The Greater Orlando Limousine Association held a festive meeting to close out the year.
PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. — The garment and chauffeured transportation industries may not be readily linked as business sectors, but one with experience in both understands they revolve around quality and style.
For John Finch, those two service virtues came together in Sunshine Shuttle & Limousine and Sunshine Coach, two luxury ground transportation companies serving Florida’s extensive Panhandle region along the Gulf of Mexico coastline.
Building a model company
Finch started out in 1987 as a model for a men’s sportswear company in New York. After his four-year contract was up in 1991, he moved on to wholesale apparel merchandising. He capped his fashion career by founding his own clothing company called 33 Degrees, a $25 million revenue venture he sold in 2004. During those years, he traveled constantly for business, becoming an expert client in all aspects of chauffeured transportation across the U.S., Asia and Europe.
“I sold my apparel company and was doing some soul-searching about whether to get back into the apparel business and re-launch another line or brand,” Finch recalls. “I took three months off and traveled. I was very fortunate to have those three months. I knew it was time to turn a new chapter in my life, and maybe not spend the rest of my life in New York City.”
Born and raised in Memphis, Tenn., Finch developed a strong attachment to the Panhandle coastline, where he often traveled on summer family vacations. The region, also known as the Emerald Coast, has the widest and whitest sand beaches in the U.S., except for Hawaii. It is a popular destination for summer tourists coming from a wide swath of the Sunbelt, from Texas to North Carolina.
Receiving chauffeured wisdoms
During his fashion and apparel career, Finch learned many times over how chauffeured customers like to get confirmations, make reservations, and be able to get someone 24/7 in case their schedules change and they need to fly out earlier or later.
“I never had time to rent a car,” Finch recalls. “I used car services all the time. The car would never leave me. It would wait for me in different cities while I went to appointments and to see my accounts and buyers. I’ve dealt with so many different types of services my whole life. Who knows it better than me?”
While working in the fashion world, Finch would take time to relax in the area, and it was during one of those visits when the chauffeured transportation idea began to brew.
“When I came here to Panhandle and was still going back and forth to New York, I would set up a car service to pick me up,” Finch recalls. “One morning at 6 a.m. I had a pick-up and was pacing back and forth by 6:05, 6:10. . . I missed the flight.” That happened a second time. Finch also couldn’t find anyone to speak to late at night when needing to change chauffeured reservations for the next day.
“These no shows were ridiculous,” he says. “There was no [decent] car service down here. There were taxis, but often the drivers decided to go fishing and wouldn’t care.”
Searching for the high-end
Finch realized ground transportation users in the region needed a more reliable service. “What we were going to do different was bring a higher level of service to this region, which it never had before.”
Finch launched Sunshine Shuttle with two minivans working a high-tourist area. Eight years later, the company runs 44 chauffeured vehicles of all types, including motorcoaches. “We are one point of contact for any and all transportation needs, from one end of the spectrum to the other,” Finch says.
As a testament to the coastal growth, the region now has three airports: Northwest Florida Beaches International (ECP) in Panama City Beach, Northwest Florida Regional Airport (VPS) in Ft. Walton, and Pensacola Regional Airport (PNS) in Pensacola. Sunshine Shuttle & Limousine is centered within convenient reach of all three airports.
Unlike transportation cycles in other regions of the country, and even in South Florida, the big season happens over the four month span of May-August, when tourists and vacationers flock to the shores, Finch says. After they leave, the hotel room rates drop. “What happens after that time is we become a big convention destination place. We have developed a year-round business with handling all the conventions and conferences. Tons of groups come down here.”
Except for the four-month busy season, the company’s market for the rest of the year shifts from tourism and leisure to convention and corporate. Top clients include hotels/resorts, major corporate conferences, flight crews for major airlines such as Delta and Southwest, tram services at resorts, and catalog fashion photo shoots, from such retailers as Nordstrom and J. Crew.
“We don’t just show up with a vehicle,” Finch says. “We coordinate events, such as festivals, routes, different groups and events, as well as set up the logistics of an event.”
Branching out into buses
Because of the growth in group and meetings transportation, about half of Sunshine’s business is now bus-related. The company started its motorcoach division, Sunshine Coach, in late 2011, and has seen it grow into other niche markets as well, such as school transportation, field trips, deep-sea fishing charter trips, and weddings.
The Sunshine transportation companies combined run six 50-57 passenger Van Hool motorcoaches and 10 mini-buses and shuttles, such as Ford E-450s and Turtle Tops. The smaller buses have seating configurations ranging from 20 to 29 passengers.
Sunshine Coach distinguishes its bus service from competitors by making it full service, most notably the 24/7 phone availability. “A client can call with changes 24 hours per day,” he says. “Most bus companies close at 5 p.m. . . a recording makes a Destination Management Company (DMC), a wedding planner, or a convention coordinator go crazy. They go nuts if they can’t get in touch with somebody.”
At Sunshine, bus charter customers get gift bags and the bus chauffeurs act more like guides, Finch says. “We bring the service from the limousine side of the business to the motorcoach part of the business. A lot of people get into motorcoaches from the trucking industry. We’re coming from a laying-out-the-red-carpet, black-tie service and bringing it to the motorcoach business.”
Pick and stick to your path
A career of entrepreneurial leadership has taught Finch to strike an independent path and not worry what others think, especially when buying vehicles. “Don’t be influenced by others. Don’t buy equipment that customers are not demanding or asking for. I keep things real basic. I don’t get turned on by the bells and whistles.”
Most importantly, an operator needs a passion for service and to take confidence in providing it, Finch says. “With so many clients coming in from different business and industries, someone has to push a consistently high level of service. Don’t ever question yourself on that.”
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