NOV. LCT: What operators can learn about building a steady client base from a leading fleet vehicle seller.
Since the events of September 11, operators relying on airport work have had to deal with changes in security and safety procedures. While many companies have attempted to conduct business as usual and make their clients? travel experiences positive ones, the many airport-related obstacles have made this type of travel challenging for both the passenger and the chauffeur. Some operators have found it difficult to survive the many changes, yet others have been successful in brainstorming ways to tackle these changes and in building successful relationships with airport ground-side managers.
AIRPORT CHALLENGES According to the Airport Ground Transportation Association (AGTA), the worst decline in its membership came from limousine operators who cater primarily to upscale business travelers. The AGTA reports that of all ground transportation providers that service the airport, the limousine segment may still be off 40 percent or more.
Reggie Tymus, owner of Capital City Limousines in Washington, D.C., was regularly servicing three airports before September 11 ? Washington Dulles National Airport (IAD), Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) and Baltimore/Washington International Airport (BWI). After September 11, his business from DCA dropped off completely due to the fact that it was immediately closed down after September 11, and at present, there are no signs of it reopening anytime soon.
However, Ray Mundy, executive director of the AGTA, has seen an increase in ground transportation business at some airports. ?For our operators that provide ground transportation to airports where security measures prevent private automobiles from going to the curb, business may actually be much better than expected,? Mundy says. ?As airports make it more difficult for private cars to have access due to specific known threats to that airport, our operators have been able to actually gain ground transportation market share.?
CUSTOMERS ADAPTING Tymus says that although his chauffeurs now must meet clients at the baggage claim area instead of the gate, he has found that most of his customers are adapting to the changes. ?It takes a little bit of the luxury aspect away from our business, because we normally go all the way to the gate,? he says. ?But I find that passengers are extremely understanding and they realize that meeting at baggage is just how it?s done now. And they understand that it?s not our call.?
Tymus says that one positive aspect of the changed security measures is that he finds his clients are almost always on time now, because they know they have to be at the airport ahead of time. ?We don?t even have to educate them on the overall changes, because when they see the security there, they know why,? he says. ?I think they?re adapting to the changes.?
SECURITY MEASURES ENFORCED Security changes have impacted limousine parking at Dulles and BWI. ?We now park farther away from the airport,? Tymus explains. ?Either we have an airport representative who calls the chauffeur directly, or the chauffeur has to park the vehicle, make contact with the client at baggage claim, and then run back to the limousine after giving the client instructions on where to meet him.?
The AGTA found that at most airports nationwide, there have been changes in limousine parking that have eliminated the nearby vehicle parking spaces. ?Most operators must either park in difficult-to-find parking areas since the parking space close to the terminal has been restricted, or they must use a greeter inside the terminal to meet their clientele,? Mundy says. ?For smaller operators, this has been a severe problem.?
David Schovajsa, CEO of Corporate Houston Car Service in Houston, agrees with the AGTA?s findings. ?The new security measures have caused a hindrance because we can no longer provide full service to the client in terms of being able to meet them,? Schovajsa says. ?We can?t enter the terminal at all unless we have a driver and a rider, so that the driver can stand by the car and the second person can go in.?
According to Schovajsa, an airport can request a relaxation in rules from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). ?At William P. Hobby Airport (HOU), after September 11 and the stricter security rules were put into effect, the vehicles in the limousine parking area were given a visual inspection by airport personnel,? Schovajsa says. ?After that inspection, the chauffeur could go inside to the baggage terminal, not to the gate, but at least to the baggage claim area and greet the client, help with the luggage and escort him or her out to the car. Now with the recent stricter regulations, that has been eliminated and chauffeurs can no longer enter the terminal.?
Schovajsa adds that at both Hobby and George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH), also in Houston, the chauffeur is required to park the limousine in a designated parking area, which is located close enough to the terminal when the chauffeur is able to escort the client from the terminal to the vehicle.
