LCT With You: Jim Luff talks a bit about the COVID-19 situation and how operators can make it through times.
Almost anybody can attest to the fact that politicians are Very Important People. Their actions and decisions have the power to affect millions of lives, so they develop acute and critical attention to detail.
Because of their status, they possess discerning tastes and standards. Any charter bus operator who successfully serves them can count on being among the industry elite. It’s not easy to transport these high-profile passengers; political campaigns are delicate endeavors that require operators to display mastery over the art of service and the courage, confidence and capability to tackle complex logistics. But operators who work hard to put their companies in a position to serve clients of high caliber will reap benefits for years to come.
“Once you’re in, you’re in, and they’ll call you,” says Ray Land, president and CEO of Branford, Fla.-based Fabulous Coach Lines. Land has provided transportation for the Governor of Florida, the White House press corps and U.S. Senatorial campaigns.
Dan Goff of A Goff Limousine & Bus Company of Charlottesville, Va., whose credentials include providing transportation for President George W. Bush, 2008 Republican candidate Mike Huckabee, and President Obama, among others, backs up Land’s statement.
“Once the White House finds you, and once you’ve been vetted and successfully perform the function, you get on ‘the list’, and then they find you again,” Goff says.
Getting on “The List”
How does an operator go after the political event market and get on that list?
“You kind of don’t go after it,” says Bob Schwarz, executive vice president of Springfield, Mass.-based Peter Pan Bus Lines. Peter Pan Bus was selected to be the transportation provider for candidate Bill Clinton when he won the Democratic nomination in 1992. “You can’t have a marketing campaign to go after political [events],” Schwarz says.
Operators can, however, use marketing campaigns to go after other sectors that may cross-pollinate with the political field, such as universities and top corporations. Building a company’s profile and being visible is important to any business venture, but particularly so when it comes to political activity.
Operators who aren’t recognized as being among the top 15% of companies in their region are seen by politicians as “not yet well-suited enough to comfortably do the work,” Goff says.
Even if a company has the newest vehicles, best trained chauffeurs and an uncanny ability to maneuver through thick webs of logistical issues, they won’t get any work if nobody knows they exist. A competent public relations department and social media presence are vital to improving a company’s visibility.
An inside ear
Land, Goff and Schwarz all agree that developing relationships with the right people will help tremendously in getting on the political radar. A good starting point is through political involvement.
“Maybe you’ve worked on legislative issues, maybe you’ve been active in a person’s campaign; all those things count as part of the process of developing personal relationships that perhaps may matriculate into doing business,” Schwarz says. “If you’re going after Democratic politicians, it helps if you’re a union company.”
Operators should focus on developing working relationships with a politician’s staff because its members are in charge of deciding which carrier to contract for transportation.
In addition to getting noticed, such relationships give operators an “inside ear” to certain preferences and routines that can help them be better prepared for the needs of the individual should an opportunity to provide transportation arise.
Three Ways To Meet Political Personnel
Safety and security
The safety of passengers always should be a priority, but especially when transporting dignitaries. Before a company can even be considered for political transportation, it must have an exemplary safety record.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration makes available online the safety records of motorcoach companies. A company with an “Unsatisfactory” rating will find its chances for carrying politicians limited. Proper vehicle maintenance and driver training and re-training can help a lot in maintaining a good safety record.
“There are very stringent rules and regulations that govern motorcoach safety, and operators have to follow them but still be able to tie them into the scheduling and needs of the customer,” Schwarz says.
The next step in securing political work is being properly vetted for security clearance. A company and its drivers will go through a battery of tests and background checks from the Secret Service, CIA, FBI and other security agencies. Once this phase is complete, a company has a better chance of getting picked for future charters because its drivers are on file as having received the proper security credentials.
“Politicians don’t want unknown bus drivers,” Schwarz says. “The various branches of security for the federal government keep a cadre of drivers that have been cleared, and owners should keep a working relationship with these departments. The experience of having already been vetted opens up opportunities for the future.”
When it comes to the people handling transportation for political candidates, Goff says operators need to walk them through the process. “They’re novices at transportation; maybe they don’t know how things work, they don’t know about logistics, they don’t get the relative effect of when they ask for buses to sit outside and idle, because they may not know that nine buses idling outside a venue will have a predictable effect on ambiance, smell, and sound.
“You have to gently guide the younger, inexperienced aids,” Goff says. “Clearly demonstrate what the parameters are of a successful event without damaging the mindset of the people you’re working with.”
It’s also important to determine whether the passengers will have Secret Service protection, because if they do, then operators must work with the aids to plan with the Secret Service. Certain individuals may want to take charge and it’s important for operators to understand how to interact with them.
“What they say goes, and you don’t have an itinerary until the Secret Service says you do,” Goff says.
Schwarz says it’s all about being flexible and creative: “Do the right things to make sure the event is flawless. And I mean flawless.”
Ensuring that an event goes off without a hitch requires meticulous planning and preparation. This could mean scouting out different locations or rehearsing dry runs. Whatever the case, operators can and should charge for their prep time, along with any backup vehicles.
“You never overcharge, because they won’t put up with it, but legitimate expenses that further the aims of flawless transportation are chargeable expenses, and if they are forecast and itemized, it should be okay,” Goff says.
On the road
The most important piece to the political transportation puzzle is the bus chauffeur. Often times the bus chauffeurs are the first and only company representatives that the passengers will meet.
“Management’s role is very small,” Schwarz says. “It’s the guys in the garage and the motorcoach driver [who] make the trip successful. And it’s no picnic for the drivers. They have to be checked by security, the buses have to be checked by dogs for bombs, they’re sequestered away from the event.
“The behavior and customer service that the motorcoach driver puts forth is very, very important, and not all drivers have that personality.”
Bus chauffeurs should treat politicians as the VIPs they are and exercise discretion and restraint. It’s best for bus chauffeurs to not engage the clients at all, but if they need to, they should engage as regular people and not act star-struck because they are there to perform a function and only a function, Goff says. Bus captains don’t always get the same exposure to this caliber of client as sedan chauffeurs get, so remind them there’s a different level of interaction with the client.
Bus chauffeurs must not discuss in advance, or after the fact, what took place in the motorcoach. They must follow rules and directions from whomever is in charge. “‘Loose lips sink ships,’ so do what you’re told, when you’re told to do it, and make sure you’re prepared,” Schwarz says.
The “list” to avoid
There’s another list operators may end up on after performing work for political candidates, and this is a list Goff warns operators to avoid. “My first rule of political campaigns is: Don’t be on the list of unpaid vendors after the campaign ends.”
In a Politico web feature titled “Presidential also-rans stiff small businesses,” Dave Levinthal shined the spotlight on several political campaigns that still have unpaid debts to vendors, and sometimes to the politicians themselves.
He writes, “While it’s common for Presidential campaigns to take their time closing up shop, the small businesses left holding the bag are asking: Whatever happened to fiscal responsibility?”
Some of the campaigns mentioned in the July 29 article that were still in debt:
“Candidates stick vendors all the time, so make sure to get paid,” Goff says.
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