While the numbers are hard to pin down, the reality is drivers don't make much when factoring out overhead costs.
MILFORD, Mass. — Operator Eric Tonkonogy never thought two decades in the restaurant and hospitality sector would prepare him for an even more difficult line of work.
When the owner of a chain of six restaurants sold off the last one in 2005, he thought he would simplify his life by starting a limousine company. He wanted more time to see his children and stop shuttling among the restaurants. After a frequent customer strongly suggested the limousine business, Tonkonogy bought a vehicle, joined associations, went to trade shows, converted his QuickBooks software to keep track of his new business, and picked up overflow business from other operators.
“I decided I would try something that is easy and bring my customer service skills to the limousine business,” he says. “I would be a butler on wheels. Eight years later, I can say it’s not easier than the restaurant business, but I love it and it’s enjoyable. With the restaurant business, when you close for the day, it’s over. This business is 24/7, 365 days a year.”
As it turns out, being a career chef and former restaurant owner has proven invaluable for Tonkonogy, who runs Exceptional Limousine of Milford, Mass. Acquired by operator John Greene’s ETS International in Randolph, Mass., in 2011, Exceptional now serves as the social or retail division of ETS with its 15-vehicle fleet that includes a mix of conventional stretch limousines, super-stretches, executive vans, and limo buses. It has 65% retail and 35% corporate clienteles.
Tonkonogy, a chef by trade, owned a chain of six family-style restaurants called Eric’s spread across middle Massachusetts from 1992-2005. The chain also was a natural fit for his side catering business for social events and corporate meetings. He first worked as a sous chef for the Marriott Hotel in Newton, Mass., from 1987-1992 after graduating from Johnson & Wales Culinary College.
Choosing weddings as his primary market made sense. Within a few years, Exceptional Limousine ran 18 vehicles and had been chosen “Boston Best Limousine Service” by a major wedding publication. It served 270 weddings in 2011.
As in the restaurant business, customer service for limo clients starts with first impressions — networking to meet new customers while regularly visiting current ones to keep good business relationships strong. “It starts even before they call us,” says Tonkonogy, the vice president of Exceptional and ETS. “It’s how you write and market your ads to get new clients.”
Then, when the calls come: “I trained our staff that we don’t answer the phone with our name, we also thank them for calling us. You find out what they are looking for. They’ve already decided they want to use a limousine service, so you work with them just like sitting down with a bride doing a wedding.”
At your service
Taking a restaurant industry concept, Tonkonogy trains Exceptional chauffeurs and employees to adopt a maître d’ approach to serving wedding clients.
Compared to corporate chauffeured transportation, retail runs for weddings and special events require some more planning and creativity. “What do the bride and her mother have as a vision of moving and getting around? It could be something like using a horse and buggy backed up with limousines and mini-coaches.”
A skilled operator will go through all the steps and logistics to get a good feel for the customer: Vehicles, passenger volume, schedules, run times, wait times, etc. Exceptional Limousine has two full time employees who specialize in coordinating wedding transportation and related services. “We do spend quite a bit of time with wedding clients, on the phone, on e-mails and in person with the bride and her mother,” Tonkonogy says. “The mother is a key point in the business.”
To maximize services offered, Tonkonogy started a networking group three years ago when the corporate business slowed. Called the 495 Wedding Group, it brings together wedding professionals based along the I-495 corridor. “We met and decided we were able to help each other out,” he says. Through the networking group, Exceptional can connect a wedding client with photographers, florists, DJs, tuxedo shops, wedding venues, and other vendors.
Delivering class and style
Exceptional chauffeurs are required to wear tuxes and white gloves. Aside from enhancing a classy look, the gloves enable chauffeurs to help the brides fluff their gowns and hold their trails without getting them dirty. Chauffeurs also open doors, roll out runners, and make the way for the bride.
“We have emergency wedding kits in all the cars,” Tonkonogy adds. Kits are stocked with essentials such as: pins for the occasional hemming, extra shoe laces for the men’s rental shoes (where shoelaces are notoriously flimsy, he adds), pens, aspirins, Tums, Band-Aids, needle and thread, mouthwash, etc.
Chauffeurs also are available to help carry or bring out anything the bridal party needs when picking them up. “We try to keep the nerves down. A lot of brides get nervous, so we’re always polite and courteous. We have 12 guys who do weddings for us, and they’re all trained my way. . . There is not a thing we will not do to make a bride comfortable,” he adds. “If [chauffeurs] hear something the bride needs, they should attend to it.”
Tonkonogy recalls two anecdotes that illustrate his customer service approach: One chauffeur overheard a bride saying she loved Sun Chips and was hungry. So after the ceremony, a bag of Sun Chips was waiting in the limousine for the bride as she headed to the reception. “You pay attention to the customers’ needs and then come up with it.”
In another wedding situation, a shy, 5-year-old flower girl did not want to walk down the aisle by herself. No one was available to walk with her, so the chauffeur took her by the hand and escorted her to her seat. He later was asked to be part of the family’s wedding pictures.
“Paying attention to details is what separates companies out there,” Tonkonogy says. “Many of us have white cars, but who is doing the above and beyond?”
The same approach works for taking clients to sport events. Exceptional serves customers heading to Celtics, Patriots and Red Sox games. Chauffeurs are trained to suggest places to go before and after games. If a vehicle runs low on beverages, chauffeurs note which ones the clients like and then replenish them and add ice while they are at the game.
“You also want to make sure clients never come back to a dirty limo, that it is as pristine as when they got in it. You wipe the windows, empty the trash, restock the ice, provide beverages, and let the clients know where you are.”
Another essential component of customer service is matching chauffeurs to the right clients and events, based on their skill sets, personalities and aptitudes, Tonkonogy says. At Exceptional Limousine, chauffeurs work with the type of clients they are naturally best suited for, with chauffeurs specifically assigned to work weddings or bachelor parties.
“You can tell who can do weddings or not,” he says. “Some guys are bachelor party guys, but we never let them do a wedding. The proper chauffeur needs to go with the proper job. You never send the wedding guys to a strip club.”
To that end, Tonkonogy emphasizes formal training, which involves a set program with monthly meetings and requiring chauffeurs to watch Tom Mazza instructional videotapes. New chauffeurs must take tests, ride shotgun with more experienced chauffeurs, and be closely supervised for the first six months.
Of course, all service should be followed up with thank you cards that ask for customer input. An operator can’t see what’s going on in every limousine, so you can’t find out if “people don’t let us know,” Tonkonogy says.
The goal is to keep clients for years, so they eventually use you for vacations, a daughter’s wedding, anniversaries and funerals. “It’s not as busy as corporate [service], but you want to become part of the family.”
SIDEBAR: Following Up On Failures
What happens when an attempt to provide a perfect outing for a client falls short? Just like diners who send back the food, limousine clients can call up and complain about bad service.
“In this business, when you do have an unfortunate situation arise, you either put up a defensive wall or you learn from it,” operator Eric Tonkonogy says. “We’ve changed our ways over the years. We listen and see what we can do better.”
That doesn’t mean giving a refund is the best approach. In fact, he says it should be a last resort to satisfying a disgruntled customer. It’s more important to gather information for improvement while trying to keep the customer.
“The first thing I want to do is listen and find out what the situation was,” Tonkonogy says. “It feels better if both are listening. Giving a refund and hanging up doesn’t always work.” It’s better to ask, “What is the problem? Help me understand.”
One solution is to give a few hours of free chauffeured vehicle service. “You want to get the customer back. It’s easier to just hand money back and comp the ride than it is to turn it around into a positive situation.”
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