Breaking Into Celebiz: the Super Bowl of Marketing

LCT Staff
Posted on September 1, 2004

How can you get your name out there so you can get the “celebiz” – the business that some lucky limousine company is sure to snap up?

Luck has nothing to do with it.

When it comes to hosting red carpet events, there’s no bigger authority than Cheryl Berkman of Music Express, based in Burbank, Calif., just a short hop, skip and jump away from Hollywood.

Music Express has been toting the famous and infamous to glitzy Hollywood affairs for 31 years. “It’s been a family-owned business since Day 1,” Berkman proudly says.

And you can bet that Music Express will be in the center of the limo action Sept. 17 at the Emmy Awards. “Absolutely,” says Berkman, who also heads up Music Express in New York City (“for way over 20 years now”), and has offices in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. (“for around two years”).

“Red Carpet” seems to be Berkman’s middle name. In the limousine business for most of her adult life, she took over the reins from her father, Harold Berkman, who died in 1997.

Berkman says, “We have always specialized in entertainment” and she can attest that there’s an art to chauffeuring the stars. “I would say that chauffeurs just need to be professional and be quiet and be on time. The same for all of our clients.”

According to Berkman, “Mostly how we get business is on our reputation. We do trade shows. We have a huge sales department. I have sales in all cities.” Another secret to her success: “ALL of our clients are VIPs.”

But Music Express is located in the Los Angeles area, home of the red carpet event. How do limo operators in other parts of the country – and out in the burbs – get into celebiz and into the special event marketing business?

Super Bowl Service in the Sunshine State

Web sites have long been booking the 2005 Super Bowl that kicks off Feb. 6 in Jacksonville, Fla.

According to Noel Dana, president of Dana’s Classic Limousine Service in Jacksonville, “We’ve been planning for the Super Bowl ever since we found out Super Bowl was coming here about four years ago.”

Dana says the NFL has to arrange transportation through local companies. “They say there’s going to be at least 900 limousines here. That’s the usual for Super Bowl.” He adds that Carey brought in about 150 vehicles for the Super Bowl in Houston, so there’s “a lot of business to go around. There’s going to be a lot of overflow.”

Dana acknowledges, “We’ll have more business than we can handle.” He prefers to farm out to companies within a 350-mile radius that will send drivers in advance to become familiar with the city.

He states, “The problems come from using out-of-town drivers that don’t know their way around. I’m the largest limousine operator in the city and the city never breathed a word to us about Super Bowl.” Dana says, “I’ve been in business 27 years and have a fleet of 30 vehicles, from buses, vans and Town Cars to limousines.”

His other high profile jobs come because of reputation. “We just got through with the G-8 Summit in Georgia” and he also handles the PGA’s annual TPC Golf Tournament, held locally.

“When I’m on vacation, I call local operators and you’d be surprised how many won’t be bothered with you,” says Dana, a member of the NLA since 1986. He’s seen a “big change in the quality of companies since I first started. The act has cleaned up a lot in the last 15 years.”

As for special treatment for VIPs, Dana replies, “Everybody’s a VIP!” And, he emphasizes, all his passengers are “treated like you’re driving the President of the United States.”

Miami is another sun-soaked city packed with mega-events and stars.

Carla Boroday, president of the Florida Livery Association and of Associated Limousine Services in Fort Lauderdale, says, “We’ve been in business such a long time that you usually get the repeat business. They tend to call the people they know. I think when the big events come, like Super Bowl for example, there’s just so much work for everyone.”

She states that most operators get requests during big events for farm-out work, but she’s very careful picking out her extra help. “My cars are clean and my drivers are in uniform. There are very few companies that I work with, because some won’t show up or have the high standards you do, or they try to steal your clients.”

Boroday’s client list includes “a lot of entertainers.” She also does cruise ship work, the Latin Music Awards and Super Bowls.

“We did the Super Bowl in 1999, went to Atlanta in 2000 and to Tampa in 2001. There was an ice storm in Atlanta during the Super Bowl, so I told my drivers to pretend they were driving in rain. What do they know about driving in snow?” She also plans to send vehicles to Jacksonville for the 2005 Super Bowl.

Sweet Home Alabama

Wayne Blanchard of Starlight Limousine Service in Scottsboro, Ala., states, “Believe it or not, the biggest special event for my area is actually Christmas lights and displays. Every year there are a few really large drive-through light and animated displays. What I generally do is advertise via radio (utilizing traded time), newspaper and I also pay a few high school teens to hand out fliers at Wal-Mart and at the local Christmas parade.”

