Operations

Operator Invests In Quality To Bring In Clients

Martin Romjue
Posted on August 29, 2019
After years of running all types of buses, Cardiff has settled on three: Prevost and Van Hool for his 56-passenger motorcoaches, and Grech Motors for his 27-passenger minibuses. (photos by LCT editor Martin Romjue)

After years of running all types of buses, Cardiff has settled on three: Prevost and Van Hool for his 56-passenger motorcoaches, and Grech Motors for his 27-passenger minibuses. (photos by LCT editor Martin Romjue)

PALM DESERT, Calif. — The motorcoach fleet at Cardiff Limousine & Transportation lacks a serious luxury amenity: Leather seats. But don’t let that throw you off; it’s for a very practical reason.

During the intense summer desert heat, when the inside of a parked motorcoach can reach 140 degrees, leather will disintegrate, says owner and founder Gary Cardiff. So his Van Hool and Prevost buses all come with breathable cloth seats.

The concession to reality is one of many examples of how Cardiff Transportation has developed and refined its luxury ground transportation operation over three decades to adapt to one of the most unique and foreboding regions in the world.

A Luxury Hotspot

The sunny, stark, arid but beautiful and colorful desert landscape of the Coachella Valley two hours east of Los Angeles encloses the winter-spring paradise of Palm Springs and adjoining cities, where old Hollywood, golf Shangri-las and lush resorts, modernist architecture, and famous music festivals, like Coachella, all intersect in a spacious, semi-urban sprawl.

Known locally as the “Greater Palm Springs Desert Oasis,” the region features wide, gridded boulevards bearing the names of famous past residents, like Bob Hope, Dinah Shore, Gerald Ford, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra.

Sharon Cardiff,  who has helped the business over the years, assembles a photo collage each year of the company Christmas party. After 25 years, the collages now line hallways, conference rooms, and offices.

Sharon Cardiff,  who has helped the business over the years, assembles a photo collage each year of the company Christmas party. After 25 years, the collages now line hallways, conference rooms, and offices.

Downtown Palm Springs carries its own “Walk of Stars” celebrity walk of fame while nearby Palm Desert features a retail and restaurant strip that evokes the Rodeo Drive of Beverly Hills. Nearby Rancho Mirage is also home to the Sunnylands Estate, a frequent site for Presidential and foreign dignitary visits.

For Cardiff Transportation, this local environment produces a business and workflow heavily defined by leisure and group transportation, with a diverse clientele that includes VIPs and corporate chieftains ready to enjoy the sophisticated cultural and recreational offerings as well as large groups that tour local attractions and embark on chartered journeys across the western U.S.

It’s all scheduled and executed on an intense seasonal cycle in an area where summer highs in the 120s must be factored in to an operation just like blizzards do in the Northeast.

“You’ve got to put money back into your business to grow,” says Cardiff, who has invested in electric lifting systems for his fleet vehicles.

“You’ve got to put money back into your business to grow,” says Cardiff, who has invested in electric lifting systems for his fleet vehicles.

Diverse Markets

Cardiff Transportation has reigned as the largest luxury ground transportation company in the Coachella Valley region for at least two decades now with 74 vehicles, earning it a No. 39 ranking on the LCT 50 Largest Fleets List. It offers a full range of chauffeured and coach vehicles, and derives about half of its company revenues from the motorcoach, charter, and tour sector which it has served for 25 years.

“You can't put all your eggs in one basket,” says Cardiff, in his first interview with a limousine industry media outlet. “We're constantly looking for new types of business.”

In summing up his approach to ground transportation service, Cardiff says: “It pays to buy quality with whatever you do. You go cheap and it truly bites you. If you don't spend money to upgrade your business, it will go down. You have to spend money to make money in this business. If you try to shortchange it, you may stay in business for a while but not long.”

The valley lacks any significant corporate business, unless you count light manufacturing and property management companies that occasionally require chauffeured transportation. Leisure and tourism, charters and tours, special events, and VIPs/celebrities drive most of the demand for luxury ground transportation in the region. His busiest and highest revenue months of the year can range from January to April.

