Operations

Among The Leaders At The LCT Summit

Lexi Tucker and Jim Luff
Posted on August 10, 2018

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — Attending the LCT Technology Summit says a lot about an operator. Most likely, the attendee has succeeded in this industry by embracing new ideas and is always looking for more. That’s why coming to the Summit makes sense for attendees who are loosely dubbed the industry’s “top 1%.” 

We’ve rounded up just a few to share ideas and practices that have helped their operations survive in a disrupted market driven by constant changes in technology.

Jeff Nyikos, president, Leros Point to Point, Valhalla, N.Y.

Jeff Nyikos (R) with Mo Garkani (R), CEO of COTS Group in Long Beach, Calif.
Jeff Nyikos (R) with Mo Garkani (R), CEO of COTS Group in Long Beach, Calif.
Nyikos says the people and systems at his company make all the difference in efficent operations. There’s a staff-wide commitment to constantly be better than they were the day before.

“Whether it’s our tech, providing customer service, or ensuring safety, everything we do from how we take a reservation, dispatch, or manage our fleet, there’s a system in place that’s easy for our employees to follow,” he says. This has led to a consistent product that has remained intact for over 35 years. It also makes training new staff simple and affordable.

Creating a system that works for you is the only way you’ll succeed without hassles. “You have to lead by example. There are tough decisions that have to be made, and as an owner you have to be the one to make them, even if it’s not popular,” he explains. “As humans, a lot of the time we only think about ourselves — you have to make the call that’s best for everyone.”

Everyone makes mistakes and learns from them along the way; that’s how you become a better company. Often, outside forces affect the luxury transportation business. “You have to be able to adapt quickly and make changes. We have no control over TNCs and various economic situations, like gas prices, that affect the bottom line.”

To best combat this, operators can provide safe, reliable service at a competitive price. “You get to that point by embracing tech and the people who help you run your company. You have to create a work environment people feel good about and work toward one goal together,” he says. “If all you’re doing is taking people from Point A to Point B, you won’t be here in five years.”

Creating value in the form of trust is vital. Nyikos says he once got a call from a family who had used his service to get their 12-year-old daughters home safe from a sleepover. Their trust in the company’s ability to keep them out of harm’s way distinguishes them from any TNC.

“The transportation industry is so huge you have to find your niche to be successful. Many have found that in shuttle, charter, or sedan services. It’s about discovering what you’re good at, and then laser focusing on doing everything you can to be the go-to company in that area.”

Douglas Schwartz, owner, Executive Limousine, Long Island, N.Y.

Doug Schwartz with Christina Nguyen of Concierge Limousine in Huntington Beach, Calif.
Doug Schwartz with Christina Nguyen of Concierge Limousine in Huntington Beach, Calif.
Schwartz is likely one of the most recognizable figures in the luxury ground transportation industry. He hails from the Long Island, N.Y. area and has operated Executive Limousine of Long Island since 1996. He’s embraced social media and produces creative videos that either promote his business by including tours of his office, or instructional videos that benefit the industry. Schwartz has long been associated with the NLA as a board member and posts weekly videos promoting the value of NLA membership. (To see Schwartz’s videos, friend him on Facebook).

To set Executive Limousine apart from the numerous competitors in the region, Schwartz has created a company image and mantra of being “the friendly company” that goes out of its way to treat people the way he would want to be treated. Schwartz says he is amazed by the abruptness of many operators he calls who seem rushed to get off the phone rather than spend the time developing relationships during farm-in or farm-out calls.

He doesn’t believe success is achieved by having the newest or flashiest vehicles. More important is to cultivate happy and content chauffeurs who care about their jobs, running vehicles in top condition, and delivering attentive service. Even if a vehicle is a few years old, providing a positive experience in a clean and safe car will do more to garner repeat business than having new vehicles. “It’s all about paying attention to the things that matter,” Schwartz says.

Schwartz strongly recommends operators collectively embrace the technology available to the industry and individual companies. Applying technology always saves money. Schwartz encourages operators to “embrace the available technologies ASAP” to counter competitors who use it against the industry.

Executive plans to move into a much larger facility. This new location will allow the business to look and function more professionally as they will begin a major campaign to capture more of the retail market sector including the wedding market, a segment Executive has previously ignored.

Mark Kini, founder and CEO, Boston Chauffeur, Beverly, Mass.

At Boston Chauffeur, a boutique, concierge level of service is what sets the company apart from its competitors. Owner Mark Kini ensures clients are not treated like just an account number, and takes time to get to know them better.

“I’m always telling my staff we’re not in the transportation business; we’re in the customer service business,” he says. He’s always up to fulfill special requests, and only sends the text and email alerts his clients want rather than bombard them with unsolicited extraneous communication.

He says it’s important to know your market and not try to be all things to all people. “When you’re really strong in one area, that should be your focus,” he says. If there was one thing he wishes he could go back in time and change, it would be complacency.

“It was simple to make money when I started. It’s easy for entrepreneurs to get too comfortable. You have to be constantly grinding and moving forward. Things are changing so rapidly; you always have to be on your toes,” he explains. Now, Kini does a lot of reading and aligns himself with people who are further along than he is to make sure his company keeps growing.

Putting in 18-hour days six days a week is not sustainable, so his goals for the coming year include making some key hires, delegating more effectively, and improving how technology can streamline his business.

“Uber has set the precedent for the experience customers are looking for; we need to be able to offer that experience anywhere as well if we are going to be a viable choice. The business is out there — it’s one thing to get it, and another to keep it.”

Mauricio Herrera, president, A Luxury Limo Inc., Miami, Fla.