Blanchard adds, “I generally set up my special as Sunday through Thursday up to four hours for $249 (this is less than my usual rate, but for the holiday season it keeps all of my cars going all week long). And I generally title it as chauffeur-driven Christmas Light Tours.

“Also, since we are only 5-1/2 hours from the Gulf of Mexico, and about 4-5 hours from the Mississippi casinos, I advertise daily rates to go to those locations. This rate usually is for a 24-48 hour run and the client must provide a room for the driver. As a general rule, once the client gets to these locations, the car usually sits for most of the time there – almost like a paid vacation for the chauffeur.”

According to Blanchard, “One thing I like to do on our daily rates is reduce it by $5 to make it sound better. Although there isn’t much difference, to the client, $695 sounds like a lot less than $700.”

He says, “As far as getting recommended for VIPs, once again the radio station and television station trade-outs are valuable. The radio stations are generally the ones that make most of the arrangements for the celebrities and their personnel. And the best part is, you are getting advertising time in exchange for this business-building job.”

Blanchard says other sources for celebiz are local promoters and entertainment companies, such as Clear Channel Communications.

“Remember when approaching these companies, if they already have some other limo service that does work for them, don’t try to tell them you are a better company. The best approach is to say ‘I’m sure they are doing a great job for you, but if there is ever a time that they don’t have a vehicle available for you, please allow us the opportunity to assist you.’ Then hand them a business card. This is a business based on elegance and class, and you want to reflect that through the way you do business.”

He adds, “When you get the celebrity clients, DO NOT act star struck. The last thing they want is an unprofessional driver that may be paying more attention to them than his driving. Professionalism is the key. Treat them the same way you treat the regulars. And do not try to talk them to death. This is a golden opportunity to shine for your company.”

Blanchard advises his drivers to “never ask the celeb for an autograph. The promoter can set this up for you, or even the tour manager. These people know how to approach this subject with the star, and you still show your professionalism to your client.”

As for providing extras for high profile clients, Blanchard says, “First we always put soft drinks and bottled water on ice for all clients. Diet and regular drinks are recommended. Also, if your celeb is a female, we always provide a half dozen long-stem roses directly to her and say ‘on behalf of Starlight Limousine Service, we would like to welcome you to Alabama.’ This is a small gesture that really gives your service points.”

Blanchard advises against saying, “ ‘If there’s anything you need, don’t hesitate to ask.’ Although this sounds good, I would recommend against it. These people have personnel for every need, and they are counting on you for one main thing – to drive.”

Putting the ‘O!’ in Omaha

Jodi Jones of Old Market Limousine Service in Omaha, Neb., says her biggest annual event is the Berkshire Hathaway Stockholders Meeting.

“Stockholders flock to Omaha several days prior to the event to witness and be a part of the Berkshire Hathaway presentation. We have provided exclusive shuttle service for this event since 1998, which draws over 17,000 attendees to Omaha. This annual event includes activities for the attendees over a five-day period prior to and after the actual meeting.”

Berkshire Hathaway’s CEO is Warren Buffett and one of its divisions is GEICO Insurance. Jones says Omaha is also known for the College World Series, concerts and charity events. “Most of our special event business has come from referrals from existing clients. Our professionalism and reputation have made us the ‘event specialists’ in town, and these jobs tend to literally fall in our laps.”

Her suggestions for a smooth ride include: “Making our staff readily available throughout the event shows our commitment to our clients. We schedule planning meetings with our staff prior to the event so everyone is aware of their responsibilities to ensure that their ground transportation runs smoothly. Having a detailed schedule leaves little doubt for confusion between parties.”

She adds, “Of course, Mr. Warren Buffett is a huge draw to companies when they are choosing a locale for their events. It seems everyone wants just a few minutes with Mr. Buffett and he is often a special guest at many of the events.

Also, Omaha is rejuvenating its downtown area and recently completed a beautiful new hotel, arena and convention center that in just a very short time has booked some very big names in entertainment and has enticed corporations into planning their events in the city. We have just been notified that the NCAA Men’s College Basketball Championship will be held in Omaha in 2008.”

Jones notes, “We also have a very good rapport with the private airports and have acquired celebrity business through their recommendations.”

As for VIP treatment: “Everyone who rides with us is a VIP and we stress this to all of our employees. Celebrities, CEOs and other well-known riders do require special attention and a company must be ready to accommodate special requests, provide additional service as needed and, more often than not, work under very demanding conditions. Our company tends to attract VIPs that are more interested in professional services with conservative vehicles, rather than the flash and glitz that comes with specialty vehicles.”

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