“What replaces corporate business is convention and leisure,” Cardiff says. He estimates 30-35% of his business comes from convention transportation and destination management companies that arrange it. Another 15% comes from smaller groups referred by local hotels, such as sales meetings of 100-150 people.

To keep the fleet affordably fueled, Cardiff bought a next-door lot in 2005 and merged it in 2006 with his building lot to add maintenance and parking areas. It includes a 16,000 gallon above-ground fuel tank that saves Cardiff about 40-50 cents per gallon. The cost of the tank and support equipment was $450,000. “That has more than paid for itself since.”

To keep the fleet affordably fueled, Cardiff bought a next-door lot in 2005 and merged it in 2006 with his building lot to add maintenance and parking areas. It includes a 16,000 gallon above-ground fuel tank that saves Cardiff about 40-50 cents per gallon. The cost of the tank and support equipment was $450,000. “That has more than paid for itself since.”

With a full fleet of coaches, Cardiff does about 20%-25% of its business from tours throughout the western U.S. and another 15%-20% is education and SPAB (School Pupil Activity Bus) related. A remaining five percent of revenue comes from military related transportation since Cardiff is certified by the Department of Defense.

The rest of the company’s clients are rounded out by retail reservations for events such as weddings, funerals, and parties, and of course the ever-demand of airport runs.

Many of the weddings are booked by out-of-town couples who prefer the venues and scenery of of Palm Springs, the Coachella Valley, Yucca Valley, and the Joshua Tree National Monument.

“Sharon (wife) and I have driven down a lot of roads in my 2003 Ford Excursion which I’ve had for a long time,” says Cardiff, referring to all the wedding locations he has to check out. “We go down these dirt roads to see if I want to put my buses on them. There are so many places people pick that I don’t know how they found them for their wedding,” the Palm Springs native adds.

Quality Tested Fleet Choices

The quality and brands in the Cardiff fleet speak to his overall approach to service. “We always have new equipment. We never keep anything old, and we're always updating. Our drivers are the only ones in the valley that wear a full uniform, which is dark gray slacks, navy blazer, and white shirt and tie. We've done that since day one.”

Colleen Martin, controller and office manager.

Colleen Martin, controller and office manager.

After years of running all types of buses, Cardiff has settled on three: Prevost and Van Hool for his 56-passenger motorcoaches, and Grech Motors for his 27-passenger minibuses.

“I've tried others, and the quality just wasn't there,” Cardiff says. “When Grech started, I bought a couple and liked them, and we just kept going from there.”

Cardiff consolidated his fleet into mostly 56- and 27-passenger buses because he says groups above 27 passengers should all be in motorcoaches to allow for the most flexibility and quality service. For those operators dealing with 30-40 passenger groups, and who are not ready for full-size motorcoaches, he suggests using the mid-size motorcoaches offered by the major bus OEMs.

“Especially for companies that aren't used to buses, I think it's better to pay more for a 35-passenger [motorcoach] than going into a much larger front engine vehicle,” he advises. “The luggage storage is better. It’s heavier duty and it’s a full chassis with the engine and transmission in the back, so you can have an Allison transmission, and a Detroit or Cummins engine. And that makes a difference.”

Cardiff with Maureen Bjorklund (R), reservations manager, and Julie Schulleri, reservations and accounting.

Cardiff with Maureen Bjorklund (R), reservations manager, and Julie Schulleri, reservations and accounting.

Cardiff has always added vehicles as needed, depending on market shifts and client demand. “I didn't have any formula. I looked at what we were subbing out, and what the revenue was on that. That helps me decide whether to add more vehicles. I don't want any of the smaller affiliates to go away. I'm fine with other companies here, because when we're busy, I need to [farm-out] vehicles which can be hard to bring in from out of the area.”

He also advises considering what he calls “the farm-out factor” before deciding whether to add a fleet vehicle. “Don't start buying a mini-coach until you have farmed out say $50,000 worth of mini-coach business, because if you only farmed out $25,000, you won’t be able to pay for that mini-coach.”

