Annual State Of The Industry: Luxury ground transportation services should use tech and data to cater to clients.
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — If you could have picked an ideal year to organize an industry, 1984 would have been the best. The economy roared, tax cuts blossomed, Apple computers emerged, Wall Street partied hard, and a beloved pro-business President won in a landslide.
Into this era stepped the first ever limousine industry trade show, on Dec. 9, 1984, at Caesars in Atlantic City. The advantage of being a first is there are no rules and no guides — just a hope and vision to succeed. And by the second year, the Limousine & Chauffer Show, now the International Limousine Charter & Tour Show, bested itself many times over. Thirty years later, the Show is an institution, a sophisticated, hyper-connected fulcrum of networking, selling and educating for a global luxury transportation sector.
Some of those industry businesspeople who were there in 1984 are still coming today, a testament to an event that knows what traditions to keep and what changes to embrace. That first show started with about 25 stretch limousines on display with an expected crowd of 200. Founders Ed and Ty Bobit, the father-son team that ran Bobit Publishing and now run Bobit Business Media, ignited a novelty event that took off from day one. About 500 people came, as did local TV news crews from nearby Philadelphia.
“The place was mobbed,” recalls Frank Di Giacomo, who was a sales manager for Limousine & Chauffeur Magazine and other magazines owned by Bobit Publishing. “Most of the exhibitors showing limos had ropes around them, like at a regular car show. We had to tell them this is a different type of show; ‘You have to take those down, people want to see the limos.’ They were used to auto shows and didn’t want people in cars because they were afraid they would steal,” adds Di Giacomo, now the vice president of Bobit Business Media’s Bus & Rail Group, which includes Metro Magazine and School Bus Fleet. But limousine operators are a different crowd; the coachbuilders learned quickly that allowing them to sit, sample and touch the vehicles could lead to lots of sales, he says.
Just one year later, the show drew 100 vehicles and enough attendance to warrant moving to the Atlantic City Convention Center on the Boardwalk instead of at the smaller Caesars ballroom. An industry institution was in the making. “We had no idea it was going to have the attendance it had and be as well received it was,” Di Giacomo says.
Richard Ramis, who was an original columnist at Limousine & Chauffeur Magazine and an early industry educator, wrote a speech welcoming attendees to the first Show. “This was No. 1; no one had anything to compare it to,” Ramis says. “We lived in the desert and they served ice cold water, and boom, it was a success.” Ramis has seen the size and scope of the limousine industry multiply, growing from a mostly corporate and funeral service to a wide variety of niches and vehicle types that have surpassed the popularity of the stretch limousine.
Perhaps no one captures the early limousine era better than the ubiquitous “Limo Bob,” aka Robert J. Strauser, known to all. The flamboyant, dynamic, exotic limo operator, vehicle seller, manufacturer and reality TV star with his trademark fur length coat and 30 pounds of neck jewelry attended the 1984 show and just about every one thereafter until semi-retiring to business consulting in Florida in 2009. Limo Bob, 55, has been driving livery vehicles since the age of 15 while growing up in his native Chicago. He started his limo company in 1982 with a 1973 Lincoln Town Car.
“I was right there at the first show,” Limo Bob says. “The funniest thing I heard when they opened the doors and cut the ribbon was, ‘Do one thing before you enter. Park your egos in the coat check room before you come in.’ I thought that was a horrible thing to say. Thirty years later, do I ever know the truth of that statement. We had egos bigger than a storm. If you had a limo, you were the Mac Daddy; you were superstar of your own world just having one limo.”
The Show eventually established four primary purposes for operators and vendors that resonate 30 years later as the pillars of International LCT Shows: Affiliate networking, education, product sales and socializing.
In early days, attendees numbered about 300 to 400, creating a better sense of intimacy, says Bruce Cirlin, a sales manager with Complete Fleet Limousine Sales in Union, N.J., who has never missed a show since 1984. He has been selling and financing vehicles since 1980. Before that, he ran a limousine service for three years.
There weren’t any affiliates, so the shows set the industry template for networking and encouraging operators to do business with one another, Cirlin recalls. “A lot of people didn’t know each other. You knew people from you area. It was just so interesting getting to meet coachbuilders and people from all over the country. There were people I spoke to on the phone for years that I never knew. Everyone became like old friends and developed a lot of camaraderie. It became a big thing you look forward to every year.”
