While the numbers are hard to pin down, the reality is drivers don't make much when factoring out overhead costs.
One deep shuttle market niche, aviation and airports-related, offers some of the most reliable client revenue in the industry with low roundtrip miles, while spanning all kinds of sub-niches. There’s park and ride shuttle service for travelers who decide to drive personal vehicles to the airport terminal and airport hotel shuttles, provided either by a hotel or through a third party like a limo company. Many of the runs go 24/7, especially at larger airports.
Breaking Into The Business
For Darrell Anderson, president and CEO of A National Limousine Service Inc. in Atlanta, Ga., the advent of TNCs prompted him to shift from traditional limousine service to a heavier emphasis on airport shuttle service. He knew companies like Uber and Lyft would be potential game changers for the industry, so he began looking for areas to expand into that would provide more consistent daily business.
“It’s easier for me to forecast when I’ve got long term contract business lined up,” he says. For anyone interested in pursuing airport shuttle work, Anderson says it’s best to look for opportunities though airport websites where they put out bids. Airline and hotel shuttle work now provides 75% of this business.
“We check those on a monthly, and sometimes even weekly, basis to see what’s out there. We also contact the airports and find out what shuttle services they are using and when they are due to expire,” he says.
Based on that, they start monitoring at least six months before the contract is up to see when those bids will be coming out. These are usually administered through the county, city, or aviation authority.
Mike Hayek, chairman of the board for A Ambassador Limousine & Transportation in Houston, Texas, says one of the airlines he serves was looking for a company that could provide a punctual, high-end service.
“We were selected to do sedan, SUV, and van work. With that agreement, we also did shuttle buses for the inbound and out bound crew. It came as a package,” he says.
In his case, no search was needed; every airline came to them because they had good word of mouth to promote their services. “They approached us, asked to set up meetings where we did presentations, and came to the office for a site visit where they stayed for a few hours to see how we operated,” he says. “They decided we had what it took to provide what they needed.”
Jennifer Julander, marketing coordinator for All Resort Group in Park City, Utah, says it’s important to visit the company you would like to work with, taking great care to display interest “in a lasting friendship, not just a ‘sale.’”
All Resort Group’s marketing team does the same thing with local businesses, ensuring they are educated on the company’s services. “Hotels and businesses can also sign a partnership agreement that allows their staff to receive commission for referring guests to ride with All Resort,” she says.
At Reston Limousine in Sterling, Va., contracts for shuttle accounts are like RFPs, COO Tony Simon says. “You need to be there before the RFP comes out. You have to have helped cultivate the need or known about the need beforehand, or it’s something they are already doing and you are trying to market to them before the next RPF comes out,” he explains.
Websites can offer new opportunities, especially if you are a small business looking for this kind of work. These include the website for your local airports (most have a way to search for available bids), university websites, or transportation.gov.
There’s no special way to go about securing shuttle contracts, says Anuj Patel, director of strategic development for Pontarelli Worldwide Ground Transportation in Chicago. He believes you have to attack it like any other sale at first, but when you dig enough into a certain market or sector, you will find what companies or institutions use shuttle services.
“Be aware when you drive to and from work. You will be surprised at how many private shuttle services are happening at all times. It’s such a good and consistent business that some companies only focus on shuttle work. Those companies are our largest competition in this sector,” he says.
Tools Of The Trade
Vehicles used for shuttle service can vary widely, but most providers use vans or minibuses carrying 14-35 passengers.
“You don’t need to go crazy with amenities, leather seats, and TVs, but you still need to make it nice,” Simon says. “That’s the core of the business because these are all short trips. We do have coaches because of the numbers of what they want or it’s a longer haul.” Three-fifths of Reston’s business is shuttle work.
Anderson uses Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Vans and Ford E350 and Transits that hold 10-22 passengers, which prove ideal for airline and hotel shuttle work.