Service Origins

It’s only fitting that Cardiff’s previous professional life involved hospitality and high finance. He worked in the La Quinta Resort, a five-star quality hotel, for a season during the early 1980s before becoming a stockbroker, which gave him insights into the hotel and convention business.

During his six years as a stock broker, Cardiff started a limousine company with a friend in 1988. Two years later, he decided to strike out on his own and formally started Cardiff Limousine on Sept. 1, 1990.

“I had a really good brokerage customer who was a tennis partner of mine,” Cardiff recalls. “And I went to him and I said, ‘I need a new partner because I need a cash infusion to start a new company.’ And he said, ‘I'll loan you money, but your only partner should be your wife. You've already been there, done that, it doesn't work. I don't really want to be your partner, but I want you to succeed.’”

Safety director Chuck Xaudaro and dispatcher Michael Deruyter, with Gerry Leuthold, motorcoach operations manager, in the background.

Safety director Chuck Xaudaro and dispatcher Michael Deruyter, with Gerry Leuthold, motorcoach operations manager, in the background.

Within two months, Cardiff Limousine acquired one sedan, a Ford van, four stretch limousines, and a 27-passenger mini-coach. The fleet mix reflected the client demand at the La Quinta Hotel, where Cardiff had worked earlier and where he opened his first office space. They grew during the first three years and took on other hotel clients, such as Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott. By the fourth year, their convention work justified buying a first motorcoach.

A company in Los Angeles who he subcontracted vehicles from had ordered four Prevost buses but could only afford to finance three of them. Cardiff bought the fourth bus while a former operator he knew with 30 years of bus experience joined his company. He had previously rented motorcoaches from a company in Canada during the high travel season in the Palm Springs region, which extends from October to April.

“I had staff right off the bat who knew that side of the business,” Cardiff says. Another staff member who worked for me knew the mini-coach business because he'd worked at another company.”

Jill Fieldse (L), reservations and weddings, and Ernestine Norton, human resources and accounts payable.

Jill Fieldse (L), reservations and weddings, and Ernestine Norton, human resources and accounts payable.

His motorcoach business got a big boost during the 1990s when two competing  local motorcoach services went out of business, allowing Cardiff to pick up the client demand.

Cardiff is quick to credit his success to many of the employees and drivers he’s worked with along the way as well as outside vendors, learning as he grew his business. He gradually added motorcoaches in 1995 and 1996 and then outgrew his first location. In 1997, an architect friend who he grew up with designed his current building along an office industrial street in the city of Palm Desert, 10 miles east of Palm Springs. His secretary’s husband was the contractor who built the facility while a friendly local loan agent helped him get SBA financing. He moved Cardiff into its current location in 1998.

Next January, Cardiff plans to open a vehicle lot four blocks away that will have parking and washing facilities.

Cardiff Transportation keeps its bus fleet simple with Van Hool and Prevost motorcoaches and 27-passenger minibuses, mostly from Grech Motors.

Cardiff Transportation keeps its bus fleet simple with Van Hool and Prevost motorcoaches and 27-passenger minibuses, mostly from Grech Motors.

Extreme Seasons

One challenge for any transportation fleet in the region is the extreme change in seasons, where winter brings the paradise of warm, sunny, temperate weather counter-balanced with summers where daily desert highs can reach the 120s with occasional monsoonal moisture that creates a humid hell. Some local businesses and restaurants even close down for the summer.

That means Cardiff’s business starts to drop off by 70-80% after mid-June and stays dry until about mid-September. He’s actually seen a slight resurgence in business over the last three summers with some groups coming in for conventions and tours.

As a result, Cardiff employs three levels of employees: Full-time year-round, such as office staff, mechanics, and washers; semi-retired with flexible schedules and paycheck requirements; and seasonal employees who do not want to work during the summers.

