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Operators in Charlotte, N.C., and Tampa, Fla., are seeing one of the few examples of bipartisanship this election year. Democrats and Republicans in about equal numbers are taking over those respective host cities and will be paying premium rates to get around to all the parties and hotels.
Charlotte hosts the Democratic National Convention Sept. 4-6, while Tampa hosts the Republican National Convention Aug. 27-30. Overall, about 35,000 to 40,000 delegates, attendees and media people converge during convention weeks. For chauffeured transportation operators, these massive pep rallies and campaign launch parties qualify as Super Bowls on steroids. The logistics, planning, troubleshooting, pricing, and fleet volume involved supersede the challenges of any business opportunity out there.
In the months leading up to political conventions, operators prepare for a once-in-a-career challenge that afterwards leaves them feeling ready to handle anything.
“This is Super Bowl times five,” says Ken Lucci, CEO of Ambassador Limousine in Clearwater, Fla. “It’s like an event with 40,000 brides. Everyone thinks they are important. You can’t say no to a guy going to a delegation party. There is no such thing as ‘You are not on the list.’ The next word is, ‘Do you know who I am?’”
Lucci’s company is running about 150 vehicles that week: 50 fleet and 100 affiliate and rented chauffeured vehicles of all types. One of his major clients is the corporate contingent from AT&T. “This is definitely a logistical challenge,” Lucci says. “You don’t know as much as far as routes yet and what will pop up. We are anticipating everything we possibly can.”
Several hundred miles to the north in Charlotte, Lucci’s affiliate, Rose Chauffeured Transportation, reported being just about fully booked by mid-June. Rose is running 100 fleet, affiliate and rented vehicles, including 15 of Ambassador’s SUVs that will handle VIP clients.
“It’s all hands on deck to manage this thing,” says Rose vice president Andy Thompson. “I foresee that we will have instances where dispatchers will be in charge of certain segments of the fleet and types of vehicles. You do as many dry runs of events as you can beforehand.”
Laura and Jeff Canady, who own and operate CLT Express in Charlotte and SC Express in nearby Aiken, S.C., pointed out that the role of the limousine industry is more oriented toward serving corporate clients, non-delegates, celebrities, VIPs, and sports figures, adding that many private flights that week are arriving from Los Angeles. The DNC itself arranges most of the motorcoach transportation for delegates and party officials shuttling between convention centers and hotels.
By working previous NASCAR, NRA, and Masters Golf Tournament events, the Canadys know how to prepare their 40-vehicle fleet plus affiliate vehicles for the 100-per-day runs expected during the week of the convention.
“We’re making sure the office staff is clearly communicating and we are staying on top of things,” says Laura Canady, also a board director of the National Limousine Association. “Our staff will be here for 24 hours.”
Tampa operator Hani Banoub of Advantage Limousine says drawing on affiliates is vital to rounding out a fleet for such a high volume of service. Advantage is pulling support from companies in Miami, Jacksonville and Orlando. In the months leading up to conventions, operators such as Banoub must stay on top of vehicle licensing procedures, pick-up and drop-off zones and passes, and late-breaking routing and traffic pattern information from local authorities.
“We are hiring additional drivers, greeters, and support staff to answer phones and reply to e-mails,” says Banoub, who can draw upon Super Bowl transportation experience. “You have to have a well-trained capable staff to handle last minute changes, especially with heavy traffic conditions for the event. We need to have efficient dispatchers and go through training and coordinating with the airport on pick up locations.”
Ted Koutsos, owner and CEO of Olympus Limousine and Sedan Service in New Port Richey, Fla., estimates the company will run about 100 vehicles (30 fleet/70 affiliate/rented) at 10-12 hour minimums for three days. “Every order that comes in is a large order; not many single transportation calls coming in yet,” Koutsos says.
To find reliable chauffeurs and drivers, Olympus is taking applications from professional transit and fleet drivers in surrounding counties who won’t be working that week due to all the rerouting, congestion and government/company shutdowns. “Some of the Pinellas County transportation people are taking vacations to work with us,” Koutsos says.
“They know the streets and areas where they are driving. We’re going through applications and picking up the best.” Olympus will set up special training the week before the convention so chauffeurs and drivers have the latest information.
Olympus operations manager Dave Shaw says having a staging area near Tampa International Airport and the FBO airport is critical to being able to coordinate the many routes and runs from there to the Harbor Island convention area in downtown. “With this convention, most vehicles will be on 12 to 18 hour days,” Shaw says. “The convention goes from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. and then after-parties until 3 a.m. Chauffeurs really have to be on their best behavior and get rest in between jobs. What will be key is to keep chauffeurs fresh and not be at risk.”
An operator who gained some firsthand perspective at the DNC in Denver four years ago says limousine operators should make clear their pricing and rates, and make sure to communicate such information multiple times leading up to the big events.
“The whole week was crazy,” says Shane Stickel, CEO of Presidential Worldwide Transportation in Denver. “We didn’t do anything with pricing except to extend the A/D minimum hours to 12. There was no problem with people biting off 12-hour increments, since it was 24-hour service and they wanted us on call all the time.”
Operators also should make sure regular, non-convention clients still can get to and from the airports, even if it means farming out the runs. “We had a hard time doing airport transfers because the hourly business was good for the pocketbook. But you still have to take care of regular clients. They will be there after the convention leaves.”
Keeping Up Service And Appearances
Operators working the national political conventions in Tampa, Fla., and Charlotte, N.C., this summer are getting a form of intense on-the-job customer service training as they must ensure luxury standards of service amid unexpected logistical challenges. Below is a summary of convention-related pointers that can be applied in any special event transportation move. These assorted tips were collected from interviews with Tampa Bay operators Ken Lucci, Hani Banoub, Ted Koutsos, and Dave Shaw; Charlotte operators H.A. Thompson and Andy Thompson, and Jeff and Laura Canady; and Denver operator Shane Stickel.
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