NOV. LCT: A group of bus and limousine services headed by CLT Express Livery finds ways to adapt to a consolidating marketplace.
It’s a warm summery night in Atlanta. The sky is full of stars and the air is full of music wafting from the mansion. As you draw nearer, you hear voices and laughter mingling with the music. You climb the front steps of Tara, enter the mansion, and hand your wrap to a footman.
As you sip a mint julep and nibble on fried chicken, you can’t resist tapping your toe to the strains of “Dixie” being played by the band. Through the windows, you see other guests enjoying themselves on the veranda. Brightly colored lanterns give the mansion a festive glow.
When the party is over, you thank your hosts, retrieve your wrap, and head back down the steps to your waiting limousine.
Wait a minute. Scarlet and Rhett may have provided their guests with many a luxury, but even all their money couldn’t have obtained the luxury Lincoln now whisking you away to your hotel room. And while we’re at it, Tara wasn’t in Atlanta, but farther north in Clayton County.
Maybe Margaret Mitchell’s Tara was farther north, but Mike Dangerfield’s Tara is right here in Atlanta, and it’s portable so party planners can recreate the Old South wherever in the city they choose.
Carey Special Events is a sister company of Carey Atlanta Limousine Service, and Mike Dangerfield is the man behind them both. While Dangerfield has owned the limousine service for nearly 25 years, the special events company is a new venture but one that bodes well for Dangerfield, as well as Atlanta.
Dangerfield bought out National Theme Party in 1985. To him, it was another way of staying ahead in the increasingly competitive Atlanta limousine market.
“Whenever a client is going to choose a location to have a party, he has to have transportation and, if it’s a really elegant thing, he’s going to need limousines,” explains Dangerfield. By marketing his two companies together, he is able to capture a sizeable amount of the growing convention business in Atlanta, which is fast becoming a convention capital.
The Old South is by no means the only era or area represented by Carey Special Events. According to Dangerfield, the company has over 100 separate party themes.
“The Old South is our heritage, and we don’t want to forget that,” Dangerfield says. “But we also celebrate the New South, which is where we are now.”
Mike Dangerfield has a lot to celebrate. As Atlanta has grown from a sleepy little town with one limousine service, that one limousine services has grown and prospered right along with the city, making Mike Dangerfield a force to be reckoned with in Georgia.
The Early Years
It was 1964 when 20-year old Mike Dangerfield, a native of tiny Moncks Corner, SC. decided to get into the limousine business. Although he was young, he was not altogether inexperienced. He had worked in California for Budget Rent A Car, and owned a rental car franchise in Atlanta. Besides, he had something many beginning operators lack – a mentor.
“I was on a business trip to New York back in May of 1964,” Dangerfield remembers. “I decided it was time I go into the (limousine) business, and the only name I’d ever heard of in the business was Carey Limousine. I found Carey Cadillac Renting Company, walked in off the street, and said, ‘I’m Mike Dangerfield and I’d like to meet Mr. Carey.’ He was gracious enough to see me. He told me about the business and how hard it was – how hard I’d have to struggle.”
J. Paul Carey Jr.’s words didn’t discourage Dangerfield, however. He bought a car from Carey and VIP Limousine Service of Atlanta was born.
Dangerfield remembers the early years as being “quite lean.” Back in the mid-‘60’s the limousine business was thought of as something people used in New York City. It took about ten years of starvation before the business started to grow at any substantial rate.”
In the meantime, Dangerfield kept his car rental franchise to pay the bills. He clung stubbornly to the belief that the limousine business would get better, and his stubbornness paid off in about four years.
In 1986, Carey decided to branch out and become a worldwide network. The kid from Atlanta who had brazenly gone to see Mr. Carey without an appointment was the company’s first choice for a franchise.
Today, Carey international works as a referral system for Carey clients traveling from one city to another. Because Carey affiliates and franchises have a right of exclusivity in their areas, Dangerfield is virtually guaranteed all the business of Carey clients traveling to Atlanta. He also benefits from Carey’s newly implemented chauffeur training program.
Although Carey is known for its service to corporate clients, Dangerfield realized early on that the key to successful limousine operation was flexibility. He took, and continues to take, reservations for weddings, funerals, concerts, and nights out.
His flexibility has resulted in Dangerfield’s participation in some historic events. For example, Carey Atlanta provided the limousine transportation for dignitaries who attended Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral.
“At that time, I was the only limousine company in Atlanta,” Dangerfield says. He coordinated 87 vehicles, “though owning, renting, borrowing, begging – everything but stealing,” to accommodate mourners.
Another, happier event was when the Beatles came to town in 1965. “I wasn’t really into the music even though I was at that age, because I had the business and everything,” Dangerfield says. Still, he says it was probably the single most memorable experience of his career.
“I drove the band, because I wanted to see what the guys were like.” he says. “They turned out be very nice young men. It was great to handle their transportation, to feel the excitement.”
If handling the Beatles’ transportation was exciting, seeing the devotion of their fans was astounding.
About 70,000 people turned out to see the Beatles in Atlanta. The more devoted of them turned up later at VIP Limousine and offered to pay for the privilege of sitting in the car where the band had sat, emptying the ashtrays, or sweeping the carpets for the dust off the superstars’ shoes.
“It was ridiculous,” laughs Dangerfield. “I let a few of them, though. I felt sorry for them.”
A Company Grows Up
When Dangerfield drove the Beatles, he used five cars and had to subcontract four of them. Today, the company owns 25 and leases an additional 20. The fleet consists of stretches, sedans, vans, and minibuses. The variety fits in with his concept of flexibility; Carey Atlanta can accommodate any sized group for any occasion.