The industry needed a national voice and power in unity at the time, Ramis says. The act of bringing industry members together for the first time soon led to the formation of the National Limousine Association in 1985. “The networking started slow but sure,” he says. “Networking was more of a referral thing, giving each other phone numbers. It took 10-15 years before networking really came to fruition. It took many years for the networking part of the industry to solidify. It is still a work in progress.”
Limousine Operators International was the first referral network, along with Carey and Dav El which were national limousine booking operations, he says. “You couldn’t build a better forum. We never had it. One cannot even attempt to put a value on what it gave us. We would not be talking today had we not had a starting point. You couldn’t even begin to fathom. Every show became more powerful.”
Adds Cirlin, “The great thing that developed was the ability to network. People really didn’t have affiliates in those days. The opportunity to meet people and have seminars really helped the industry take off.”
Of course, the networking during the Show was an art form all its own. Who wouldn’t look back and laugh at the bulletin boards with the papered scrawlings of attendees trying to connect. “The message boards were hilarious,” says Jeffrey Shanker, who owned his first limousine company starting in 1986 and attended shows from 1986 to 1988. Shanker is now a vice president of A-1 Limousine in Princeton, N.J., and a board member of the Limousine Associations of New Jersey. “The message board has become the cell phone, and the cell phone has become texting. Now we text on the show floor and meet up.”
Learning The Limo Life
The shows were also a recurring crucible of ideas, policies, and business strategies, indicative of an industry interacting and working on its long term owner’s manual. One of the most lasting contributions of the shows has been the educational seminars, which became a cooperative venture between LCT and the National Limousine Association. Operators learned how to run better businesses from front to end while becoming savvier about how much to pay for stretch limousines, Di Giacomo recalls.
You can’t put a price or value on how it started and how it happened, Ramis recalls. Of Limousine & Chauffeur Magazine, which went hand-in-hand with the Show, he says, “We got our encyclopedia late in life, clung to it, kept running with it. The magazine kept up with [the industry] and that was our forum.” As old as the livery profession is, from organizational standpoint, the limousine industry is still very young overall, he says. “What is old is new again. It’s good to understand how we got where we are so we can get to the next step.”
In the 1980s, chauffeurs had two-way beepers. There was no dispatch software. Fax machines and disposable cameras were common. Vendors were categorized as vehicles, accessories or products.
“There was a ton of business commerce,” Shanker says. “Everyone wanted a limo and wanted something else to set themselves apart socially; the bigger the car, the more extravagant the car.”
Exhibitors wore tuxedos, but attendees were more casual than the business-suited corporate-oriented operators of today. “Three people actually showed me attaché cases loaded with cash read to buy the limos,” Di Giacomo recalls.
Cirlin used to sell 100 stretch limousines a year. “What really stood out was [the 90s]. With more coachbuilders than ever, the shows got crowded. It was a good time for the country and industry; we rock and rolled for a number of years. Attendance soared from hundreds to thousands. You could walk into the shows not knowing what to expect, and walk out with great orders.”
Cirlin deals with many of the same customers he did 20-30 years ago. “People I sold to here introduced me to so many other operators. It’s been like a cascading waterfall meeting more people for 30 years.”
For Limo Bob, the shows provided the venue to make connections and promote his businesses. He became associated with all types of attention-grabbing, unique stretches, and whatever he promoted sold well. “Anything I was touching was turning to gold,” Limo Bob says. “The bigger I got, the more became the demand from coachbuilders for exposure. Then I became a coachbuilder, with my own brand.”
Limo Bob still makes limousines for select clients while advising the businesses of his wife, son Limo Bob Jr., 22, who has a Chicago limousine service, and his daughter, Jennifer, 28. “It’s been an amazing walk through life,” he says. “I’ve always loved the limo business.”
Go-Go At The Show
All of the original attendees interviewed delighted in detailing the social aspect of the first Shows. In sum, it was just a different time, and a very politically incorrect one compared to today. Female models often adorned and accentuated the show floor vehicles. “Everyone had a lot of fun because it was the first time we got together,” says Cirlin, who adds he learned how to gamble at the shows.
Ramis recalls the social scene closely mirrored the 1980s work-hard-play-hard ethos. There was an element of “debauchery at its finest,” he recalls.