To fortify his fleet for the intense heat, the mechanics go through all the A/C systems every May and June and replenish them with freon and check for leaks and bad parts. “The biggest issue I think with the heat is, especially with the bigger vehicles, is getting them cooled down enough for the customer. And you're sitting there and the customer is taking 30 minutes to load, and that front door is open, it's almost impossible in a 115-degree heat to keep the bus cool.

One saving grace is the fact that during the slow summer season, Cardiff has more fleet vehicles available to replace any vehicle with a defective system. “It doesn't matter how good you are with your service, the intense heat will cause vehicles to go down sometimes. But if they're working every day, you’re actually better off than if they sit and then go to work, sit, and go to work.”

One modification that works on his Prevost buses are removable aftermarket extraction fans that fit into the emergency hatch lids that can blow out hot air and ease stress on the A/C. He at first had to special order the equipment and labor from Prevost, but after a few years, the manufacturer has now made those fans an available option thanks to Cardiff’s request. “So now, when we start up a bus, we can hit the switch on the fan and it starts pulling the heat out at the same time we turn on the A/C.” Cardiff also asked Grech Motors to extend the feature to all of his minibuses as well.

Head mechanic Rodney Betsargon (front) and certified mechanic Tommy Orduno inspect the engine of a Van Hool TX45 motorcoach as part of a 3,000 mile regular maintenance.

Head mechanic Rodney Betsargon (front) and certified mechanic Tommy Orduno inspect the engine of a Van Hool TX45 motorcoach as part of a 3,000 mile regular maintenance.

People & Money

In addition to understanding and serving your market, Cardiff emphasizes two other practices essential to running and growing a successful business: 1) Hiring and training the right employees; 2) Managing finances.

“Your employees are probably your most important resource,” he says. “Unless you're able to manage employee retention well, it is difficult for your businesses succeed.”

Cardiff says his experience has shown it takes almost two years working five days a week for reservationist and dispatchers to be fully capable of all the skills and working at peak performance.

“It’s about managing a wedding or a group movement and learning where to drop, where to pick up. Our reservationists have to have all that information for our drivers.”

Meanwhile, dispatchers must learn every detail about the trips they coordinate and handle. “There are so many more jobs that have a lot of detail, and if you don't get the detail right, the driver doesn't have a chance out there. I’m constantly pushing the dispatchers to think about what they're doing, what driver they put on a job,” he says.  

“My forte back when I was heavily involved in dispatch was putting the right driver on the right job because every driver has a different personality in what he does. And I push the dispatchers to think about who you're putting on a job. Some guys are just good for airports. They do great airports, but you don't want them on a close one-on-one dinner situation where they have to do many other details for a customer.”

Despite the nationwide driver and chauffeur shortage, Cardiff has maybe advertised once or twice during his career for them. He seems to get enough applicants through simple word of mouth.

Pound & Penny Wise

On finances, Cardiff warns “the business comes first before you pay yourself.” That means not spending money just because it looks like you have plenty of it. As part of his income/expense cycle, Cardiff maintains a 15-day interval on his books.

“Every month I look at the cost for the month. So let's say Jan. 1-30 brings in $100,000 in revenue. I then look at Jan. 16 to Feb. 15 for my expenses. There's a lag time on the costs of that business you generated in January. “If you only looked at your financial on the same days as your revenue, it's not going to tell you what that revenue will cost you.”

He also advises building up savings for slower months, especially in a seasonal market like Palm Springs. “The minute tax time is over I put every penny I can into savings. It's during the last half of summer where everybody that's gone out of business here has closed. Because they had money up through to about the middle of summer with receivables, but from mid-August to mid-October when revenue starts back up here, what will you pay your bills with?”

Cardiff, who says he never likes to owe anyone, schedules his bill payments three times a month and always pays in full. He also has to factor in the slow receivables from major affiliate networks, which sometimes take up to 90 days. “In 30 years, we’ve never missed a payroll. That’s probably the thing I’m proudest of financially.”

On the matter of rates and pricing, Cardiff charges a five-hour minimum for motorcoaches and a four-hour minimum for mini-buses. For chauffeured service, he tiers his pricing into four time-based zones across the elongated valley depending on the distance from the Palm Springs airport that is wedged between the cities of Palm Springs and Cathedral City. A typical airport run is $83 all-in.

