Operations

Luxury Ground Transportation Proves Itself At National Conventions

Lexi Tucker
Posted on September 15, 2016

Credit: Photo courtesy of Kurt Shaffer Photographs
Credit: Photo courtesy of Kurt Shaffer Photographs
As the battle for votes rages in one of the most volatile presidential elections in history, one thing remains constant: The need for reliable ground transportation.

No global event showcases and challenges chauffeured transportation more than the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, which were held in late July. As always, the mega-events serve as big moneymakers for operators as well as good logistical training.

They also prove planning for such an event is simply more than TNCs can handle. Group transportation requires a lot more than a click of a button on an app.

LCT spoke with operators before (preliminary interviews can be found at lctmag.com here and here) and after the conventions to find out how they went, what they learned, and what other operators should know before diving into big events like these.

Republican National Convention (RNC

Dates: July 18-21, 2016

Host City: Cleveland, Ohio

Main Venue: Quicken Loans Arena

Nominee: Donald Trump

Social Media Hashtag: #RNCinCLE

Democratic National Convention (DNC)

Dates: July 25-28, 2016

Host City: Philadelphia, Penn.

Main Venue: Wells Fargo Center

Nominee: Hillary Clinton

Social Media Hashtag: #DemsInPhilly

Lessons Learned

Steve Qua, president of Company Car and Limousine in Cleveland, ran about 72 vehicles during the RNC and excelled in the hectic environment. Often, clients underestimate their schedules, he learned. “Customers think they know what they are going to do, but they really have no idea.”

For example, clients believe they’ll go from their hotel to a party, then to a press conference, and from there to a reception. “That’s the way their schedule looked when they made their reservations, but by the time the actual day hit, not only did the itinerary change, but the start and end times did as well,” Qua says.

In limo speak, transfers proved difficult. “Although as-directed is harder to sell long-term, it’s really the only way a high level of service can be supplied to customers,” Qua says. “If you are putting transfers back to back, it just doesn’t work. If we had to do it again, we wouldn’t sell transfers at all, even at a two-hour minimum, because many transfers that normally only take 15 minutes took a lot longer than two hours.”

John Donohoe, president of Sterling Limousine in Wrightstown, Penn., saw an incredible demand for transportation during the DNC. “We broke all kinds of records with revenue, and ended up using about 25% more than our entire fleet,” he says. “We subcontracted some vehicles, rented from rental car agencies…basically anything and everything we could to meet the demand.”

RNC Rockstars

(top to bottom): Mary Jo and Tony Mazzarella, Steve Qua, John Petrus, and Larry Chrystal rocked the RNC.

He learned to expect the unexpected, and to make sure you get everything you’ve discussed in writing, especially when dealing with affiliates. “Make sure your cancellation policy is clear as well,” adds Ron Robinson, operations manager for the company.

Mary Jo and Tony Mazzarella, director of sales and general manager for American Limousine Service in Cleveland, ran about 85 vehicles and complimented how the city handled the RNC logistics. “The way it was situated, everything was in a condensed area and they really had good control over traffic,” Mary Jo says.

Adds Tony: “The preparation was more stressful than the actual event. We learned as long as you are prepared, you can handle any event that comes your way. The week leading up to it, our nerves were on edge. We discovered once we got into the routine and everyone was comfortable with the routes we were taking, everything was on autopilot as far as everyone knowing what was expected of them. We just had to make sure dispatch stayed on top of everyone.”

Despite the superior service of chauffeured operations, Uber was still noticeable and in demand in the Philadelphia area, says Mike Barreto, Philadelphia branch manager for Flyte Tyme Worldwide, based in Mahwah, N.J. “Because TNCs are definitely playing a bigger part in large events, you have to do everything possible to protect your business and your clientele. When these events do come through, you’ll always be a loyal client’s first option. Don’t give anyone else the opportunity to do the same job better.”

Larry Chrystal, president of A1 Mr. Limo in Wickliffe, Ohio, ran about 25 vehicles and noticed restaurants and other local businesses didn’t see as many customers as they thought they would during the RNC.

“Take the LCT Shows for example,” Chrystal says. “We are up at 8 a.m. going to educational sessions and networking. Then we go out at night to one of the parties they have preplanned. You don’t go out and spend a lot of money and time. I think that’s essentially what happened here. Even our casino, which is close to the Quicken Loans Arena, didn’t do great business.”

A1 Mr. Limo avoided booking its “bread and butter” weddings business on the Saturday before the RNC, anticipating event demand. “Knowing what we know now, we wouldn’t have done that,” Chrystal says. “We would have catered more to our regular customers on Saturday and taken smaller contracts earlier on.”

Challenges Overcome

One of the biggest challenges the Mazzarellas faced was the airport situation. Since three times the normal number of passengers flew into Cleveland, operators had to go to one lot to sign in and have their credentials checked. When their client’s flight was about to land, chauffeurs would be transferred to a lot on the airport premises. Then when the plane landed, they released the vehicle to go curbside.

DNC Dominators

(top to bottom): Mike Barreto, John Donohoe, and Tim O’Brien dominated the DNC.

“The challenge was communicating all the information to your staff and chauffeurs and making sure everyone was on the same page,” Tony says. “TNCs had an effect on airport runs because Uber got the lot where we normally park, and that’s why our procedures were changed.”