Young Shanker tried out various dress codes during one three-day Show: On the first day, he wore jeans and a polo shirt; only two companies would talk to him. On the second day, he wore a suit and tie, and everyone talked to him. On the third, day he donned khaki pants and a polo shirt; about a third of operators and vendors talked to him. But at least he didn’t go for the “Mr. T starter kits,” which included heavy gold chains and jewelry like NBC-TV’s “A-Team” character “Mr. T.”
“Clients were partying beyond belief,” Shanker recalls. “The show floor was very jovial. It was very energetic, and it was flamboyant and extravagant.”
Thirty years is long enough to cultivate a new generation of attendees. In October 1988, a house fire burned out Shanker’s limousine business and he lost it. He became an EMS paramedic for 14 years before joining A-1 in 2002 and returning to the shows. His gap away from the shows contrasted the big industry changes for him.
The focus now is on revenues and profits instead of trying to do better than the Joneses, Shanker says. “Fourteen years later, it was like night and day. The show went from a carnival environment to a professional environment, from an untethered industry gathering to a professionally run and educated show that truly enticed everyone to sit down and learn. It has moved the industry to the professional direction that it is today.”
LCT Shows 1984 — 2014
1984: Dec. 9-10, Sands Hotel/Caesars Palace, Atlantic City, NJ
1985: Dec. 9-11, Atlantic City Convention Center/Harrah’s Trump Plaza, Atlantic City NJ
1985: Nov. 11-13, Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, NV
1986: Nov. 3-5, Las Vegas Hilton Hotel, Las Vegas, NV
1987: Feb. 3-5, Atlantic City Convention Center, Atlantic City, NJ
1987: Nov. 21-23, Las Vegas Hilton Hotel, Las Vegas, NV
1988: Jan. 12-14, Atlantic City Convention Center/Trump Plaza, Atlantic City, NJ
1989: March 12-15, Baltimore Convention Center, Baltimore, MD
1990: March 4-7, Las Vegas Hilton Hotel, Las Vegas, NV
1991: Dec. 8-11, Baltimore Convention Center, Baltimore, MD
1991: March 10-13, Rivergate Convention Center, New Orleands, LA
1992: No Show
1993: Jan. 10-12, Trump Taj Majal, Atlantic City, NJ
1994: Feb. 6-8, Riviera Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas, NV
1995: Jan. 8-10, Trump Taj Majal, Atlantic City, NJ
1996: Feb. 5-7, MGM Grand Hotel, Las Vegas, NV
1996: Nov. 11-13, Trump Taj Majal, Atlantic City, NJ
1997: March 16-17, Daytona Beach, FL, Spring Break ‘97
1998: March 15-17, MGM Grand Hotel, Las Vegas, NV
1999: March 11-13, Javits Center/Grand Hyatt, Las Vegas, NV
2000: Feb. 6-8, Paris Las Vegas, Las Vegas, NV
2001: Feb. 5-7, Venetian Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas, NV
2002: March 17-19, Paris Las Vegas, Las Vegas, NV
2003: Feb. 17-19, Venetian Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas, NV
2004: Feb. 22-24, Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino, Las Vegas, NV
2005: March 13-15, Venetian Resort & Casino, Las Vegas, NV
2006: Feb. 26-28, Venetian Resort & Casino, Las Vegas, NV
2007: Jan. 28-30, Venetian Resort & Casino, Las Vegas, NV
2008: March 17-19, Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas, NV
2009: Jan. 26-28, Venetian & Palazzo Resort Hotel Casinos, Las Vegas, NV
2010: Jan. 25-27, Venetian & Palazzo Resort Hotel Casinos, Las Vegas, NV
2011: Feb. 14-16, Paris Las Vegas, Las Vegas, NV
2012: Feb. 13-15, MGM Grand Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas, NV
2013: Feb. 5-7, MGM Grand Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas, NV
2014: Feb. 16-18, MGM Grand Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas, NV
Source: Bobit Business Media Events Dept.
Related Topics: anniversaries, Atlantic city, Bobit Business Media, Bruce Cirlin, Ed Bobit, history of the limo industry, ILCT 2014, Jeff Shanker, Las Vegas, Limo Bob, limo tradeshows, Richard Ramis, Ty Bobit, Western U.S. operators
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