BusBank's acquisition of Buster expands the range of meetings, events, and group motorcoach and minibus business, especially for smaller fleet companies.
Major events such as fund-raisers, weddings, corporate functions, and even key celebrity events can be a gold mine for any operator. Handling the transportation for these functions can be both profitable and a stepping stone to future high profit business.
However, getting one’s foot in the door with event planners can be difficult. How do you approach an event planner? What do the event planners expect from you and your staff? How can you secure future business from an event planner and earn customer loyalty?
Many event and wedding planners seem to believe that the limousine industry is unreliable and unorganized. This belief comes from a number of disappointments and horror stories about the limousine that didn’t show up, the chauffeur who should have showered before the event, the car that drove up on the wrong day, and similar situations.
Yet even with all of these negative images, many event planners have found at least one company that proved all limousine services are not alike. They have shared their views as to what they look for in a limousine company and why. Here is an opportunity to learn how to impress growing client base.
HOW DO EVENT PLANNERS VIEW US?
The best way to improve any relationship is to know where that relationship stands and where its troubled spots lay. LCT recently sent out a mini-survey to event planners from around the country. Here are the results from 42 respondents:
1. Overall performance How would rate the overall performance of the limousine and chauffeured transportation industry?
Excellent . . . 11%
Good . . . 14%
Average . . . 37%
Poor . . . 22%
Very Poor . . . 16%
2. How would you rate the industry’s professionalism?
Excellent . . . 8%
Good . . . 34%
Average . . . 29%
Poor . . . 19% 5
Very Poor . . . 10%
3. How would you rate the cleanliness/condition of the vehicles?
Excellent . . . 39%
Good . . . 27%
Average . . . 20%
Poor . . . 12%
Very Poor . . . 2%
4. How would you rate the industry’s communication abilities?
Excellent . . . 0%
Good . . . 6%
Average . . . 29%
Poor . . . 47%
Very Poor . . . 18%
5.How would you rate the on-time performance of the industry?
Excellent . . . 22%
Good . . . 37%
Average . . . 29%
Poor . . . 11%
Very Poor . . . 1%
When asked to describe the industry in just one word, here are a few of the remarks:
• Bad comments: chaos, problematic, unresponsive, unprofessional, procrastinators, and uncommunicative.
• Good comments: elegant, diverse, polite, and helpful. The event planners were also asked for one piece of advice to help limousine operators create a better working relationship with them.
Here are a few of their suggestions:
• Improve lines of communication.
• Tell chauffeurs not to eat or smoke during event — either outside or inside the vehicle. The vehicle should never smell like cigarettes or food!
• Go over itinerary with coordinator and then review with chauffeur. If there are any questions or concerns, you should call and ask. Never assume.
• Provide cell numbers for key limousine personnel and chauffeurs at least two days before event.
• Have stronger communication with event planners. Don’t just wait for them to call.
• Create standard protocols for events — don’t just “wing it.”
• If there’s a problem, let us know right away.
• Don’t just farm us out to another company, ask for permission first.
SUMMARY: The limousine industry scored high marks on vehicle condition and on-time performance, but didn’t fare as well on professionalism and overall performance. When it came to communication, most of the event planners rated the industry either poor or very poor.
Another noticeable aspect is that most of the bad marks come from larger cities, while most of the good come from smaller communities. This may coincide with the higher amount of unlicensed gypsy operators in these areas, although that is only speculation. Some of the event planners also provided a few stories to emphasize their points, such as the vehicle that showed a day late, the chauffeur who smoked in front of a bride allergic to cigarette smoke and put her in the hospital, and the chauffeur who made unwanted advances toward a guest’s wife.
Such situations could easily be avoided if certain protocols and rules of conduct are established. Creating a set of guidelines that contain certain policies and checklists can help your company forge some lucrative business relationships.
INTRODUCING YOURSELF AND YOUR COMPANY
First impressions are always important. People generally formulate their opinion of you within the first few minutes of a conversation or contact. When you represent your company, you must give a positive first impression. When contacting an event planner, be aware of what the planner considers important and how he or she prefers to be contacted.
“We generally choose our limousine companies from previous experiences,” says Lauri Taylor, president of Marquee Events in Woodland Hills, Calif. “We look for the company that has served us well and keep using them.” Of course there have been times when those companies were booked and she had to look elsewhere. The first place she looked was in a file of companies who have reached out to introduce themselves. “If these companies took the time and had the consideration to contact me in a professional manner, then I will have the consideration to talk with them.”
The best way to introduce your company is through an e-mail or professional company post card. “I am very busy and my phone is always ringing,” Taylor says. “I really can’t afford to have potential vendors calling me to get my business.” She adds that the courtesy of knowing this situation goes a long way.