Mauricio Herrera with Ariadna Noches (L) and Yury Velasquez (R) of American Transportation and Limo Service in Miami, Fla.
Mauricio Herrera with Ariadna Noches (L) and Yury Velasquez (R) of American Transportation and Limo Service in Miami, Fla.
Herrera believes knowing what a client wants and/or fulfilling their service expectations are the only ways to become a top-notch operation. That means predicting the needs of your clients, whether you’re taking a corporate client home after a long, tiring business trip so he can be with his family; treating a group coming back from a cruise to a leisurely sightseeing route; or transporting an older client who needs a patient, caring chauffeur.

If your heart isn’t in this industry, you won’t last very long — especially with all the rapid, disrupting changes coming. “Passion, commitment, and will power go a lot further than thinking of it as ‘just a job,’” he says. “Make sure you do it for the magic that happens, not just for the money.”

He wishes he had planned ahead more. “You want to make sure you are taking advantage of opportunities, but you have to be smart about it. You might see a vehicle for sale, but you need to have the money available to make the purchase. Save a little before you invest and grow. You need to make sure it’s a good time; don’t just jump at the first opportunity.”

As TNCs continue to take over, it’s more important than ever to be prepared for more last minute runs. Try to stand out as much as possible with different vehicles, on- or near-demand service, and a top performing staff. To prepare for the future, Herrera is considering more exclusive vehicles, possibility hybrid or electric vehicles.

“It’s also vital to consider affiliates as clients as well. If you are going to be an extension of each other’s brands, then you need to communicate their needs. Do they want a special kind of water, sign, or a certain way of greeting? This is necessary to providing a uniform service.”

Diane Forgy, owner, Overland Chauffeured Services, Kansas City, Mo.

Diane Forgy with NLA President Gary Buffo (L) and Jeff Nyikos (R).
Diane Forgy with NLA President Gary Buffo (L) and Jeff Nyikos (R).
Technology is vital in today’s new world, but what Forgy believes sets her company apart is its family culture and the bonds they have created with their clients.

“We hold ourselves to a very high standard, and our clients know we stand behind our reputation. Our employees believe in those high standards, as stressful as that makes it at times, but they understand our purpose and feel they are part of a greater mission,” she explains.

She advises staying close to your clients and developing relationships that will be hard to break. Also, make sure your work culture fosters teamwork and respect.

Keep your financial records in good shape, and regularly review your financial statements. “You need to be constantly and thoroughly evaluating the financial health of your company,” she warns.

If there was one thing she would change looking back, she wishes she would have cracked down a little harder on bad employee behavior. “There are a few cases where I allowed misbehavior to go on too long. It’s tough to break ties and complicated to find replacement help, but letting someone poison your operation is never a good thing.”

As she plans for the future, she is working to protect existing revenue and driving more revenue growth. “We need to diversify our sources of revenue so we are less vulnerable to the effects of TNCs on some of our core business,” she says.

Thomas Buck, owner, Beau Wine Tours, Napa, Ca.

Beau Wine Tours’ emphasizes customer service by offering an in-house concierge service.

Buck’s service area includes the famed Napa/Sonoma region of California, where the best of California wines are born. The area is a tourist mecca with many activities to choose from, making the concierge staff a value-added service. From setting up custom wine tasting itineraries to golf outings or hot air balloon excursions, the company’s core values include never saying the words “no” or “can’t” to a client request.

Christina Zanone, director of affiliate relations, says this service is offered to their clients at no additional charge. Buck attributes the delivery of high-level service to treating his employees fairly, hiring the best people, and working on employee retention to minimize turnover.

Buck advises new operators to curb their appetite for rapid growth. Looking back over how he built Beau Wine Tours, he says he wishes he would have paid cash for acquisitions instead of incurring debt. Buck recommends developing strong affiliate relationships and growing your business through inbound and outbound work until you have a need to add vehicles as opposed to buying them and hoping new business will just show up. Understanding technology and having knowledge of search engine optimization (SEO) is important in marketing your company and developing brand recognition.

Moving into the future, Beau recently began offering traditional shuttle tours using restored cable car trolleys, minibuses, and Sprinters. The high level of their service delivery and luxury set Beau apart from competitors by delivering a service never previously seen in the region. This has developed an additional revenue stream to complement their traditional private charter tours. Buck has a goal of increasing his annual revenue by 20% by pursuing this new market.

Rick Versace, owner, A1A Airport & Limousine Service, Boca Raton, Fla.

Rick Versace (R) with Doug Schwartz (R) of Executive Limousine in Long Island, N.Y.
Rick Versace (R) with Doug Schwartz (R) of Executive Limousine in Long Island, N.Y.
Although Versace always tries to be on the front line with technology, he realizes the world of luxury transportation is a “people business” first and foremost. “We try to implement high touch, luxury oriented features and services that really make loyal fans of our customers,” he says. For example, the company’s dispatch system sends clients all kinds of care alerts. However, they still call every client the day before they travel to confirm and ask if they need anything else. “Most of all, we only want professionals with a friendly, positive attitude in our organization. The one compliment I hear the most is ‘A1A has the nicest chauffeurs’.”

He urges operators to invest in a good software platform. Technology is changing faster every day, but too many people stay with the same old system because they are used to it. Make sure you have a client and a driver app, because “people will always choose convenience over quality.” Make booking quick and easy, otherwise people will book with someone else, he says.

When asked if he would change anything about how he handled his operations if he could go back in time, he takes the rare position of not doing so, because it’s all part of the journey. “You learn something from every experience, good and bad.

The management team at A1A has set a goal of 30% growth for 2018. They are looking at more fixed route contracting opportunities as a way of diversifying income.

Related Topics: business growth, business management, business trends, company culture, customer service, LCT Summit, operator profiles

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