A Los Angeles operator explains why your luxury ground transportation must match the elite standards of private jets.
For operators who run both types of vehicles, the uniformed chauffeur/bus driver often is the first step to bridging the gap in customer service between the traditional limousine and charter bus industries. When the bus driver wears a uniform, then it becomes possible to say, “We are all chauffeured now.”
LCT recently talked to operators who straddle both markets to get their perspectives on how limo techniques can improve motorcoach operations and service.
No. 1: “UNIFORM” CUSTOMER SERVICE STYLE
How you dress is how you behave. For motorcoach operations, a uniform can be the beginning of upgraded customer service. Tom Arrighi, president of A&A Transportation of Bridgewater, Mass., operates a 100-vehicle fleet that includes one stretch limousine and four used motorcoach buses. Since Arrighi bought his first bus in 2000, he makes sure A&A bus drivers do the following: Wear a shirt and tie, show up a half-hour early, and take directions from a 24/7 dispatch service that always answers a call. “Some of the smaller motorcoach companies go to recordings and call back when they have time,” Arrighi says.
Attentive customer service builds a strong reputation over time, Arrighi says. “A lot more people have gone out to bid on motorcoach work and are looking for different vendors. We’ve picked up a lot of new business.”
Passengers don’t necessarily remember the make of the bus, the model year, or even the brand name. But they will talk about how they were treated.
“It’s all about customer service,” says Tom Holden, director of operations at Rose Chauffeured Transportation in Charlotte, N.C. “You take the experience as a professional chauffeur company and develop it for a different piece of equipment. Passengers don’t understand the brand; what they understand is the care given to them from the driver and chauffeur.”
Bus drivers need to be “chauffeurs” who are personable. Because drivers can spend all day with a group, they can add a lot to the customer experience. They must be trained well.
“A lot of motorcoach companies have truck driver type of guys,” says H.A. Thompson, owner and CEO or Rose Chauffeured Transportation. “They are not into finer service.”
“Most motorcoach drivers relate to the job they are doing,” Holden adds, but may not be personable with the passengers. “Some are not easily convinced to make additional stops if that’s what passengers are looking for.”
NO. 2: BOOST THE BACK END
One area that often lags in motorcoach operations is back-end customer service, says Bedford Wynne, CEO of Wynne Motorcoaches in Dallas, which runs 13 buses. “If there is a problem in the motorcoach world, you’re lucky to get a phone call apologizing for the problem,” Wynne says. “There’s not much customer appreciation. For years, there was a limited supply of motorcoaches. Now that’s changing in today’s marketplace. You have to get better or get left behind. Those not adapting proactive customer service are seeing market share diminish.”
NO. 3: A MINI-BUS LESSON FOR MOTORCOACHES
Operator Dan Goff of A. Goff Limo, based in Norfolk, Va., sees a lot of synergy between mini-buses and motorcoaches. He now runs 21 motorcoaches and 12 mini-buses in a 57-vehicle fleet. “A mini-bus is a great bridge between two companies,” Goff says. “Once you have a mini-bus you can go either way. Once customers are in mini-buses you can sell into larger motorcoaches and can accommodate smaller groups.”
Goff bought his first motorcoach in 2002. Goff has found that traditional motorcoach operators tend to look at the profit per run, and dismiss the potential of making money per hour, as is the case with shorter-run mini-buses.
“If you have a motorcoach going out for $900 per day, and you can send a mini-bus out at $140 per hour, it doesn’t take many hours for the mini-bus to be profitable,” Goff says. “Those lower dollar per ‘turnkey’ runs are wide open. If you offer that service in mini-buses, you can get a lot of contracts. We’ve been able to grow the mini-bus business just by taking it, but motorcoach [operators] are in a better position for it. But they ignore it.”
Goff sees potential in hourly motorcoach rentals, and the flexibility of mixing mini-buses and motorcoaches depending on a client’s timing and logistical demands.
“[Motorcoach operators] don’t look at lower dollar per run customers as profitable,” Goff says. “Those customers can be more [lucrative] than a high-dollar one if you can get more per day. They see that as bad money, but there is no bad money. It’s about developing customers that support the equipment.”
NO. 4: CUSTOMER SERVICE AND REFERRALS
Providing quality service for a bus full of happy customers can net added business for other vehicles in a fleet, courtesy of word of mouth. Columbus Coach Transportation, which operates seven buses in a diverse fleet based in Columbus, Ohio, sees business bubble up out of what it calls cross-vehicle referrals, says district manager Jim Dixon.
“With buses and large groups, we often get a lot of private runs with the sedans,” Dixon says. “That has increased just from doing the buses. They figure if we do this much for a group, it must be a lot better if they order a car for someone, go out to dinner, or go out to the airport.”
Columbus, which draws a strong corporate bus clientele from the city’s health care industry, also keeps in regular contact with its customers, whether for buses or sedans, Dixon says. “Once a month we send something out to them so that we keep our name out in front.”
NO. 5: DELUXE CHAUFFEUR/DRIVER TRAINING
Aventura Limousine and Bus Inc., doing business as A1 Luxury Coach, based near Miami, attributes its motorcoach success to the “philosophies of our limousine division,” says Ron Sorci, CFO of Aventura Worldwide Transportation, the parent company of A1. Aventura acquired its first motorcoach in 2002 and now operates 18 buses. Operators need to emphasize personal, extra service; new, state-of-the-art equipment. “In the bus industry, that’s not always done,” Sorci says.
