The fight not only pits new ways against old, it also reveals modern-day ruptures in the labor market.
For the luxury transportation industry, opportunity is about to come knocking. If you’ve done your job correctly, leads for prom and wedding jobs should come raining down on your company during the next few months like a heavy spring shower.
Whether you strategically place ads in print or on the Internet, launch a direct mail campaign, network with other vendors, or simply hit the street with a good sales pitch and a strong promotional piece in hand, the key is to not just sit in your office waiting to field calls that will inevitably begin and end with the question, “How much do you charge?”
The Power of Information
The size of your company, the population of your town, the makeup of your fleet and a dozen other details will influence how and where you should spend your marketing dollars.
Information is power, so gather as much of it as possible about your target audience. This will help you prepare the materials you’ll need to carry out the job of bringing in business.
Even before the weather has started to warm and students have begun to seriously consider their prom plans, Gary Day, owner of American Limousines in Baltimore, MD, has already started thinking of ways to get his message out. He develops packages, initiates a marketing program, finds out prom schedules and examines the latest trends.
Each year, Day sends his chauffeurs out in his nicest limousines to local high schools, armed with business cards and marketing materials promoting his services. His chauffeurs are directed to pull up in front of the schools about 20 minutes before classes let out, open the sun roof, put the windows down and stand in front of their limousines to answer any questions. The rush of curious kids find business cards inserted into the roof lip above the trunk so the kids can just take one if the chauffeur is busy talking to someone else.
“I don’t believe in letting the kids climb into your cars … they have to pay to do that,” explains Day. “It causes wear and tear on your carpet and leather, and opens you up to all sorts of problems. Of course, it doesn’t hurt for them to look in the windows. We just keep the doors closed.”
If you operate in a smaller town, Day recommends advertising in school newspapers a couple months prior prom season, “Although in Baltimore you would go broke because there are too many schools to choose from. And once you advertise in one, the other ones hound you.”
Instead, Day sends out direct mail pieces and creates marketing materials that invite kids and their parents down to his facility to see the rest of his fleet during “showcase hours.” This gives the kids a chance to get a better look at their options and offers Day the opportunity to let people know he’s not just a prom and wedding company.
With a fleet that consists of everything from sedans, limousines and vans to minibuses, school buses and trolleys, he can’t count how many times he’s picked up addition work, “because the parents are business executives or end up needing a ride to the airport.”
A Little Intelligence Work
For Gary Olson, owner of Silver West Executive Transportation Services of Dallas/Ft. Worth, prom jobs are easy to come by, at least on peak dates. He’s able to scoop up as much as he can possibly handle on certain weekends, so instead of concentrating on days when every available limousine will be booked up from every company within a 50-mile radius, he looks for “off nights.”
“We make sure we get prom schedules from all the schools in our area, particularly the private schools,” he explains. “Private school families are typically more affluent and sometimes schedule their proms on odd days, making them a better target. If I find a date that’s different from the other schools, like a Tuesday night or something, I’ll send a car over to that school and get permission to put up a poster.”
To capture wedding work, Olson sometimes attends bridal shows and puts a lot of effort into networking with other vendors that serve the wedding industry, including country clubs, photographers, catering halls and formal wear shops. Sharing information and jobs with these other vendors affords him opportunities his local competitors can only wish for.
“When we want to establish a relationship with a country club, we’ll just pull up in front with a new vehicle and try to set up an appointment with whoever is in charge,” says Olson. “Even if we can’t make [an appointment] on the spot, people will gather around, particularly if it’s one of our more exotic vehicles.”
Smart Pricing Practices
Gouging your customers is never a wise practice in the long run and initially setting your prices too high will often scare away good prospects for good after that stream of initial inquiries. However, Day believes there’s nothing wrong with establishing hourly pricing that’s slightly higher on the busiest nights of the prom season.
Like Olson, Day finds out all the prom dates in his area, giving him insight into which nights every car in town is likely to be booked. On those nights, he sets his rates approximately 10 percent higher than normal.
