Sandy Miller sees a future in providing a level of chauffeured service that TNCs cannot.
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — A tour of First Class Destination Solutions demonstrates the art of the possible for a limousine company.
Except for the luxury vehicles outside, you would never think its modern, stucco, art-deco-style headquarters is that of a limousine company. Inside, CEO Roberto Rodriguez and COO Michael Berrios have posted original modern artworks and sculptures, mostly from Puerto Rican native contemporary artist Gilbert Salinas. The art is available for sale to potential and current clients who visit.
The interior is decorated with tile floors, recessed track lighting, mahogany trim wood furniture, and ceramic vases — items more reminiscent of an art gallery or boutique luxury hotel.
Such refined details, along with a chauffeur lounge, kitchen/eating area, sleep room and locker room, all point to a business concept that defines First Class: It’s an overall concierge service that creates solutions to specific demands. The luxury vehicles simply serve as the foundation of the operation.
First Class officially opened its one-acre location in early October, which is a compound with 2,500 square feet of office space, an auto warehouse, and vehicle maintenance and detailing area ringed by a high security fence. The facility, which operates 24/7 with a live dispatcher, makes a bold statement about the business and the quality behind it, and stands as a confident sales tool. “We do everything a concierge does,” Berrios says. “We never say no as long as it’s legally and morally possible.”
Adds Rodriguez of his company’s mission: “We’re not only a transportation company, we are a solution. Anything you have, we have a solution. You don’t need to call 411 or 911.”
To that end, First Class Destination Solutions is divided into six key service components:
But what ultimately defines its concept is being able to meet the unexpected needs of customers, or at least be able to anticipate them.
Going extra miles
As examples, Rodriguez cited a CEO client who had to leave immediately for a trip to Europe and needed someone to take care of his house and guard it while gone. First Class arranged for the service. Chauffeurs also are available to buy items on a pre-sent shopping list from clients before they arrive at the airport, sparing them a stop at the grocery store after a long trip. Staff members are available to clean clients’ personal vehicles while they are away.
Another unique element to this limousine company is the separate office and reception area for wedding clients. Accented with plush furnishings and soft decorative tones amid a Feng Shui ambiance, the visual focus behind the wedding desk is a painting of red flowers called, “Eternal Love.” Rodriguez’s wife, Jessica Duran, works in front of the painting, where she meets with clients to offer complete wedding services well beyond the ideal chauffeured vehicle.
Such a business and customer philosophy results directly from its location and how its client base has evolved. Puerto Rico retains an American flavor, but with the distinct bi-lingual dynamism and vibrancy of Latin culture creating the ambiance of a less congested version of Miami. Tourism is a key driver of business on the tropical island replete with five-star resorts, hotels, casinos, golf courses, beaches, outdoor adventure and all things boating related.
Island client base
Puerto Rico also is home to major outposts of multinational pharmaceutical corporations, such as Amgen, Johnson & Johnson, El Lilly and Pfizer. The companies operate everything from regional administrative and sales offices, to training and development facilities, to manufacturing plants.
First Class has the luxury transportation contract for three five-star resorts on the island: St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort, Dorado Beach Ritz Carlton Reserve (December 2012) and Coronado Vanderbilt (March 2013). First Class has six vehicles assigned to the St. Regis and will have six assigned to the Ritz-Carlton, with a sales director and dispatcher on site at each.
First Class also is the exclusive luxury transportation provider for the Courtyard Marriott Isla Verde Beach Resort, Intercontinental San Juan Resort & Casino, San Juan Water Beach Club Hotel, La Concha Resort, Double Tree by Hilton Hotel San Juan and the Hotel El Convento.
What’s more, the company has a contract with Live Nation Puerto Rico to handle transportation for musical performers and entertainers. A conference room contains a fiber glass wall of concert show passes accumulated over many years from such diverse acts as Lady Gaga, Mariah, Yanni, Rolling Stones, Gene Simmons and AC/DC, to name a few.
Such a diverse client mix has evolved the company into a “one stop travel shop,” especially since Destination Management Companies in Puerto Rico do not operate their own chauffeured fleets. As a result, the client base consists of about three-fourths hotel, leisure and meetings related; 15% corporate; 5% weddings; and 5% security.
Fleets and staff
Out of a fleet of 40 vehicles, First Class now runs two stretch limousines, with two MKT stretches — one black, one white — on the way. Premium luxury vehicles include a 2007 Rolls Royce Phantom, a Bentley Mulsanne, Porsche Panamera, Audi A8 and Mercedes-Benz S400.
Because Puerto Rico is a worldwide international resort, tourism and recreational destination, the island attracts extremely wealthy V.I.P. clients, including foreign royalty. Such visitors have driven demand for premium luxury vehicles.
About 30% of its business comes from affiliate farm-ins, most notably from such major chauffeured transportation companies as Commonwealth Worldwide, Diva Limousine and Tristar Worldwide.
Rodriguez, who is the president of the Luxury Transportation Association of Puerto Rico, started out driving a taxi in 1996 and landed his first corporate account with Colgate-Palmolive. He bought his first Lincoln Town Car in 1998, the first one on the island with the new body style at the time. He then got the Amgen account. By 2000, Rodriguez met Berrios, who was working as chief concierge at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in San Juan, and the two teamed up as limousine operators. They bought two smaller limousine companies and later a third one, growing ever since.
First Class now employs five full-time dispatchers, each segmented to client niches. Three work into the evening hours with one working overnight. The company also staffs a full-time comptroller, administrator, accountant and group sales director.
The employees all work together as a team, helping in multiple roles and being allowed the flexibility to figure out the best ways to meet daily customer requests and expectations, Rodriguez says. “We gain the trust of our staff so they know they work in a nice atmosphere and know they are coming to work in a good place.”
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