Here are some sights and scenes from one wicked cool tradeshow.
CARSON, Calif. — In the field of limousine operators, Art Rivas would rank among owners handling major business challenges.
The CEO of Limo4me.com Limousine & Party Bus is repositioning Southern California’s foremost party bus operation following the loss of his business partner and a shifting marketplace amid more regulatory and media attention on party bus safety.
His newer, tougher job description took shape abruptly on Nov. 26, 2011 when his business partner of 10 years, Dean Tolzman, was severely injured in a high-speed sports car crash in Long Beach, Calif. The injuries have forced Tolzman to retire to focus on his long recovery. Rivas, who started the company with Tolzman in 2001 as Platinum Limousine in Long Beach, is buying out his partner to keep operations going.
Rivas, who has a background in restaurant start-ups, also owns a sign and marketing company in Long Beach called Tankard Design Imaging (TDI Signs) that designs and fabricates signs for major companies worldwide. Clients include Bank of America, CitiBank, Starbucks, Lexus and Quicksilver, which retained TDI two years ago to design its signage and display in front of its store in Times Square in New York City. After the accident, however, Platinum Limousine demanded more of Rivas’ time and attention since the company had mostly reflected the personality of his dynamic business partner.
The last two years have been a frenzy of reorganization, rebranding and refocusing the company, which Rivas says takes farm-out party bus business from “hundreds” of Southern California limousine operators. In just 16 months, Rivas cleaned house, updated software, revised and installed operating procedures, and put himself at the helm of a business that was in danger of slipping. The changes culminated in renaming Platinum Limousine as Limo4me.com — a strategic move that makes the company’s website its primary brand appeal to a more tech-savvy party bus clientele. “We wanted a strong Internet presence,” Rivas says. “We come up first, second, third in searches and have a good organic presence.”
Limo4me.com, which does 85% party bus runs and 15% traditional corporate chauffeured services, occupies a building, garage and expansive lot on 2.5 acres in an industrial area of Carson, about 15 miles south of Los Angeles. The layout is well suited to walk-in customers, who are greeted by representatives in the company’s call and reservation center at the entrance. Prospective customers can check out any of the 50 limousines, sedans, SUVs, and buses of various makes, models and sizes that happen to be on the lot. Of those, 32 vehicles are considered party/retail buses, which range from the latest Freightliners by Tiffany Coach, to multiple, creative conversions of used charter buses and city transit buses. Limo4me.com also offers three Lincoln MKT Town Car stretch limousines.
Limo4me.Com Limousine & Party Bus was among the first companies to see the surge in party bus demand in the early 2000s when it was Platinum Limousine. It has grown to serve diverse client markets, including weddings, birthdays, bachelor and bachelorette parties, company events, concerts, cruise line transfers, formals, funerals, graduations, homecomings, proms, Quinceañeras, theater trips, tours, Las Vegas journeys and wine tasting tours. The company charges flat hourly rates and does not pass on taxes to customers.
As with any fleet-based business, the changing demands from customers and outside market pressures mean an owner must look ahead and anticipate better ways to deliver service. For Rivas, the way forward involves franchising his brand into tightly focused high-end party bus outlets.
“I’d like to be king of the corporate party buses and get away from controlling the chaos,” says Rivas, referring to the demands of the retail party bus market. “Now more than ever, with some breakdowns and problems in the news, I’ve thought of polishing that idea.”
Upgrades & Updates
Rivas is writing a software program structured for a Limo4me.com franchise business while developing an advertising and marketing plan. His first phase over the next six months is to downsize his fleet and split it into three Southern California locations: Los Angeles, Hollywood and Orange County. Longer range plans include opening locations in Dallas and other major cities, eventually launching 100 franchise locations by 2015. The fleet mix of each franchisee would be “localized” and custom-tailored to the demands of each service region, Rivas explains.
As part of that plan, Limo4me.com is gradually upgrading its fleet to newer, more modern buses. About half of the fleet as of August consisted of newer buses up to five years old, and the rest are used and converted buses, many of them outfitted locally with new seating, lights, fog machines and stereo systems.
“I don’t want to be the company of old buses,” Rivas says. “I just want to have every franchisee to have eight to 12 brand new limos and buses, depending on demographics. We’re doing a lot to create the brand in defined, local markets.” For example, Rivas cited the planned Hollywood outlet, which would lean heavily toward high-end party buses for corporate and entertainment clients out on the town, while the Orange County franchise would have a fleet with more vehicles suited to the suburban weddings and special events markets.
Another area where Rivas became more aggressive is party bus safety, a topic that has roiled the limousine industry given the many high-profile party bus accidents in recent years nationwide. The safety issue hit home for Rivas in early August when one of his minibuses carrying a group of bachelor party day trippers was gutted in a blaze along U.S. Highway 101 northwest of Los Angeles. Fortunately, the group had plenty of time to get out with their belongings and the chauffeur followed all of the company’s safety procedures and deployed a fire extinguisher, Rivas says. The fire likely was caused by an engine oil leak on a hot day of strenuous extended travel involving multiple hills and elevations, he said.
The company requires safety training for chauffeurs and drivers, maintenance checklists, fire extinguishers, and detailed vehicle records. Most notable, however, is the constructive approach Rivas takes with state regulators. He actually calls his contact in the Los Angeles office of the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates chauffeured transportation companies in the state.
“I have a regular relationship with the PUC. He keeps me straight,” he says of his inspector. Rivas figures it’s a good use of time and effort to know and follow every rule and keep the right records and forms. The risks are higher than for a corporate-only fleet, so obeying the rules doesn’t just promote maximum safety, it reduces liability too. “I’ve never been found negligent, never been in the courthouse and had no litigations. I invest a lot of time and money in getting it right.”
Here are some sights and scenes from one wicked cool tradeshow.
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