“You need to make the most of the busy season, it’s not a matter of gouging,” notes Day, who believes that 50 percent higher than standard prices is gouging while 10 percent is just smart business.
“Do your research. Get a list of prom dates and adjust your rates accordingly. If certain dates are heavy, you can charge more per hour. Use your straight rate if a prom is on an off night. If you just bump up your prices across the board at the start of the season you can lose a lot of leads. Teens price shop and once they hear a high rate they simply won’t call back.”
One of the quickest and easiest means of getting local prom dates is through Prom Guide, a magazine based in Jericho, N.Y., that reportedly reaches one million teens at 5,000 high schools in 20 major markets across the nation with information about flowers, formal wear, restaurants, limos and more.
Prom Guide supplies its participating vendors with lists of prom dates, a practice that has enabled operators to set their prices accordingly.
“We have helped change the whole price dynamic in the Northeast,” notes Garfield Bowen, Prom Guide’s owner.
The magazine’s website, www.promguide.com, which once just supported the magazine, is now one of the most visited sites among promgoers nationally. Recently, Bowen forged a partnership with Internet giant AOL-Time Warner, making promguide.com AOL’s primary search engine for prom-bound teens.
“This not only will benefit our advertisers, it will strengthen the prom market in general,” says Bowen. “Prom Guide’s partnership with AOL will allow thousands of prom-bound teens to reach our vendors’ websites in three clicks from AOL. We encourage every operator to sign up absolutely free for a listing that will include their name, number, and hyperlink.”
Finding Retail Through Corporate
Although the bulk of his business is currently corporate work, Michael Zappone’s roots are firmly established in retail. In fact, before renaming his company the All Transportation Network, it was called Affordable Luxury Limousine.
Even as he has transitioned away from social work into a progressive operation with mostly black vehicles and three regional offices throughout New York and Connecticut, he has continued to offer special “Prom and Romance Packages,” as well as a “Red Carpet Wedding Service.”
These days, Zappone primarily markets his social services to his corporate clients, but “stays in the game to make the most of seasonal booms.” He maintaines a dedicated section of his website, www.alltransnet.com, to promoting luxury limousine work.
In his quarterly newsletter and through a direct mail postcard he sends out, Zappone writes, “We know that executives have daughters who get married and sons who attend proms. Why call a stranger? Call a company you can trust to make sure your special day is perfect. We’re professionally trained and fully equipped to handle all your luxury transportation needs.”
To avoid the types of jobs that can be damaging to his vehicles, Zappone has drafted extensive contracts that let people know they will be liable for damages if they get sick or break anything.
He has also set up rules to protect himself. For example, “We won’t send cars out after a certain time at night, which weeds out a lot of the nonsense you get from drunk people who just want to keep partying after the bars close down,” says Zappone, who points out that if an important client has had too much to drink and is in need of a ride, All Transportation is never too busy to send a vehicle.
“Most of our social marketing is geared toward romance and couples, because you don’t see those kinds of problems,” he notes.
Even though retail jobs often pay far better than the average airport run, Zappone always puts his year-round corporate clients first. He will not overbook his vehicles at the expense of leaving his regular clients out in the cold.
To make the most of prom season and keep his staff focused on what’s important as that massive volley of calls from prom price shoppers comes in, Zappone changes the message on his automated phone attendant to screen calls and keep teens updated on sold out dates. “This is not only helpful for teens, who tend to do a good deal of price shopping, it frees up our phone staff for calls from people who are actually ready to book.”
For years, many ground transportation providers have scoffed at prom and wedding work, focusing their efforts entirely on corporations. But as the business travel industry continues to suffer tightening corporate belts, operators who once thought prom jobs were behind – or beneath –them are seeking out these opportunities and making their phones ring.
In the luxury transportation industry, there is no denying that a bridge exists between corporate and retail work. In our current down economy, why not use that bridge to drive much needed profits to your company?
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