Sandy Miller sees a future in providing a level of chauffeured service that TNCs cannot.
While we may think of proms as the ultimate financial boost each year, the student event market is much broader than simply servicing proms and formals. In fact, the student market is a year-round gold mine of opportunities for the retail limousine niche. In addition to these school sanctioned rite of passage events, there are cotillions, quinceaneras, bar/bat mitzvahs, graduations, communions and, of course, birthdays. All offer opportunities for big money.
Is there more demand for 2013?
It depends on who you ask. Josh Roman, owner of Heaven on Wheels Limousine based in Dallas, believes there is rising demand each year. His 7-year old company operates 14 vehicles and grew to that level in its short 7-year history mostly by providing service to teens. “Every year in business has generated more business each prom season,” Roman says. However, Garfield Bowen, owner of PromGuide.com, says, “Sales will be about the same as 2012 but the demand will vary from city to city and mostly based on culture, a sentiment echoed by Frank Figueroa, President of Pinnacle Limousine Manufacturing. Sales for 2012 mostly have mirrored the sales of 2011, Figueroa says. He expects the sales of new units to be about the same for 2013.
To advertise or not
Whether you decide to advertise to students is based on the market you serve and the competition. At Heaven On Wheels, about 80% of business comes from online search engines, Roman says. He does no advertising geared toward students.
“There is no need to spend money when we rank in the top three search engine results for terms associated with limousines in the Dallas area,” he says. But if you are in a large metropolitan area and the competition is fierce, there are many ways to connect including yearbook advertising, student newspaper advertising and school sports team sponsorship.
Deena Papagni, owner of Touch of Class Limousine in Fresno, Calif., says she does not specifically market or advertise for proms. But Papagni does create packages such as tea parties and special theme birthday packages that allow her to begin developing new clientele at a young age. The veteran operator, in business for 24 years, has seen students grow up to become adult clients using her vehicles for personal use and corporate functions because of the brand loyalty created over the years. If you decide to market to students for prom, the best tool of our modern age is the Internet and no one does it better than PromGuide.com.
The company was founded in 1988 with a magazine. Today, that same magazine is delivered to more than one million students. A basic service provider membership with Prom Guide starts at $250. That includes presence in the print magazine and the important online exposure when a student uses its website to drop in an area code and get a referral. Prom Guide basically does your advertising for you in what Bowen refers to as a “gangster marketing plan,” where no stone is left unturned and every high school student in America is exposed to Prom Guide.
Marketing to students
Bowen stresses that attending formal events in a limousine is a rite of passage and a sign of growing up. Students expect to be treated as clients, not kids. They want to be valued for the money they are spending. Bowen’s PromGuide.com website seeks to create a dream with fancy party dresses, tuxedos and limos all in one spot. He refers to it as, “the Google of prom.”
Bowen seeks to draw students to his website long before prom arrives to make them dream about what they are going to wear, where they are going to eat, and of course what their modern day version of Cinderella’s carriage will look like
Don’t wait until one month before prom to start marketing but start at the beginning of the school year. There is a much larger demand today from females, Bowen says. They eclipse the era of 25 years ago when the market was dominated by males wanting to impress their prom dates. Today the young women are the ringleaders who make the plans and build the night up long before it arrives, Bowen says. Marketing includes creating an angle that “captures the imagination of what prom is and how special the night is,” Bowen says.
Student Related Sales Opportunities
Limo operators can market to many student-related events throughout the year.
What retail operators say
“Kids want vehicles to hold as many passengers as possible,” Roman says. “They don’t want eight-passenger limos. They want 25 friends in one vehicle and to make the night a party. They want the nightclub feeling,” he says. Roman also stresses that they have a “prom contract” and parents are required to sign it to maintain order on the bus and a drug and alcohol free environment. This includes searching every bag that comes in a vehicle, Roman says. Chauffeurs also must be specially trained to work with kids.
