integrates with in-vehicle video systems. The MSRP is $2,295.
New Picture In Picture (PIP) and adjustable Split Screens from Clarion – the OHM102 (10.2-inch wide-screen monitor) and OHM153 (15.3-inch widescreen monitor) – allow users to simultaneously watch a television show or DVD and play a video game.
The units are equipped with dual IR audio outputs, so users can switch between two audio sources directly from the dual-channel wireless headphone included with each monitor. The overheads also come with a lightweight plastic housing, a built-in dome light and a universal metal mounting bracket, a wireless remote control, plus two audio/video inputs.
MSRP for the OHM102 is $1,000. The OHM153 costs about $1,500.
Protect Your Data
As convenient as wireless networking or WiFi has become, there are inherent security risks that can leave your sensitive data and trade secrets open to attack from both inside and outside the network. Wireless networks use radio waves that are easy for malicious intruders to intercept, tamper with or copy.
To protect data, businesses should install a personal firewall and antivirus software that’s updated regularly. Companies such as Symantec offer software packages that bundle these features together for single users and networks.
The next line of defense employs a sturdy security regimen to store and transmit sensitive data and customer information safely on a company’s servers. A wireless network can be protected in much the same way as a hard-wired one. There are several levels of security and they work best when used together.
The following are all components for securing your data. VPN: A virtual private network makes it more difficult for hackers to gain unauthorized access to data. It can also incorporate encryption and authentication technology to make data unreadable.
Encryption: Used to protect credit card and other high-security data, encryption technology scrambles information so it’s unreadable while being transmitted and then unscrambles it once it’s in a protected area. The strongest available encryption is 128-bit. The best systems automatically generate a key on a per-session basis, constantly changing them for better security.
Firewall: Firewalls monitor all traffic flowing into and out of a network, blocking potentially dangerous material. This helps prevent hackers from gaining access to your system and can heighten security by allowing you to designate which applications can access the Internet, stopping accidental transmission of sensitive data.
Firewalls are particularly important for high-speed Internet access, even with a hard-wired network.
DSL and cable offer what is called “always on” access because they allow users to turn on computers and instantly log onto the Internet without dialing through a phone line.
Even when a computer is asleep, an “always on” connection offers a 24-hour pipeline to the host computer when it’s not shut down. Ambitious hackers can use the pipeline to access financial and personal information, disable or destroy a computer’s operating system, or launch viruses or spam at other Internet accounts or networks.
Many small businesses opt for both software and hardware firewalls. Personal firewall software costs about $50 to $85. Small business firewall software packages offer protection for five to 10 computers for about $150 to $3,000.
Personal firewalls block unauthorized access to a computer system and its IP address. Business firewalls block all incoming and outgoing messages (such as computer viruses) that are unauthorized or that don’t meet specified security criteria.
Hardware firewalls start at approximately $60 and are built into the DSL or cable router. Nothing is foolproof. While hackers and viruses might still invade protected computers, the likelihood of infiltration is significantly reduced by firewall and anti-virus programs. Intrusion detection: This software alerts you to unwanted intrusions, informing you of possible holes in your network and should be used in conjunction with a firewall because it only alerts you to danger. It does not protect you from them. They often come bundled together.
Real-world security: One of the more serious threats to your information is the physical theft of a laptop or PDA. If a laptop is stolen, it is relatively easy for a hacker to gain access to your network if the computer is already connected. It is important to be proactive and institute a security policy that raises awareness of the dangers of theft and encourages employees to keep laptops and PDAs secured when not in use. A strict password policy may provide some security, but is by no means foolproof. Prevention is key in this line of defense.