Operations

How To Handle The Large Group Challenge

Anne Daniells
Posted on January 24, 2016
Buses in queue behind the Cosmopolitan and Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas demonstrate the cooperation needed with meeting and venue sites.
Buses in queue behind the Cosmopolitan and Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas demonstrate the cooperation needed with meeting and venue sites.

For large convention cities like Miami, Chicago and San Diego, moving a large group of people via a chauffeured fleet brings a unique set of challenges.

Some things are fairly standard. Get the manifest as early as possible and understand what is needed. Arrange for vehicles. Get deposits or full payment. Choose greeters and make signs. Check the weather and track the planes. Charge the radios and phones. But is everyone else ready, too?

Learning from the lessons of other operators can ensure smoother travels for large groups.

Do You Know What I Know?

In this business, we know that clients want to be pampered from the minute they arrive. The ideal situation is to have a personal greeter for each traveler who collects the luggage and carries them to a curbside chauffeured vehicle. We also know this cannot happen. Event planners and corporate convention specialists want to keep everyone happy, certainly, but here’s the rub — YOU know how to do it better than they do! The ideal will never happen, after all. Do they know how long it takes to get to the hotel? Or the best staging areas and routes? Or how the airport handles large vehicles or a swarm of individual vehicles for thousands of guests? You must move groups the right way, and that may mean not doing it the way the client wants.

Lesson Learned No. 1

Manage your client’s expectations. “Do everything for the benefit of the group while keeping the individual in mind,” says Steve Weathers, president and owner of SEAT (Special Event and Transportation Planners) based in San Diego. A group airport departure still has to happen when a single suitcase is lost, for example. “You have to let the group move and make other plans for the unfortunate passenger left behind.” And he should know. Weathers’ company moves half a million people a year all over the country for major events and conventions.

In San Diego, Goldfield Stage relies upon its local knowledge and group expertise. “It all starts with an educated sales force,” says Kevin McClintock, President and owner. “They will guide a client based on better know-how of the details — how many people can be loaded at a time, how much curb staff is needed. A customer may know the desired results, but they can’t know all the logistics.”

The Fleet, Taxi, POV Puzzle

No single provider has everything needed in coaches, so smaller vehicles are the rule. And in big city-wide moves, running out of equipment adds costs. “It’s important to have a good working relationship with everyone in town,” McClintock says. “Fleet limitation in San Diego is particularly difficult, so we use smaller vehicles and try to keep the controls tighter.”

Because coaches are not the only vehicles that will get used, large group movement becomes a puzzle of different proportions. Families traveling together to enjoy a lovely destination like San Diego often rent a car, a necessity in much of Southern California. But it is true anywhere that the vehicle mix changes, often at the last minute. Personal vehicles make for fewer group passengers, but it is the “busphobic” who are the unexpected arrivals.

“A significant number will always use taxis over buses,” Weathers says. “They’ll wait an hour in the rain before they will take a free bus to a hotel where there are taxis already waiting.” Yet these busphobic passengers can really complicate a pick-up location. They want a taxi or private vehicle, which can make it impossible for a bus to pull in for a larger group pick-up. Having a taxi block a platform is a hindrance, and then the drivers often don’t take credit cards, delaying things further while digging for a measly $12.

In San Diego, Goldfield Stage relies upon its local knowledge and group expertise to handle convention/meetings clients.
In San Diego, Goldfield Stage relies upon its local knowledge and group expertise to handle convention/meetings clients.

Lesson Learned No. 2

Work with the taxis and other officials ahead of time to keep loading platforms clear. At a past pick up at San Francisco’s AT&T Park, SEAT Planners arranged for city police specifically to manage vehicles and keep them separate from the buses. “Only the British queue up better than cabs do,” Weathers says. “Tell a taxi how to line up, and they play by the rules.” Manage the little vehicles and the large ones will roll along freely to pre-arranged passenger loading and drop-off areas.

Airport/Convention Venue Access

Airports have their own individual high times, and they always occur when a large group arrives. It is the nature of travel and volume, so everything from lead time to parking to pick up will be more difficult.

