MARCH LCT Publisher's Page: Social media marketing done right can gain you more customers for a lifetime.
While traveling down a Los Angeles freeway in 1983, I saw a Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham 75 driving next to me. That was the year I fell in love with this business and knew I was going to be a part of it. That was the same year LCT Magazine launched and became the bible I would use seven years later entering the industry.
During my 23-year career, I have observed many changes. Perhaps the biggest ones involve the use of technology as a never ending array of electronic gadgets and software have been developed. Let’s take a look back in time at 30 big changes, most of them for the better. They are listed in no particular order:
1. Lincoln topples Cadillac as the predominant vehicle provider: As early as 1914, Cadillac was the king of the limousine world. By 1986, Lincoln had a firm hold on the industry that has lasted for decades. Now, the market is in flux as operators evaluate a new generation of Lincolns, Cadillacs, and other vehicle makes and models.
2. Deadly wedding party limo split prompts QVM program: A 1987 accident in which a wedding party was killed when their limo split in half would prompt safer limos with a new Ford Quality Vehicle Modifier (QVM) program to assist coachbuilders building limousines on the special Lincoln Towncar 418 heavy duty service chassis. The Cadillac Master Coachbuilders (CMC) program followed two years later providing national oversight of safer, more mechanically sound limousines.
3. Stretches turn super: In 1983, some “formal” models of the Cadillac were two-seaters. There was a bench seat and a partition. By the late 1980s, “super-stretches” had arrived. If the capacity was more than six-passengers, it was considered a “super-stretch.” Some coachbuilders built large vehicles that failed QVM standards. A decade later came the “ultra-super-stretch” limousine as coachbuilders began converting SUVs into longer versions capable of holding 16-20 passengers.
4. We like the cars that go boom: By the time Lincoln changed from the square body style to the rounded body style in 1990, most operators were ditching the coachbuilder sound systems and running to the stereo shop for the baddest bass money could buy. Today, the most elite sound and video systems come as standard equipment.
5. Goodbye to bricks, bags and car-mounts: In the late 1980s, cell service was a phone that was the size of a brick and just as heavy, or a “bag phone” that had a pop-up antenna and a cigarette lighter power cord. Later, a common feature was a phone mounted on the floor with an extension in the coach for client use. Tracking their calls as client “phone charges” was very common. Then came cellular credit card pay phones. Companies such as CallAboard realized potential in installing their phones in the back of limousines along with a credit card reader to swipe your credit card to use the phone and paid limo companies a commission on every call earned.
6. Credit card processing: Up until the early 1990s, credit card transactions were handled with “draft” paper provided by the bank. The draft had to contain an imprint or handwritten credit card number. Many chauffeurs carried a spoon and placed the credit card underneath the draft, rubbing the spoon over the client’s credit card to transfer the card number with carbon paper to the draft or carried a machine that could be used to swipe over the card and transfer the card numbers. You deposited the drafts with other cash or checks and the bank would collect your money if all went well and deposit the money in your account upon receipt.
7. Farewell to industry legends: Operators Tom Mazza, Carla Boraday and Dean Schuler all contributed greatly to the directional growth of the industry and left lasting impressions and standards through industry associations such as the NLA. Schuler’s death in 2010, and the passing of Mazza and Boroday in 2012 left a professional void.
8. Industry consolidation: In 1987, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration published an estimate of 50 to 60 limousine coachbuilders in the U.S. Today, there are only 14 QVM certified coachbuilders, as a result of shifting demand, the Great Recession and a vehicle market more geared toward OEM and corporate vehicles.
9. New Name for LCT Magazine: Limousine and Chauffeured Transportation Magazine was renamed and rebranded Limousine Charter & Tour in February 2009 to reflect the industry’s move toward more minibuses and motorcoaches to accommodate group ground transportation.
10. Green vehicles: The rise in energy prices and growing awareness about pollution and climate change has ushered in a category of green vehicles, including hybrids, CNG models, and for the first time, an all-electric luxury sedan within the premium vehicle price range: the Tesla Model S. The vehicles enable operators to save money on fuel while appealing to eco-conscious corporate clients.
11. Evolving inventory: A 1989 American Custom Coach magazine advertisement proudly announces “over 214 models in inventory.” No coachbuilder would ever build that many coaches today, and hope to sell them that quickly. American Custom Coach folded. Inventory has become more custom-oriented and order-based as opposed to mass amounts of vehicles being built on spec.
12. Network proliferation: In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a handful of true affiliate networks existed. The big players were Music Express, CLS, Dav El, Carey International and Black Tie Transportation. Today, there are more “networks” than anyone can count as many operators develop their own networks of smaller operators working together.
13. Internet inroads: The Internet would change how we communicate with affiliates, how we confirm orders and how we advertise, and provide a wealth of knowledge at our fingertips never before imagined. Cloud-based data systems now make internal company logistical and operational information available anytime, anywhere. Limos.com emerged in 2008 as a major supplier of Internet-based leads to operators, referring clients 24/7.
14. Networks become interactive: Companies such as BostonCoach and Music Express developed proprietary software to replace faxing orders to affiliates. Boston’s AFNET system requires affiliates to respond directly into the host reservation computer with an acknowledgement of the order that is seen by Boston’s dispatch center. Music Express, LimoLink and others use the same technology.
15. Cell/smartphones blow out two-way radios: By the early 80’s two-way radios had become available to the general public through “common carriers.” You could even contact a carrier’s mobile operator and have her “patch” a phone call to you in your car. Cell phones, and later smartphones, would render two-ways obsolete, with chauffeurs able to transmit codes and messages silently via wireless devices.