Fortunately, protests did not disrupt fleet moves at the RNC. Mary Jo made sure to keep an ear out for situations. “We monitored police scanners just to make sure we weren’t missing anything that might have been happening in the city. Cleveland took a really positive approach and had a picnic with both protestors and the police forces at Edgewater State Park. They barbequed, had games, and a dialogue circle. The protestors felt like their voices were being heard.”

Qua believes communication deters problems. “There are times when a chauffeur will just go into circling mode because they can’t sit in front of the hotel or office building. We know the client will come out of the building on one of our trips around the block, but this event was one where you couldn’t do that.”

With porta potties replacing parking spaces and TV studios where good waiting spots used to be, his team had to stay on top of clients. “We just had to communicate often and make sure all of our chauffeurs knew how to text their passengers, because that often was the only way we could reach them due to thin cell service,” Qua says. “When a voice call won’t come through, sometimes a text will.”

Donohoe says a problem he came across was passengers lacking proper credentials. Robinson adds, “In most cases, a lot of these high ranking individuals had their credentials waiting for them in Philadelphia, but had to go pick them up. They’d land at the airport and we’d have to take them to get their credentials before we could even take them to their hotel.”

Tim O’Brien, owner of Preferred Car & Limousine in Pennsauken, N.J., took five farm-out jobs for the DNC and was thankful he knew how to navigate Philadelphia well. “Law enforcement kept the protestors off of the main streets and there weren’t many traffic situations.” As a smaller operator, the biggest challenge was competing with TNCs during the event. “If they weren’t around, we would have gotten more calls,” O’Brien says. “Even though they would’ve been smaller runs, they add up if you do enough of them.”

The protestors were milder than expected at both conventions.Credit: Steve Qua
The protestors were milder than expected at both conventions.Credit: Steve Qua
Tips Traded

John Petrus, owner of Petrus Limousine in Brunswick, Ohio, is a smaller operator who advises: “Pick up the phone and call the potential affiliates that don’t know you exist. The bigger companies aren’t always familiar with the little guys. They know we’re there, but they don’t necessarily know us. The more you stay in touch with larger operators, the more you’re only helping yourself.”

Because of Uber’s wide presence, Barreto underscores the need to form and keep strong relationships with clients and groups. “This convention was different because you had another, what is now considered ‘traditional,’ line of transportation in TNCs. You have to look into the future because they start scheduling and planning for these events 18 months out at the minimum. You need to know who the host committee team is going to be for the DNC or RNC, and you really need to work with your local Convention and Visitors Bureau to forge bonds. Once you do that, you have to stay on top of them. Everyone is going to need group transportation, and I don’t think the TNCs are going to tackle that very soon.”

While you should ask other operators about their experiences, Chrystal says, “Try not to base your preparation too much on someone else’s experience. Do what seems natural and don’t lose your regular business. They are going to be around for a long time; the RNC comes and leaves.”

Donohoe reinforces chauffeur training. “Make sure you have enough capable bodies to put behind the wheel who are properly trained. You can’t just throw anybody there to fill the seat.”

Partly because of the high level of security, but also because of today’s on-demand obsession, don’t fret if the phone isn’t ringing much, Qua says. “Be patient because reservations won’t really be coming in until the end. Two weeks prior to the event don’t wonder if your pricing is bad because you don’t have any reservations. They will come, but they are going to come late.”

But it’s never too early to plan. The Mazzarellas suggest creating a contract with clear terms so you’ll be ready when organizations, affiliates, and the media approach you.

Also, if you know you will need additional fleet vehicles through rental car companies, or if you’re going to need to get hotel rooms for staff, Mary Jo suggests pre-paying. “When big events like this happen, you can get pushed out. You run the risk of being bumped. When you pay in advance, they can’t do that.” 

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Big Event Tips and Tricks

Here is a cheat sheet for prepping and running transportation for any special event, comprised of advice from operators who handled this once-in-a-lifetime experience:

  • If you’re a smaller operator, call potential affiliates in your area and get to know them.
  • Contact some of the hotels that will likely be hosting people during the event, contact concierges, and give them your phone number and email address.
  • Try not to prepare for an event based too much on someone else’s experience, and don’t lose your regular clients.
  • Be patient because reservations tend to come in last minute; don’t become self-conscious about pricing.
  • It’s never too early to start planning — begin as soon as you find out dates, times, and venues.
  • Have a back-up plan for your back-up plan.
  • Create a contract with clear terms for all clients, especially last minute ones.
  • Pre-pay car rental companies and hotels when making reservations.
  • Don’t worry about what anyone else is doing; just concentrate and make sure to provide the best service possible.

Related Topics: Flyte Tyme, ground transportation, group transportation, How To, Ohio operators, Pennsylvania operators, philadelphia, special events, Steven Qua

Lexi Tucker Associate Editor
Comments ( 1 )
  • James Pappas

     | about 2 years ago

    Interesting. I enjoyed the article. I remember fondly back to the Boston DNC in '04. I worked for Limousine Eighteen at the time and had a very prominent political figure's staff the entire week. Mayor Menino basically shut the city down during the nights of the Convention. We'd see State Troopers from all over New England helping with detail. Corporations from all over the country would bring their own vehicles and drivers because everyone, everywhere, was booked. The money was flowing, hard. Yet, for how much I enjoyed it, I backed out to the content of articles and was reminded of why I clicked on it in the first place. This article is heavily concentrated on what established companies did during these weeks. Yet, you took the small aspect of TNCs and harped on their natural, logistical restrictions. Again, your preoccupation with an industry you can't, and won't, control is the headline. Unless this site likes clickbait?

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