Maybe there is no room at the curb, or greeters cannot bring in coolers. Maybe security refused to let chauffeurs handle bags. Or greeters are not allowed to hold up signs. Sure, you’ve got radio and phone communication for your own people, but the airport will find all kinds of things you can’t do. Now try collecting 1,000 people who never read a word sent to them by the convention planner or their assistant. It’s your job to make it all come together.

SEAT Planners’ operation manager Clinton Glasgow signs in an affiliate bus and driver in Atlanta.
SEAT Planners’ operation manager Clinton Glasgow signs in an affiliate bus and driver in Atlanta.

Lesson Learned No. 3

Make nice with airport and convention traffic officers long before you need them. Every location wants people in and out as quickly and as safely as possible. Become known as the easy company to work with. Know people’s names. Bring trays of cookies to the office if that helps, but do it ahead of time. With a good working relationship, the transportation department might dedicate its staff to your move, or help in getting buses front and center. Ask for a staging area. Even airports without any bus staging area will sometimes work with you if the event is big enough. It may mean a bus corral a little farther for the passengers to walk, but it’s a plan that you can count on. In San Diego, for example, there is no good loading spot near the harbor, but McClintock had luck with the Harbor Police for a large fireworks event over the water. “They arranged a loading area at the end of an airport rental car lot. It was very helpful to have their support.” Airport cooperation is critical for smooth movement, so get these key players on your team.

Talk On The City Streets

Many cities have special event departments that oversee larger gatherings, require permits, and staff city employees to meet traffic and crowd control. It’s a good thing, too. Look at Lexington, Kentucky’s failure to manage a Luke Bryan concert late last year, or Sacramento’s traffic safety issues for the City of Tree’s music festival. These cities didn’t require event planners to secure permits. As a result, roads were blocked for miles, parking was not managed, and crowds were unruly.

Goldfield Stage in San Diego has the vehicle variety to service large venues like ball parks while offering vehicles fit group needs within airports and convention sites.
Goldfield Stage in San Diego has the vehicle variety to service large venues like ball parks while offering vehicles fit group needs within airports and convention sites.

Lesson Learned No. 4

Be a good neighbor and work with cities and police ahead of time. The city’s involvement can improve the event. “Having non-parking signs and road closures can really help, but it costs,” Weathers says. “They may even over-budget police officers, but expect this on behalf of your client.” The benefit is that a transportation company and event planner are better protected if an incident happens. Another benefit? Shuttle routes are usually better. “In San Diego, the city actively works on our shuttle routes for us to avoid residential areas,” McClintock adds.

What Could Go Wrong?

You have the fleet, your client is excited, the city and venues are ready for you. What could go wrong? This list is long — it could be that the whole group misses the flight and never calls to tell you. Or the primary event contact for a medical conference refuses the buses with smoking ads on them. Or a major theme park won’t allow coaches on the property that have an ad for a competitive theme park. In the chauffeured transportation industry, we try to find affiliates with simple branding or none at all, but “no city in the U.S. has enough of these to handle the largest event,” Weather says. You have to work with what you have and explain to clients about the locale’s limitations. Other unexpected changes may be too big to handle on your own.

“Twice, I’ve had protesters show up at an event,” he adds. One specifically targeted the convention goers. As soon as we saw them coming, we notified the hotel security, the conference security, local police, and kept passengers inside.” This unexpected turn remained peaceful and the protesters kept going, but it could have been a disaster.

Lesson Learned No. 5

Plan for the unexpected. Know what the planner has going. Talk to parks, venues, bars, restaurants, especially if you are not part of the pre-planning meetings. Train employees always to be on the lookout for anything unusual. It could be a hotel placing food carts near the loading entrance, or a security checkpoint that will affect timing for passengers entering and exiting a venue. The client, your employees and the location all will appreciate an abundance of caution.

Each of these lessons leads to one simple goal — be the expert. McClintock affirms that “clients will thank you after it goes well even if it meant changing the original plan completely.”

As more and more limousine companies expand into group transportation, the service level must be top notch to compete. Learn the lessons early.

Related Topics: airports, Anne Daniells, fleet management, group transportation, How To, logistics, meetings and conventions, motorcoaches, San Diego operators, special events, working with hotels

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