She also says that the e-mail should be short with an introduction, a brief description of the company, and a link to the company’s website. Always finish the message with a cordial exit such as “Best Regards” or “Sincerely” and your name, title, company name, and contact information.
Once the introduction is made, how can you keep her attention?
• A professional website
• Answer the phone professionally: Give a professional greeting with the company name not just “hello” or “limo service.”
• Professional environment: No children yelling in background or dogs barking. Prefers company to be in an office or other professional setting.
• Knows the vehicles, services, and prices
• Courtesy: Wants the person to sound like he or she wants the business.
There’s also another considerate way to introduce your company, says Gavin Keilly, president of GBK Productions in L.A. “I have had limousine companies that have offered to pick me up and take me to the airport or to lunch to show me what type of service they have. To me, that shows that they are not only wanting my business, but are also confident in their service.” He adds that a little consideration goes a long way.
AN OPERATOR’S ADVICE
Kristen Vasserot, president of QLS Limousine located in Attleboro, Mass., is no stranger to event and wedding planners. In fact, she handles transportation for events such as speaking engagements for athletes, celebrity autograph signings, weddings, and more. With the various jobs she has done and the types of event planners she has dealt with, she has learned ways to handle these events. “There are certain things you can do to make things go easier,” she said. “There are also things a company owner should know to remain profitable.”
DON’T SELL YOURSELF SHORT
Each event is a stand-alone situation. It varies between the types of vehicles, type of service, extra staff required, and extra amenities requested. “The needs and desires of each client are different,” she says. “It’s very difficult to create uniform pricing within these parameters.” She meets with the event coordinator to determine what the needs, wants, and alternatives for each event are. She then creates a proposal to present to the client. “Some people just want people moved around, which would require a shuttle van,” she adds. “Others may require the higher end types of service which call for limousines and luxury sedans.”
Operators may be tempted to discount their rates for larger volumes of vehicles. Vasserot doesn’t believe that is a good strategy. Although an event coordinator may come in and try to negotiate a cheaper price due to their use of extra vehicles, you need to stick to your pricing. “What I tell them is ‘Yes, you may be using a lot of vehicles, but your two-day event also requires more than just those vehicles and chauffeurs,’” she says. “For those two days, we are going to have to have extra personnel on hand on a 24-hour basis to take care of any situations that may arise. Whether it is scheduling problems, changes in flight times, mechanical problems, or any other situation, personnel need to be available at a moment’s notice.” She adds that without this set-up, the client can’t get the full service that is needed and wanted.
SAFEGUARDS TO ENSURE THINGS GO SMOOTHLY
Communication is the main issue in any business. It’s even more important when you are combining vendors from different industries at one function. Most event planners have their phones on a 24/7 basis when an event is going on or near. “However, some of them don’t and they don’t realize that we are a 24-hour business,” she says. “They also don’t realize that many things can happen during those off hours.” She adds that things can happen and that people can change their minds, plans, or arrangements and everyone needs to be within communication range during all hours. “The clients need to have someone to go to when things change.”
Vasserot believes that it is also important to educate the event planners and clients as to what our industry does. “Most of these people think that all we do is move people around,” says Vasserot. “Our business and procedures are so much more than that and we need to educate them about these things.” This shows the client why the price is what it is. “They need to know that our business is complex and that our services extend far more than just shuttling people back and forth.”
The third safeguard toward catering to the event planning industry is preparation. Knowing what to expect and how to handle it is paramount.
“You must also realize that servicing corporate events, weddings, and celebrity events is different and must be handled accordingly,” says Vasserot. “With weddings, for example, it’s the bride and groom that are the main focus.” She says that you must rely on the event planner’s knowledge of the event, clients, and schedule to perform at your best. “Every event will have things that are typical of other events, but others that are completely unique. You should never take anything for granted. Find out every detail and prepare for it the best you can.”
This is another important part of handling event planner business. “Every event coordinator likes to see that you have all your ducks in a row,” she says. “They want to see that you are organized and can handle everything that’s handed to you.” Always write down everything an event planner tells you. Take exceptional notes. Once you have organized these notes into their proper order, you can then ask any questions you have on the event.
PRICING YOUR SERVICES
When setting up your pricing, keep in mind how other local companies are charging. “You can price yourself out of business or cheat yourself if you go against the grain,” says Beaird. “When the pricing is a uniform part of the equation, customers will look to service to determine their provider.”
There are several types of pricing:
• Percentage: This is where you charge 10-25% over an established budget.
