The fight not only pits new ways against old, it also reveals modern-day ruptures in the labor market.
Art Squires can be described as a true visionary—a man determined to best meet his client’s needs. Squires, owner of Southwest Carriage Livery Service, Inc. in Houston, TX, has long been pursuing a dream that would see every client treated like royalty and would foster a better overall image for the industry.
He has been chasing this ideal ever since he first stumbled into the livery industry back in 1974. As a show business agent, Squires needed to be assured that his clients would receive the best transportation service possible. And as the old saying goes: “If you want something done right, do it yourself.”
Squires is a believer in the philosophy that you need a “product” to market to become successful. The product he created is “white glove service.” He believes the client is paying for more than just a car and driver, he is paying for a well trained, professional chauffeur He expanded on this product by marketing to airlines. Over the years, his company prospered with these profitable accounts. But with the drop in airline travel, Squires business was hurt as well.
CREATING A PRODUCT
“Everyone thought I was crazy when began offering the ‘white glove service.’ But all I wanted to do was to make sure the client feels his ego is being massaged, and that we’re giving a service that he is paying for. We want the client to know that we care about the image he sees when he gets off a plane. You can’t tell me clients don’t like being met by my chauffeurs vs. the guy dressed in a bad suit with a purple tie and green socks. When one of my chauffeurs meets a client, everyone else in the airport knows that person is someone in the business world,” Squires explains.
The main crux of this service revolves around a very specific training program. Clifford Shawd, operations manager at Southwest, runs this training program. “The actual training process lasts about 10 days. Clifford has about three books full of information that he breaks down into about 12 different sessions. Basically, we don’t let them drive until we think they’re going to tie their tie right, wear the right color socks, know what jewelry should and shouldn’t be worn, know what to say and what not to, and know something about self-esteem. If they haven’t got it, I don’t want them,” he adds. In addition to the training program, Squires also has the chauffeur sign a 30-page contract. “That contract spells out everything, down to when they can go to the bathroom.”
Squires also believes this type of service is going to be crucial to a livery company’s survival in the rest of this decade. “I personally think we are part of a necessary, efficient industry. Without us, a lot of people would certainly be very uncomfortable in their travels. Ground transportation is going to be used as the extra little perk to keep corporate people happy. Business people today need to get their work done, otherwise they are going to lose. That’s where efficient ground transportation fits into the equation. That is white glove service. Good operators will always be in demand. That’s where the 1990s are going,” he says.
IDENTIFYING HIS NICHE
Squires determined that he didn’t want to be in the limousine business, he wanted to be in the ground transportation industry. To accomplish this, he concentrated on servicing the airline industry. “We decided to focus on the airline industry, so we began making proposals to different airlines. Over a two-year period, I went overseas at least a dozen times and made proposals to every airline that had a foreign name because the foreign tickets had more of a funding base than domestic flights. If an overseas ticket cost $4,000, it was no problem to add an extra $100 for livery service,” he explains.
After this two-year period, six airlines expressed interest in South- west’s service. Of those, Squires focused on British Caledonia, British Air, and KLM.
He wound up with a contract with KLM. “KLM started with us by guaranteeing 40 rides each month. We ended up with over 600 a month over a six-year period. It was one of our best airline accounts. We did in excess of $4 million with them,” he adds.
Today, Squires is working with five airlines—KLM, British Air, Lufthansa, Continental, and Aero Mexico. His company provides service to certain travelers in first and business class. While first- time flyers might not qualify for this service, most corporate travelers do. “It depends on whether the account is worthwhile to the airline. They want to make sure they give those people good service.”
While the emphasis on this segment of the industry allowed South west a long period of growth, it has been the company’s nemesis as well. In the past year, airline business dropped from 53 percent of Squires’ revenue to only 23 percent. He was also forced to downsize his fleet from 32 to nine vehicles-four limousines, four sedans, and one van. “The airlines are coming back now, but in a different mode. We are trying to conform to that,” he says.
One of the ways he is trying to conform is by going after clients other than first- and business class passengers. Since many of the passengers who used to travel in the upper classes have been forced to migrate to the back of the plane due to economic considerations, this is an area Squires believes he can successfully market to. He is currently in negotiations with KLM to create a package that will be beneficial to all parties involved. The Houston Airport System recently announced that international passenger traffic is up 16.4 percent for the month of August. With almost 14 million passengers passing through Houston’s airport annually, there is still a good portion of work for Squires to acquire.
“The biggest mistake I made in the livery industry was to put too much emphasis in one specific area, and doing so well in it that I got blinded,” he admits. “We got so busy doing airline work, and we had so much demand put on us, that we probably lost sight of the other areas of the industry, which was not a good idea.”
Squires offers advice for other operators interested in this segment of the market: “Airlines look for a product, rather than just a car and driver. They look for a totally integrated product which incorporates insurance, a driver’s contract, driver training, good vehicles, a comprehensive sales and marketing approach, computerization, and efficiency. You have to do your homework and know what is going on. If someone from the airline is quizzing you about the business and you don’t know what share the airline has of the market, he knows you don’t care.
“There is a mentality about the livery industry that the vehicles won’t show up. That has got to change. There has got to be a way to make it as efficient to book ground transportation as it is to book a hotel. That’s what this industry needs.”
EXPLORING OTHER VENTURES
Squires has long been a jack of many trades. Currently, his business ventures include a Ticketron, rental car agency, and an advertising agency, in addition to the livery service. But he doesn’t just sit back and let things happen—Squires is constantly on the lookout for any new profitable venture, as long as it will benefit his clientele.
“We should be more consistently concerned about our product and the niche markets that we have. We shouldn’t lose sight of what’s important. I tend to lose sight. I go off in a lot of different directions, which isn’t always good,” he admits.
Squires has been involved in many business ventures over the years. Not all have been successful. One of these was a joint enterprise with Ultra Airlines. This was a premium airline service based in Houston. “I think if the owner had incorporated ground transportation in with the ticket price from the beginning, he would have had a better chance to survive. We did try very hard to make that succeed,” he adds.
The success Squires has seen over the years proves that many of the ventures he gets involved with often prove fruitful. An area he is currently considering entering is share ride. Studies in the Houston area have shown a need for this type of service, but current city ordinances are proving to be a hurdle. “The City of Houston is trying to meet the standards of the Clean Air Act. Because of this, I think they may pass an ordinance that will allow this type of service,” he explains.
But before he gets involved in any kind of business venture, Squires always makes sure to do his home work. “When you are really interested in something, you have got to do your studying. If the city allowed me to do share riding today, I wouldn’t do it unless I had the marketing tie in. You need some assurances that someone wants what you have to offer,” he adds.
Another of Squires’ current ventures is trying to achieve an ideal for the industry—to have ground transportation treated like any other aspect of the travel industry. He would like to eventually see people have the ability to make a livery reservation with the ease they can now make hotel, airline, or rental car reservations.
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