All of Pontarelli’s shuttle services require buses, Patel says. “Most of them require 25+ passengers. We use our Grech GM40 and Turtle Top buses for airport shuttles. We also have some unique shuttles we are doing now that only transport three students at a time, so we use our Chevy Suburban SUVs.” About 15% of Pontarelli’s revenue stream comes from the shuttle market.
The shared ride vans All Resort uses for shuttles are white or black 10-seat vans, usually a newer model Ford Transit, Julander says. They also runs SUVs like the 2016 Chevy Suburban or 2017 Ford Expedition.
Whatever You Do, We Can Do Better
When trying to win contract business, operators should remember a few key points. Companies that specialize in shuttle services only have lower costs because they are buying vehicles for wear and tear, not luxury. When a chauffeured service company and its luxury buses enter this particular market, they come in with an immediate competitive advantage.
“At times, it may be difficult to match the pricing the client needs as they are getting quotes from true shuttle service companies that do not have to worry or pay for all the things a chauffeured service has to do,” Patel says.
If you treat your shuttle clients no different than your regular clients, you’ll seal the deal, Patel says. “We provide water, mints, smiles, and chauffeured excellence on each and every run. Our chauffeurs establish friendly relationships with passengers, and this, in turn, really solidifies our relationship with the company we are contracted with.”
You also need to have a lot of redundancy in your systems to build that reliability, including calling your drivers ahead of time, checking the vehicle regularly, and a strong field communication system.
Other indispensable resources when trying to make a name for yourself include knowledgeable staff, the right vehicles, and understanding traffic patterns in your city.
If you are running shuttles on airport property, that’s a little easier, Anderson says. You just have to understand peak times. “If you are running shuttles from an airport to a hotel, you have to plan your logistics off of when they have their heavy arrivals and you must work with hotel management staff to find that out,” he says.
“If they are about sold out, you’ll probably have to run your shuttles more frequently, so you have to schedule that. When there are conventions, you have to logistically plan to have enough shuttles based on the type. You have to work with the convention and visitor’s bureau and the hospitality industry in getting that data. We have to constantly monitor the activities going on in the city and the area we are servicing.”
Being more accommodating overall is something that will undoubtedly help you stand out, Julander says. All Resort Group’s shuttle drivers are taught to offer help in any way, from carrying luggage to opening doors or offering a step stool for guests climbing into the van. They undergo rigorous training, including in regional familiarity, and are mentored by seasoned drivers.
Among other principles of good shuttle service, you have to be consistent. “As you make that big investment in the right vehicles, the client can easily and quickly cancel the contract,” Simon says. “That’s where the big risk comes in; even if you get a three-year contract, you’re not guaranteed — they can drop you immediately if you have poor service. It’s a risk, so you have to be committed.”
Hayek also mentions your company must have the capacity to serve large accounts. “You have to have chauffeurs who can drive large vehicles, a dispatch team that can manage schedules, and reservations and booking systems that can deal with the constant changes. It’s a very sensitive type of business; things like weather and traffic can alter things in an instant. It takes a lot of responsibility.”
He also says a smaller company would find it hard to handle the kind of pressure that comes with shuttle work. “You need to have someone who’s been in the business for years who understands what it takes. One time we dealt with a cancelled flight with 500 people on board at two in the morning, and we had to get them back to hotels and residences, luggage and all.”
Julander suggests operators create lasting impressions and form deep relationships. “Operators should be committed to exceeding every guest’s expectations — and trust me, those expectations are high. It’s taken us over 40 years to achieve a fleet, staff, and guest experience that truly WOWs our guests,” she says. Since an operation can always improve, operators should prioritize feedback.
Finally, don’t think of yourself as just a limousine company, but rather as an expert in ground transportation, Anderson says. “Understand you are capable of working any facet in the ground transportation industry, and are willing to embrace other transportation needs in the world.”
He says he had to learn the different mindsets of the riders who take taxis and local transits as well. “In order to build my company, I needed to understand where the segment was growing. It’s still fluid and changes are still happening. Look for opportunities to be forward thinking that will put you ahead of your competition.”
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