“We’ve had training with our bus drivers to make them clearly understand that this is a high-end service,” Sorci says. Chauffeurs are trained for the level of service expected at a Ritz-Carlton or Four Seasons Hotel. “You must have the same level of high-end service and combination of personal service as in the limousine industry.”
Sorci says the motorcoach industry can be a grind. “We don’t treat it that way; buses were frowned upon as a lower-end service,” he says. “We operate on the premise that 60 people from a corporation on a motorcoach need the same service as in sedans and on mini-buses.” That has to be relayed to all employees, including reservation agents, dispatchers, and drivers.
Providing corporate style service means having meet-and-greet at airports, company signs, and plenty of amenities on the bus: DVDs, ice, soda, water, etc., Sorci says. “We treat groups in a very prestigious way.”
NO. 6: NOTHING WRONG WITH USED MOTORCOACHES
Rose Chauffeured Transportation of Charlotte, N.C. has a fleet of nine motorcoaches, including 6 57-passenger Van Hools and 3 49-passenger Van Hools. Rose opts to buy solid, top-grade used buses instead of buying new buses at $450,000 each.
Rose bought its first motorcoach in May 2008. “We were booking about 20 buses a month for our clients and using a local bus company,” owner H.A. Thompson recalls. “Just today we signed a bill of sale to buy our eighth and ninth coach. Most are used, refurbished in good condition and you have to have somebody who knows how to buy buses. The exteriors usually need to be repainted to cover up the old logos. We put in GPS, Wi-Fi, iPod and good DVD capabilities.”
Rose invested in Wi-Fi systems on its buses which provide enough bandwidth for 20 passengers to access the Internet at the same time. Rose buses also are equipped with GPS integrated into the company’s software. “Wherever the motorcoach is, we can see where and communicate with it,” says Tom Holden, director of operations at Rose.
No. 7: DON'T PRESS DOWN YOUR PRICES If an operator has strong, attentive service, then the prices and rates can reflect that, says George Jacobs, CEO of Windy City Limousine in Chicago. Windy City has seen some of its strongest growth in motorcoaches, and now operates 22 buses out of a fleet of 133 vehicles and plans to buy a company that has six more.
“You should not give away your rates,” Jacobs says. “You don’t lower yourself to get business. You should earn it through service.”
Operators only hurt their companies by losing money on a trip just to keep a bus running or appease a customer, Jacobs says. “We will walk away from something if it doesn’t make sense.”
No. 8: AMENITIES CAN BE A BARGAINING CHIP
California Wine Tours doesn’t offer complimentary beverages as in a stretch limousine, but they do make it an option, along with several food and beverage items such as coffee, muffins, cheese and fruit platters, and bottled waters. They are featured on the Napa, Calif.-based company’s web site. CEO Mike Marino says such optional amenities come in handy when trying to close a client deal without having to lower prices.
“We want to stay as profitable as possible,” Marino says. “If we want to book a run, and the client is on the fence, we can say, ‘Here is the pricing for the bus and as incentives we’ll throw in the water and the fruit and cheese platters.’ It’s a way to keep our prices up and incentivize the customers.”
California Wine Tours, which operates 28 motorcoaches, 35 shuttles, and 22 stretch limousines out of a total fleet of 129 vehicles, also offers onboard video, audio, DVD, and Wi-Fi in some buses. “Those are other things that can be thrown in,” Marino says.
NO 9: YOU ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR -- AND EARN WHAT YOU CHARGE
When Marino bought his first motorcoach in 1986 and a few small bus operations thereafter, he was appalled not only at the poor level of service and unkempt drivers, but with the low profit margins. To class up the service and save money on wages, Marino uses a two-tiered pay system for bus “chauffeurs,” paying a low hourly wage while charging a gratuity to the bus clients.
“We were by far the first limo and bus company to add a gratuity built in onto bus charters,” Marino says. “That had never been done in my area. The people we did business with had a hard time with it at first. Travel agencies and meeting planners thought it was craziest thing they’d heard of. But once they experienced the service, they were more than happy to pay for it."
Marino says most charter bus drivers make only $10 to $12 per hour, and if they do a good job, the passengers pass a hat around and give them a tip. “For me, I pay $8 per hour, but give you 18% of the hourly rate I charge for a bus.”
For example, if Marino charges $109 per hour for a bus charter, it will include an additional 18% gratuity that boosts the driver’s pay to $27.62 per hour ($8 per hour pay plus $19.62 per hour gratuity). “Only $8 is coming from me. By lowering the wage, it decreases the amount of workers comp paid on hourly wage.”
NO. 10: DOUBLE UP DRIVERS AND CONCIERGES
At California Wine Tours, all chauffeur-drivers are trained to be tour guides who know the details of the wine regions north of San Francisco, Marino says. Clients also have the option of requesting an onboard concierge or tour guide in addition to the driver.
“Sometimes a customer can request a driver and a tour guide to point out additional things,” Marino says. “So we have another driver board the bus, and be that guide. We don’t hire out tour guides. The drivers are actually tour guides.”
HOW WELL DO THE "LIMO WAYS" WORK?
Since Marino “groomed up” motorcoach service, he has noticed area motorcoach operators adopting some of his approaches. Says Marino: “I’ve seen them step it up a bit. There are motorcoach operators near us who have 10, 12 or 15 units, and when they see us go from one vehicle in 1986 to more than 100 in 2010, they tend to start trying to copy what our company does to be successful. About five years ago, their drivers started to wear shirts and ties and be more open to better service as well.”
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