Dangerfield employs 25 full-time and 50 part-time chauffeurs to drive his fleet. The company also employs receptionists, a controller, dispatchers, and a five-person sales team. Two salespeople work exclusively for the limousine service while three work for both the limousine and the special events companies. In addition, Carey Special Events employs artists, meeting planners, and warehouse people. Randall Dunn, who worked with National Theme Party, is Dangerfield’s vice president of sales. Dunn handles the marketing of both companies.
“He has been in the convention industry for over 12 years,” Dangerfield says of Dunn. “He brought the expertise that was needed to mesh the two companies and market them properly.”
The meshing of the two companies, along with Atlanta’s emergence as an international city and Dangerfield’s ability to interpret changing trends in the industry, have all been a part of Carey Atlanta’s growth. Dangerfield has seen to it that his company rolls with the changes.
“We have gone from one sedan to a fleet of eight or ten sedans,” he says. He attributes this to a change in the industry. “In the ‘60’s we had the traditional Cadillac limousines. Then the Cadillac people decided to get out of the business and we started making these stretch limousines with sunroofs and bars and tv’s and all these extras. In Atlanta, it has basically driven away the corporate executive.”
Corporate customers, according to Dangerfield, prefer less ostentatious cars. Even non-corporate clients, he has noticed, are becoming less ostentatious.
“When I was younger I enjoyed driving the rock groups,” he says. “I couldn’t believe the extravagance of the people. Some of them were poor kids who grew up to be musicians and would travel in absolute luxury. They would keep a car on the clock for 24 hours while they were in hotel sleeping. In recent years, the entertainers have wised up and realized they’re not going to spend thousands of dollars a day for limousines. They’ll have pickups and dropoffs like everybody else. It has become a real pickup and dropoff business over the last five years, as opposed to years ago when people would get a car and keep it for 24 hours.”
Controlling the Industry
There are other industry changes Dangerfield would like to see take place. For example, he is on the pro side of the limousine regulation dispute.
“You wake up one morning and feel it should be regulated; you wake up the next morning and feel it shouldn’t be,” he says. “I think if it’s used properly, regulation can be good for any industry. Take the airline industry for instance. Since it was deregulated it’s been nothing but disaster. Company after company goes bankrupt or merges. I think businesses that deal with the public’s need for transportation need some form of regulation.”
While many limousine operators angrily point to the differences between the taxicab and limousine industries as reasons for limousine deregulation. Dangerfield believes there are enough similarities between the two to warrant similar regulation.
“We serve the same purpose, we just have a different means of attaining clients,” he says.
In Atlanta, the Bureau of Taxicabs and Cars-For-Hire regulates both industries. By setting minimum rates for limousines, Dangerfield believes the bureau has helped keep competition fair.
“Sure it should be a free market,” he says, “but it’s not a free market if rates are driven down to the point where all the competition is driven out of business. You know it takes a minimum of $50 an hour (in Atlanta) to run a car properly and make a profit. You have to have some kind of structure where rates are controlled by the city so you can’t rent for less than a certain amount so the public doesn’t get ripped off. If it’s less than a certain amount, you’re losing money.”
Would a company actually lose money intentionally? Maybe, says Dangerfield. “If you lose money long enough, either your company goes out of business, or it drives everybody else out,” he says. Barring that, it will reduce the quality of service and equipment offered in the area.
The Atlanta airport also has strict regulations regarding limousines. I’ve been in some airports where you go to the baggage area and you’re hassled so much by limousine companies, or people pretending to be with limousine companies, that you wish you hadn’t gone to that airport,” says Dangerfield. “That doesn’t happen in Atlanta. If they catch drivers hassling people in the baggage claim, those drivers can’t come to the airport for a period of time, and they’re fined.”
Dangerfield gets annoyed just thinking about such experiences. “There’s just no reason to hassle the public,” he says emphatically. “Some guys just starting out in the business think the only way to get business is to get out here and hustle, but Atlanta’s so strict they’ve found out there are other ways of getting the business.”
“We advertise in all the leading journals that are affiliated with the convention industry,” Dangerfield explains. “We also advertise in some business publications and some of the local publications.”
One advertising medium Dangerfield doesn’t think benefits limousine operators in general is the Yellow Pages. He is reducing his company’s Yellow Pages advertising significantly. “I’d rather spend that money in a business publication knowing the business people are going to see it,” he says. “I’ve started adding up the money I’ve paid over the past 25 years (to Yellow Pages) and I don’t believe I’ve received that same revenue back.”
What Makes It Tick?
Whatever forms of advertising Dangerfield has used, they’ve certainly paid off. In an industry fraught with horror stories of bankruptcy and sudden failure, how has he stayed above water for 25 years?
“You must be totally committed,” he says. “This is not an easy business. It might be a glamorous business. You might identify it with Hollywood, but I assure you it’s hard work. It’s work days, evenings, nights, weekends.”
Sounds pretty discouraging when it’s put like that. So why does he do it?
“You get a lot of satisfaction if you stay with it,” he continues. “You meet a lot of wonderful people. There are also those who make you hate to work, just like in any job. There’s a bozo in every field.”
The main thing to remember, Dangerfield says, is that limousine service is a people-oriented business.
“You almost need to have multiple personalities,” he laughs. “You have to deal with people who get intoxicated. You have to deal with arrogant people, extremely intelligent people, people of royal birth … it requires etiquette.”
For this reason, he says, the people you hire are the key to your success.
“I don’t’ care how good a business person you are. If the people driving for you aren’t able to deal with different kinds of people, you’ll never be successful.”
Dangerfield knows he has the right people working for him. And he knows he’s in the right business.
“I’ve been very happy for the past 25 years,” he says. “It’s been very difficult. There have been hard years, and there are more of both to come. But I intend to follow through.”
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