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On a humid, overcast weekday morning in July, the lot was ringed with cutaway buses, Lincoln MKT Town Cars, vans and stretch limousines. They created the impression of a slow business day. As if. The vehicles on this tight lot were actually only a fraction of the Reston fleet, now numbering about 220 vehicles, most of which were out on runs across the Washington, D.C. metropolis.
The company is looking for a new facility in its service region to centralize its fleet management and save on fuel costs, while adding space for staff and vehicles. Crammed two-story quarters and busy fleet lots, however, aren’t deterring entrepreneurial ideas for the quarter-century company. Reston Limousine, based in the mushroom field of high-tech innovation that surrounds the Dulles International Airport, proves that a chauffeured transportation company can master challenges and find new ways to make money.
In recent years, Reston has been transforming in-house functions into profitable business units, while expanding the roles of a limousine company. Its approach serves as an industry model of how an operation can adapt, survive and succeed in a ground transportation world gone mad over Uber:
Idea No. 1: Motorcoaches Plus
On that same weekday, Barry Gross, director of business relations, and COO Tony Simon were negotiating a deal for three new motorcoaches, adding to the three Reston bought in the mid-2000s. The phone calls and e-mails finally resulted in the purchase of three Van Hool CX-45 56-passenger buses to be delivered by December.
“We are making a strong push on our motorcoach division after farming out nearly $1.2 million in local coach business over the prior 12 months,” Gross says. “We are seeing more and more large bus movements. Our motorcoach revenue for June 2015 was $303,000 and just under $2 million for the last 12 months. That means our three current full-sized coaches generated about $800,000 combined in the past 12 months.”
Gross estimates Reston will eventually need nine to 12 motorcoaches to match client demand. “The numbers clearly support our expansion. We believe motorcoaches are the single greatest way to increase topline revenue in our industry.” To grow Reston’s network of charter and tour industry contracts, Gross joined motorcoach trade groups and recently was nominated for a board position at the Virginia Motorcoach Association.
Idea No. 2: BRIDJ Shuttle Service
Branded Reston vehicles run on a fare-based, fixed-but-flexible route system to fill in gaps where mass transit doesn’t go. Reston is working directly with an app company to support their efforts on the transportation side only. The BRIDJ (www.bridj.com) service, which Simon calls the “Uber of shuttles,” provides a more affordable alternative to taxicabs and TNCs, especially in areas with routine commuter patterns. Millennial professionals, attuned to on-demand ways, like the privately run, quasi-transit service with $2 to $5 fares, which is a notch above public transportation. The app-based service allows drivers to slightly vary routes to pick up riders in the vicinity as long as they keep the general direction of the route. It lets the driver know rider locations.
Idea No. 3: Wash, Repair, Dump!
When a fleet company gets big enough, the economics warrant in-house vehicle washing, vehicle repair and maintenance, and for buses, restroom waste disposal. “We need to make more money because [chauffeured transportation] overall is a low profit margin business,” Simon says. “So how can each department become a profit center?”
At Reston, those three in-house functions at the Sterling headquarters also cater to commercial customers and the general public. Relying on word of mouth from soft openings, the units are turning so much volume that Simon so far avoids promoting and advertising the services.
Idea No. 4: Managed Vehicles, Ready Chauffeurs
Reston Limousine has a foot in the chauffeured service management business. A client either leases a luxury vehicle through Reston, or pays them to keep an owned vehicle, and then has a contract for a chauffeur to drive the personal vehicle when needed. One client keeps a $150,000 Mercedes-Benz S550 on the Reston lot, ready for his chauffeured beck and call. For clients who lease vehicles through Reston, they can choose to buy it after the lease, or if not, Reston has the options to buy and keep it or return it to the lessor. Reston also provides full maintenance for the private vehicles it operates and stores.
Idea No. 5: Safety Training Advice
As a major government contract shuttle provider and charter bus service, Reston has developed real-time expertise on the myriad of federal regulations and safety procedures that apply to buses of all sizes. Reston provides instructional modules that “train a trainer to manage a company for D.O.T. compliance and be audit ready,” Simon says. This training applies to any company that operates vehicles carrying 14 passengers or more. Reston plans to set up online training modules covering everything from regulatory compliance, to insurance liabilities, to bus safety procedures and equipment.
Idea No. 6: Monetizing greeters
Reston has hired a new event manager to handle conferences and also work with DMCs. Since both client groups need greeters and hosts, Reston’s airport greeters who meet clients can now be hired out for special events.
What About Uber?
Simon sees Uber as a booster for chauffeured transportation overall. So far, Reston has not lost revenue. “We call it the Uber effect. It’s helped our business. Many people want more structured chauffeured transportation that is reliable, consistent, safe, and responsive on the customer service side.”
CEO Kristina Bouweiri shares this sentiment, adding, “Uber has made black cars a household name. It’s driven more business our way among those who have not liked Uber and want something better. None of the parents I know who use Reston for school transportation for their kids have gone over to Uber.”
Like many limousine companies, Reston never says no to a request. If it gets an on-demand call, it tries to make the pick-up happen within 30 minutes, relying on a solid local affiliate network. As for the customer standing on a street corner pressing an app for a ride ASAP? Simon says, “Let Uber have it. It’s a different beast. We don’t need the last minute business, You can’t call Uber and ask for suggestions. You can’t get the same chauffeur and vehicle. You just can’t take the relationship out of the service business.”
SIDEBAR: CEO Lives Out Her Business Plan
Reston’s owner and leader doesn’t see much value hanging around the office anymore, although she once did. When Kristina Bouweiri was growing the company in its first decade from $200,000 to $5 million in annual revenues, she micro-managed, monitoring every aspect of the operations.
Then 9/11 happened, and business slowed down. Bouweiri had no choice but to get out of the office, and network for more clients to keep the company going. It led to a career-changing approach to her work and life. As a mother of four children, she started volunteering for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Bouweiri gradually joined business and charity groups, serving on boards, attending fund-raisers, and working the business luncheon-dinner-meetings circuit. She now plans her calendar as an extrovert extraordinaire, promoting and marketing her business while giving back to community and non-profit groups. Bouweiri belongs to at least 10 boards of directors and is involved in many organizations such as business book clubs, roundtables, and peer groups. She also speaks, teaches, advises, mentors and consults.
As a result, Bouweiri has evolved into one of the most media-savvy CEOs in the chauffeured transportation industry. Her aggressive approach to public relations, networking and social media marketing has netted regular exposure in local and national media outlets. “When you invest in education, knowledge and contacts, you become a lifelong learner,” Bouweiri says, on a Tuesday, the day of the week she’s in the office. “The secret to growing is to build a team, and hire and develop the right people.”
FASTFACTS: Reston Limousine
Related Topics: Barry Gross, bus market, business growth, Kristina Bouweiri, Maryland operators, new ideas, operator profiles, Reston Limousine, TNCs, Tony Simon, Virginia operators, Washington DC operators
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