Commentary: Jeff Rose, president of Limousine Association of New York, explains how the permit cap ignores vital for-hire differences.
Business travel spending shows signs of recovery as the Global Business Travel Association forecasts an estimated $244.59 billion and $263.53 billion to be spent on business travel in 2011 and 2012, respectively — a boon for operators craving a revenue injection. To succeed in this market, operators must convey to clients that they have the appropriate equipment, people, and attitude to professionally manage groups of all sizes and needs.
“It all starts by informing your clients that you’re available for group work — not just the transportation aspect of it, but also the coordination and management of the entire process,” says Danny Bacher, CEO of Atlanta-based Topper Worldwide. “Let them know it’s a regular part of your business that you know how to handle.”
Make It Easy
Scott Riccio, President of Northeast Charter and Tour of Lewiston, Maine, says that meeting planners want to make transportation one less thing to worry about. “If you can accommodate their needs 101%, then you’ll build a good relationship with the clientele that will refer you to other clients when they come to your city,” he says.
Value, Not Price
“It’s definitely difficult to compete with bus companies [that] offer lower prices,” says Bacher, “so you need salespeople who can verbalize the benefits of your service. Assure clients that the coordinators will be your coordinators, you’ll have an on-site point of contact, and you can handle the manifest and confirmations in a group report. Let them know what they’re actually getting for that additional cost.”
H.A. Thompson, President of Charlotte, N.C.-based Rose Chauffeured Transportation, adds that clients ultimately are buying value. “It’s just not bus to bus to bus, price to price to price,” he says. “Prove to clients that because they’re paying more, they’re getting a better product. Let them know that you have $10 million in insurance, a DOT rating, safety records, chauffeur training courses. Send out client testimonials to show your positive track record.”
Some operators may slash prices to compete with other companies, but Sami Elotmani, operations manager at Destination MCO of Orlando, Fla., advises against it. “There is nothing more permanent than a temporary discount. It bleeds your company’s revenue slowly and dilutes your company’s value over time.”
The Right People
Meeting planners are looking for like-minded professionals and expect to be dealing with experts. Reservationists should be courteous and able to answer clients’ questions. Salespeople must know how to articulate the advantages of your service and sell around competitors’ lower prices. Coordination managers need enough experience so they can readily eliminate any burden on the client.
“One of the biggest challenges of foraying into the corporate market is training your people to handle it,” Elotmani says. “At the office, you must have competent people with the right skill set (multi-tasking, communication, crisis management, stress tolerance, etc.) dealing with your corporate/meeting planners. On the road, your chauffeurs must be able to wear different hats, tolerate stress, and anticipate the ever-changing needs of your client and the passengers alike.”
Joe Bryan, national network and media manager of BEST Transportation of St. Louis, Mo., says he’ll often go to the airport along with greeters to meet clients and make them feel more comfortable. “We dispatch vehicles through the airport instead of from the office, because having me on the ground knowing the vehicles we need at the time is better than having dispatch send them. I can get a quicker response if I get the driver direct from the airport. On-site coordination makes [the process] more efficient and also makes for better service because you’re able to get clients in and out quicker,” Bryan says.
Most importantly, chauffeurs should embody the values and professionalism of your company, since they are going to be the main source of contact with clients. “You need to provide clean, safe and reliable vehicles driven by chauffeurs who are professionally trained, groomed and knowledgeable about the routes and roads of the region,” Riccio says. A good chauffeur will know the client’s itinerary ahead of time and be able to suggest dining and entertainment options since it is likely that visiting clients won’t know the area.
The Art of Service
One advantage chauffeured transportation providers have when competing with traditional bus companies for group work is their expertise in the art of service. H.A. Thompson says the reason he bought his own motorcoaches was because the company to whom he farmed out work gave clients “crappy service” and had rude, lousy drivers. “The secret to our business success basically amounts to driver performance,” Thompson says. When clients send their positive comments and testimonials, they never mention the vehicle, he says. “It’s always about things the driver did.”
Minibuses and motorcoaches work out for most groups, but some may prefer SUVs or vans, depending on their tastes and budgets. Offering diverse options displays an operator’s ability to understand the varied expectations of clients. If you do not have a particular vehicle that is requested, farm out the work to a trusted affiliate to show the client that you are willing and capable of handling their business. If you notice consistent demand for a vehicle you don’t own, then maybe it’s time to invest in one.
“One thing that’s a big deal with the convention market, and that clients really like, is that we are the one-stop-shop for everything they need from Town Cars to motorcoaches,” Bryan says.
Networks and Connections
“Our biggest asset when it comes to working with business meetings and conventions is our hotel relationships,” Bryan says. “Hotels work with us based on our reputation and service. They are our number one driver of revenue when it comes to business meetings.” When meeting planners come to a city and a hotels says, “This company is who we use,” it’s likely clients will take that recommendation, he says.
Operators also should be involved and familiar with the local convention and visitor’s bureau, Chamber of Commerce, hotels, properties, and attractions. An operator who builds that working relationship through networking can generate plenty of referral business.
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