16. Nextel and big events: Major networks adopted Nextel as the two-way radio/telephone of choice and could share Nextel codes with affiliates, and for the first time ever, communicate with every vehicle under their control. Large events such as the Grammys, Emmys etc. were much easier to manage as all cars could communicate with the onsite affiliate coordinator. To summon a car for a departing guest became a breeze as the Nextel radio system could be used by anyone with a Nextel.
17. GPS tracking and mapping: In 1994, GPS tracking became fully functional and available for civilian use. This technology used the Internet to “report” the location of vehicles, along with their speed, time the ignition was turned on or off, and stops made. It eliminated billing and payroll disputes as well as unauthorized usage of vehicles. In 2004, Tom Tom was the front runner of GPS devices that could guide a driver to a destination. Before that, chauffeurs carried a Thomas Guide or similar map for every area they normally traveled to. In some cases it would take multiple books to cover your service area. Today, smartphones have are capable of replacing GPS units.
18. Uniform changes: From the birth of LCT to the mid 1990s, the uniform of choice was a tuxedo. Dornan Uniforms had an advertisement in every issue of every single trade magazine in America. As the black car market and corporate markets developed, the business suit of today’s chauffeur evolved. Can you imagine a chauffeur in a tux picking up a CEO?
19. Contractor vs. employees: Perhaps no issue has garnered as much attention. Almost all chauffeurs were independent contractors in the beginning of the industry, paid by the job, untaxed and uninsured (worker’s comp). Today, a mere 20% are contractors due to increased regulation and lawsuits over injured chauffeurs not protected by worker’s compensation insurance.
20. Foreign brands increase competition: The days of Cadillac v. Lincoln has ceded to an era of multiple brands both foreign and domestic, as such big names as Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Toyota have formally entered the chauffeured transportation market. Now it’s a wide competitive field, with Chrysler v. Cadillac v. Lincoln on the domestic front, and Mercedes-Benz v. BMW v. Toyota on the foreign front, leaving operators with more choices than ever before.
21. Safety programs: In the 1980s, a driver’s license and a pulse qualified you to be a chauffeur. Today, companies emphasize safety through in-house training programs, Smith System of Defensive Driving, and other similar programs. In-vehicle cameras capture and report bad driving habits. Commercial drivers are monitored on a federal level to prevent hiring drivers from another state with a bad safety record.
22. Minibus revolution: Stretch limousines in the 2000s gradually gave way to more limo and party buses, shuttles and motorcoaches as the concept of a limo broke out of its traditional stretch mold. Sprinter vans have now emerged as a symbolic limousine of the 21st Century, adaptable to corporate and retail configurations.
23. Reservations systems: By the mid 1990s, software developers such as Livery Coach and Limo Magic had launched DOS based software to eliminate reservations books. The software evolved to include remote hosting such as Limo Anywhere or FastTrak‘s Cloud system. Software expanded to cover vehicle management, payroll management and interface with popular accounting programs like Quickbooks.
24. Social media for marketing: Facebook, Twitter, WordPress and blogs made connecting with clients easy in a way that was never possible before. It created an inexpensive way to launch “specials” and reduced advertising costs significantly.
25. Concierge business model: As profit margins were squeezed, operators found ways to make more money by becoming Destination Management Companies, providing valet parking service and charging for amenities such as red carpet roll-outs and airport greeters. By providing additional services for a fee, profit margins were increased.
26. Old to new bling: Limos included rope lighting with white lights, mirrored ceilings and overhead reading lights. Control panels had switches and knobs. DaBryan offered a television that remotely swiveled out using the control panel. The same model featured a drink maker where the press of a button would dispense liquor from one of three onboard liquor canisters. Mirrored ceilings became encrusted with “starlights.” Rope lighting gave way to fiber optics that change color. Control panels were replaced with touch-screen control panels. Stainless steel ice wells became insulated Lexan plastic to keep beverages cold and preserve ice longer.
27. 9/11/01: Two major changes were made after 9/11: No longer could limousines wait in front of airport terminals for passengers to come out to a waiting limousine in a classic movie style. Chauffeurs also could no longer meet the arriving guest at the jet bridge with a signboard. We have been relegated to the baggage claim area forever. Many airports now have “cell phone parking lots,” where a vehicle simply waits for a cell phone call that says, “I’m ready to go.”
28. Electrical issues resolved: As the new bling was added over the years and stereo systems were beefed up, limos became prone to having dead batteries. The first major improvement came when coachbuilders installed a secondary battery. If the primary battery was dead, you would simply switch over to the extra battery and hope your alternator had not failed as was very common. By the late 1990s, dual alternators became standard equipment.
29. Getting politically savvy: As regulations of the industry increased, operators realized that we needed representation with government officials. The National Limousine Association launched in 1985 to fill that need. Today, 22 states are represented by at least one state and/or regional association. The NLA and state associations employ lobbyists and provide donations to political campaigns as well as make an annual trip to Washington D.C. to lobby industry issues. The NLA also has made tremendous strides educating the industry through its ever-growing and deepening seminar curriculum at International LCT Shows.
30. Mobile applications: This is a revolution just gaining momentum, as limousine companies and client connectivity can now happen instantly via smartphones, and entire companies can be managed via tablets, smartphones and laptops. Clients can track their orders and vehicles via apps while ordering service, as well.
Of course, my favorite personal change in the past 30-years: The stars aligned just right to bring me to the writing staff of LCT Magazine. It allows me to share my own experiences as an operator to help someone else start a successful company. I consider it an honor and privilege to share what I have learned. Thank you for decades of industry memories and experiences.
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MARCH LCT Publisher's Page: Social media marketing done right can gain you more customers for a lifetime.
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