• Hourly: set up an hourly charge for your service added to the budgeted price. Beaird suggests this approach since limousine companies are used to hourly charging.
• Pre-determined Amount: this is similar to the hourly except you and the client agree upon a price before the event takes place. The price stays the same whether the event is longer or shorter than expected.
• Fee Pricing: this approach uses preset fees on all services and the client is charged according to each service chosen.
COMMUNICATION: THE QUICKEST WAY TO AN EVENT PLANNER’S HEART
The event planners’ biggest pet peeve in our industry is the lack of communication, Keilly says. “An event of any size takes constant communication,” he says. “For some reason, many limousine operators don’t get it.” He adds that when any coordinator is managing clients, guests, and a multitude of vendors, he wants to know what is going on with every one of them at all times. Keilly suggests that limousine companies create a system of communication protocols to ensure a smooth event:
• Call to check in with the event planner: Call least two weeks before the event, then two one day, and finally, when the chauffeur is en route.
• Provide all contact numbers: These numbers would be for the chauffeur, dispatcher, any other person who would handle the transportation directions.
• Get all phone numbers: This covers all numbers of the event planner, assistants planner, and any of the clients that event coordinator thinks your chauffeur need.
• Create a chauffeur itinerary: This would include all aspects of the event’s transportation and chauffeur’s responsibilities. It should be ordered according to the day’s events and typed out in a large font, in a neat fashion.
• Ask questions: If you have any doubts or don’t know something — ask.
• Make immediate contact: Upon arrival to the event, the chauffeur should immediately let the coordinator know that the vehicle has arrived and double check to be sure it is parked in the correct location and manner.
• Check with event planner before leaving the event: When the event is finished, be sure all transportation is complete before leaving. This can earn your company extra points with them. Keilly also mentions that if there is a problem with the schedule, the chauffeur, or the vehicle at any time before or during the event, you should contact the operator right away. “If you let me know what happened and what’s being done about the situation, it shows me that you care about my event and my client.”
CREATING YOUR OWN EVENT PLANNING SERVICE
Operators across the country have created ancillary businesses which share a symbiotic relationship with the parent company. Detail shops, repair shops, concierge services, bus companies, and fuel stations are just a few of the business types.
Since your company caters to all of these businesses, it makes them perfect to supplement your income. However, there is another business that can produce a high revenue stream while enhancing your company’s competitive edge — event planning.
Since most events require transportation services, they contribute to a perfect sideline business. Not to mention, event planning itself is a very lucrative business. Bruce Beaird, who owns Talk of the Town in Scottsboro, Ala., has been an event planner for nearly 25 years. He has coordinated major events from New York to Los Angeles and has hosted more than 9,000 people at a time. “Creating an event planning service is not difficult,” he says. “You just need to start off with one type of market and go from there.” Beaird recommends starting with only one market segment until you gain experience. There are four main types of events you would be looking at:
Retail event planning is a very large source of income for event planning. Although the scope of each event is generally smaller than the corporate market, there are generally far more events available. These events include: weddings, children’s parties, birthday celebrations, reunions, graduations, and other social events. Although these types of events are generally a one-time-deal, they often tend to generate much word-of-mouth buzz.
The corporate market includes company outings, conferences and seminars, trade show events and exhibitions, award dinners, board member or stockholder meetings, product launches, and more. These events are more complex and require research. They can include creating an event design, food selection, catering, venue selection, hotel selections and reservations, transportation, site supervision, and conducting evaluations of the event. Corporate clients demand high expectations in terms of quality and creativity, as well as flawless execution.
Charities and non-profit organizations often hold events for fundraising. These events are not as profitable as other forms of events, but can be great for training.
LOCAL AND REGIONAL EVENTS
The “more difficult” events are the regional or local events, such as outdoor concert events, which require a working knowledge of the music and entertainment industries. Although these types of events can be highly profitable, they can also be your “biggest nightmare.” Beaird recommends avoiding these events until you have several years of experience.
WHAT YOU WILL NEED?
As with most businesses, you will need to form many strategic alliances. “You’ll need to affiliate yourself with many different types of vendors,” says Beaird. “I would also recommend you have at least four of each that you can deal with in case the others get busy.” These types of services include:
• Entertainment: DJs, musicians, magicians, comedians, and any other form of entertainment
• Professional speakers
• Portable restrooms
• Tent and party suppliers
• Portable stage providers
• Staffing companies
• Affiliate transportation companies: Some events may require more or different types of vehicles than your company has.
The rest of the company’s set up is very close to the set up of your limousine service. From scheduling and oversight to marketing and licensing, the concept is the same. Once you have your new business segment up and running, Beaird says you can literally watch the revenue grow for both of your businesses.
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