In California, operators are faced with heavy regulations when providing service to students. Papagni is considering discontinuing prom service altogether because of increased regulation. California State Assembly Bill AB45 mandates that all party buses have a designated chaperone who must be over the age of 25 if any of the passengers are under the age of 21 and the bus has alcohol.
This law follows the requirements to have vehicles certified as a “SPAB” (School Pupil Activity Bus) vehicle when being used to transport students for a school event. This requires SPAB certified drivers as well at an estimated cost of about $5,000, Papagni says. “Prom accounts for 3% of the total days in the year, and really, it just doesn’t contribute as much to the bottom line as people might think.”
What the students say
No matter what city you’re in, a limousine pulling up in front of a house garners attention. Everyone wants to see the inside of it and students are eager to show off to their neighbors, family and friends.
“The more bling inside, the better and lots of colored lights,” says Caitlin Bird, a senior in Castle Rock, Col. “Limos are fun if you have a group of people to share the cost with but if you are going with just your prom date, it is far too expensive.”
Bird says that her parents feel that traveling to and from the prom is safer because the chauffeur is like a chaperone and kids are supervised from the time they leave their houses until the time they return home. She says that kids love to post photos taken in the limousine or party bus on their Facebook pages because, “all the cool kids get limos.”
Another thing important to Bird is doing business with a local company. They don’t want a driver unfamiliar with the area. They don’t want to spend their time providing turn-by-turn instructions, and they want a place to go pay their deposit in cash that is conveniently located in town. They also want someone that will help them plan their night out. Since most of them have never chartered a limousine before, they want someone to be patient with them and explain to them what most kids do during prom night with a chartered vehicle.
Everyone seems to agree that bigger is better when it comes to vehicle selection. The demand is for premium, specialty vehicles, say coachbuilders, students, parents and Bowen. “Stand-out cars should be pushed towards the kids with a premium price and minimum charter periods as high as 10 hours,” Bowen says.
Bowen, Roman and Bird all agree that students want the vehicles that no one else has. They want to have the best vehicle in terms of bling, lighting and sound. Pinnacle has not built a vehicle in the past 10 years without including at least two sub-woofers simply because they know that the kids want people to not only see them arriving but to hear them arriving, Figueroa says. Most people interviewed for this article see the eight-passenger stretch for an era gone by, and Bowen says most coachbuilders are in a downturn.
Former industry leaders such as Krystal Enterprises and Tiffany Coachworks have not turned out anything significantly new in the past year. Coachbuilders such as Pinnacle have emerged as trendsetters among prom vehicles manufacturers, Bowen says.
Closing the sale
How you present your price to a student caller can truly make the difference between closing the sale and missing the sale. As Bird mentioned, when students are splitting the cost, it doesn’t seem like so much money when the price is broken down per person. Bowen recommends to the service providers in his network that they always quote in terms of per person, per hour.
“If you tell a kid that the price is $1,000 for the night, it seems completely out of their league,” Bowen says. “If you quote it as $8 per hour per person, it sounds much better.”
Price issues always seem to crop up, no matter who you are chartering to. When callers are price shopping, you might consider saying something such as, “Are you sure you want to be shopping by price for one of the most special nights of your life? I mean, it would be like comparing the price of a Motel 6 for your wedding night against the Hilton. Do you want to be riding in the Motel 6 vehicle for prom or the Hilton?”
You must paint a picture in their minds to close the sale now. Most important of all, don’t just quote the price. Ask for the order. Once you have provided the price and painted the picture, don’t let them hang up the phone without attempting to close the sale. If you fail to close on the first attempt, ask them if there is any additional information that they might need to help with the decision making process. You also might suggest that availability is limited and they can make a reservation today and cancel it if they decide they don’t really want it, but be sure to let them know without a deposit, there is no guarantee.
The process of going through the steps in a reservation implies a commitment. During this process, feel free to help guide the student through such choices as where they will go to dinner, where they will take photos, and how the timing will work out as far as arriving at the prom at a time they can make the biggest splash in their arrival. If the student believes you are helping to plan the night, there is a higher chance you will lock in the sale. Be patient.
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