NOV./DEC. LCT: These industry members don’t just stay ahead of the curve — they set it.
LAS VEGAS, Nev. — Disasters are something you can only prepare for up to a point. It’s especially difficult for a fleet business that does not stay in one place.
On March 13 at the International LCT Show, moderator Gary Buffo of Pure Luxury Transportation in Petaluma, Calif. lead a discussion with panelists Matt Assolin of Nikko’s Worldwide Chauffeured Services in Houston, Thomas Buck of Beau Wine Tours & Limousine Service in Sonoma, Calif., and Diane Forgy of Overland Chauffeured Services in Kansas City, Mo., on what operators can do to ensure they are ready for any acts of nature that might muck up business.
The four operators were recently affected by situations out of their control. Assolin’s business endured Hurricane Harvey that swamped the Houston area with 58 inches of rain. Buck, along with Buffo, had to deal with record-setting fires in Northern California wine country. And Forgy last year was inundated with two floods in Kansas City, Mo.
Roberto Rodriguez of First Class Destination Solutions in San Juan, Puerto Rico, was supposed to call in for the session from his hurricane-ravaged island, but had difficulty trying to communicating with the group during the planning sessions because he’s been on a generator. It underscored how intensely natural disasters can disrupt a business.
Assolin emphasized the need for multiple locations. His company has offices in Houston and Austin, so he was able to run the business out of the Austin office during the floods.
“We had a second story in our Houston office,” he said. “There’s no going upstairs with 48 inches of water on your bottom floor. So we transitioned a good portion of our staff to Austin to continue to maintain that business and our national business. They did really well.” Fortunately, the company did not lose any vehicles during this disaster because they saw it coming and moved them down the street. It also helped that much of their fleet was still in Austin from a big event they had done just a week before.
“Thanks to a lot of luck, some skills, and some networking, we were able to get back up and running the following week in Houston at a temporary office one of our clients had,” Assolin said.
Buck said he had plans for earthquakes and power outages, but never thought a fire storm would be threatening his office. “We basically took our buses and moved them across town to an area called The Barracks…I left the rest of my fleet in my garage. So I actually split my deck because I had no idea where this fire would go, and we had no way to get out of town at that point because we were locked in, because all the roadways were closed.”
Forgy had to deal with flash flooding not once, but twice. She mentioned having generators is vital to survival in situations like this. “The only thing they didn’t keep going was our air-conditioning. It’s not practical for most people to have a generator tied to an air-conditioning system,” she explained. The office is in a flood zone, so she had flood insurance which made the recovery process a little less painful.
“I knew when I bought the building two years prior that it was in a flood zone. We had done our research.”
She ended up losing six vehicles because she had no idea it would flood that bad.
“Our dispatcher who took over for the dispatcher on duty made it through a police blockade and almost got arrested. It reinforces how important it is to prepare your staff for these things that may happen at odd hours.”
Pre-planning can include anything you’d do for disasters such as earthquakes, power outages, and heat waves. Buck said you should have backup generators and think about getting servers out of your office.
“We are 100% in the cloud now. That saved us because we couldn’t get into our office, and the ability to use our VOIP phones, cloud servers, and cloud software to contact people, dispatch, and assign things and still be able to communicate was key.”
Looking back, Buck said he really needed a phone tree system. “We didn’t have a system where I would make one call, and then it branches out, and everybody else makes their calls, and reports back. We were doing it one at a time, and it was time-consuming. We didn’t think efficiently.”
Assolin said one practice to follow before you create a disaster plan is find out what disasters you should prepare for since every one is different.
“In Houston, we’ve been through many floods and hurricanes, so we’ve kind of perfected our plans and know what to expect. We know if there’s going to be a lot of rain we will see massive amounts of flooding and potentially water on our old property, so we are going to need to move our vehicles. We have offices in two locations that are considerable distances away from each other, so we can move operations from one office to the other and still not miss a beat.”
Forgy said you need to make sure your employees know how to evacuate in the event of a disaster. You also want to have people move your vehicles to a place where they will be affected as little as possible.
“The hardest thing is when things happen at odd hours, like on a weekend or a holiday, and you’ve got to handle it.”
You should also have some email templates ready to blast out to your clients with details like alternate phone numbers. “Just think of everything a client may need to know to be prepared if you do have some disruption.”
When a disaster strikes, who should implement safety and backup measures? Forgy said it’s a group effort. “I’ve been in the business a long time. I have some thoughts and can lay out part of the plan, but I have a great operations manager and a chauffeur manager who’s more than just a chauffeur manager. I have a couple of key people who will lay it out probably better than I would. I think you can get great feedback from your chauffeurs and reservationists. You need to get input from a lot of different sources, and make everybody a part of it. But in my case, our operations manager would probably be the lead to actually put the plan in writing.”
Buck had to do some layoffs to keep the business running. “We had to do some cutbacks and quite a few shift reductions across the board. We all pitched in one way or another to make sure we could keep moving forward. I think in terms of prioritizing, going into those fires we had a surplus of personnel, and it was actually fortunate because one of them was given notice a couple weeks before the fires and then another one was going to be leaving shortly after. So we actually lost two people at the right time.”
It’s important to look at who your key people are before making cuts. “We didn’t need six detailers after this. You have to think about if you can cross-use them for something else, and if you can still afford it. We dug into our reserves and credit lines to save jobs.”
Making sure you have a little cash tucked away will save you heartbreak during trying times. Several months’ worth of expenses in the bank is a must, Assolin said. “If you’re the right size, sell your vehicles first. You can always buy more vehicles. We put people back to work. We had reservationists cleaning up our old office and everyone pitched in.”
Forgy added it’s important to have money saved up for deductibles and immediate out of pocket costs even if you have insurance.
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