?However, there can be some confusion when the passenger has to determine where the parking area is by himself,? Schovajsa says. The terminal markings tend to be grouped together, and clients generally don?t know where to look. ?We try to send out written instructions ahead of time,? Schovajsa explains. ?Get your bags, go out a particular exit, cross a few driving lanes, and you?ll find your chauffeur alongside that curb with your name on a sign.?
Although Schovajsa says that most of his clients do seem to understand the need for these new security procedures, he fears that some become frustrated and take the easy way out and grab a taxi.
BUILDING AIRPORT RELATIONSHIPS At Chicago O?Hare International Airport (ORD), there weren?t changes in security measures after September 11 so much as an enforcement of existing policies. ?We?ve always had zero dwell time on the curb,? says Marcos Fernandez, general manager of ground transportation at O?Hare. ?It just wasn?t as vigorously enforced as it is now. But we also take into consideration that by enforcing this to the highest degree, it makes it harder for the companies to be able to pick up passengers, especially when they have had such hard times.?
However, one benefit of the enforced rules and monitoring of operator certification is the increased crackdown on gypsy operators. ?When we get lulls like this in business, everybody?s hurting ? regular legitimate drivers and gypsy operators,? Fernandez says. ?Now these hustlers are really preying on legitimate operators. We?re out there even more and going after those gypsy operators.?
Fernandez says that while his ground transportation department continues to have security concerns, the department is also conscious of the business aspect and the importance of having the limousine waiting outside when the customer exits the airport terminal. ?We try to enforce the rules but still be a little lenient because we know they need to pick up their customers.?
This awareness of operators? needs is a result of regular, well-attended ground transportation task force meetings and open communication. ?We?ve always done this ? it?s nothing new,? Fernandez says. ?There?s nothing like getting information firsthand from companies that are hurting. It?s a different aspect of the issues, and the regular communication really works.?
Fernandez says that a regular ground transportation task force meeting was set for September 12. Instead, on that day, he found his office flooded with phone calls from concerned operators. ?We got phone calls from people saying, ?If you get a chance, let us know what?s going on. We know you?re having a rough time ? give us a call if there?s anything we can do.? It was a nice thing that happened, and it?s great to have that kind of relationship between the airport and the drivers, which, I think, is almost a nonexistent thing for most airports. The airports have this type of relationship with the airlines; why not have it with the drivers and the companies that are going to get your passengers out? Their passengers are our passengers. We want to make the transition from the airport to the vehicle as easy as possible.?
FUTURE SOLUTIONS Several large limousine companies currently post personnel inside the airport terminals to guide passengers to the exit and show them where to meet their chauffeur. However, this may not be an option for the smaller operator whose resources are challenged in today?s marketplace. Schovajsa says that another option currently being considered in his area is getting several companies to pool resources to establish a limousine kiosk inside the airport terminal. When a passenger arrives looking for a limousine, the kiosk attendant would simply direct him or her to the correct parking area.
?This would be for all companies,? Schovajsa says. ?The airport is willing to create space for this to happen, but we haven?t gotten down to nailing what the rental fee would be and what it would take to pay someone inside the kiosk all day.? He adds that it wouldn?t be fair to ask the larger companies to bear the entire cost, and conversely, this could result in a financial burden on a smaller operator, particularly now when so many are affected by reduced business.
The AGTA is in the process of doing additional research into the effects of increased security procedures at nationwide airports. According to Mundy, the AGTA is compiling a curbside security study that will shed light on which airports have imposed stricter regulations.
?Generally, the problem of not permitting commercial vehicles to park at the curb and wait for passengers has been among our most difficult issues to address,? Mundy says. ?We are hoping to use a new technology such as Automatic Vehicle Detection (AVI), facial, fingerprint or eye scans to connect drivers to vehicles and ensure that both the vehicle and the driver are who they say they are while at the curb.?
The end result of increased security airport measures means operators must take creative steps toward generating and keeping business. ?It takes a little bit of creative marketing and business development to work around this,? Schovajsa says. ?That?s part of what we?re trying to do in our association ? help operators use a little creative thinking when dealing with airports.?
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