Practical Approaches

One aspect of fleet management that Cardiff has learned is the advantage of balancing new vehicle payments. He previously would buy a sedan, for example, pay it off for 48 months, and then sell it just before the slow summer season, thereby avoiding payments. He would then wait until the fall to replace sold vehicles. Many limousine services keep the paid off car another two to three years, avoiding payments but keeping an older fleet.

“I figured if I can make payments on that car up until now, why not get a new car? The payment may be just a little more, but it's a brand new car. My customers are getting new, and I know I can make the payments. And the more new cars you have, the happier the customers, the more money you will make.”

To keep the fleet affordably fueled, Cardiff bought a next-door lot in 2005 and merged it in 2006 with his building lot to add maintenance and parking areas. It includes a 16,000 gallon above-ground fuel tank that saves Cardiff about 40-50 cents per gallon.

“You've got to put money back into your business to grow,” Cardiff says. To install that tank alone was $180,000. With concrete and everything, it cost about $450,000. That's more than paid for itself since.”

Cardiff has also invested in dump stations, connected to municipal sewer lines, for the motorcoach restrooms, thereby avoiding past trips to a dumping station nine miles away in Thousand Palms. Each round-trip and dump would take about 1.5 hours. Of course, Cardiff paid all his fees and costs totaling $60,000 upfront. “It's worth every penny in the long run.”

Cardiff has his mechanic and maintenance staff to determine if the operation needs any new equipment, such as tire and balancing machines, generators, or lifts.

“We're constantly making improvements, such as when a few employees recently noticed their computers were too slow. So I authorized three new computers. You don't waste time on trying to fix it. Let’s just make it top of the line.”

Cardiff doesn’t favor buying a cheaper bus or even cheaper oil just because it’s what the operator thinks it fits a preconceived budget outlook. Quality brings in customers. In-house maintenance equipment and parts inventory saves time, money, and travel.

For example, sometimes it’s cheaper and faster to dispatch an employee with spare parts to a location where a bus or vehicle has broken down and fit it on the spot. Hiring another company to supply a replacement bus can cost you twice as much as what you charged for the bus that day.

“You can't quick order it and put it in the same day if you don't own it.” However, Cardiff retains a wide network of motorcoach companies that could step in with a replacement bus if there is a longer breakdown on an extended tour.

Insurance & Safety

Cardiff insures every vehicle at $10 million per vehicle, per incident, which includes $5 million base insurance and $5 million reinsurance. Because he insures his motorcoaches at the maximum level, his policy extends that coverage to all fleet vehicles, including sedans. It still averages out to a higher premium per vehicle, but it’s worth the added safety and appeal to corporate clients, Cardiff says.

To keep insurance premiums as reasonable as possible, Cardiff advises keeping chauffeurs and drivers trained, minimizing accident risks, and following all rules and regulations, no matter how burdensome. But no matter what, in a large fleet there are bound to be minor scrapes and bumps each year.

“I'd say it’s taken me about 10 to 12 years to really not get so uptight about these incidents because drivers are drivers,” Cardiff says. “They can't pay for the deductible, and they don't mean to do it. If you've got somebody who’s had a couple of accidents, you need to look at them and see why (the driver) should continue.”

The company also has two SPAB (student pupil activity bus) certified trainers on staff. SPAB is California’s rules and training standards for drivers who carry pupils. Cardiff has kept SPAB-level drivers on staff for 20 years, who complement a staff of chauffeurs and drivers with varying levels of licensing, ranging from C-class all the way up to full motorcoach commercial certification. The two trainers also set up safety education programs for all Cardiff drivers.

Close attention to safety also requires keeping up to speed with regulations, records, and inspections. Along with the Department of Defense (DOD), the federal Department of Transportation (DOT) and the California Highway Patrol (CHP) send inspectors to regularly visit the Cardiff facility to review operations and practices.

Special Events Logistics

The main signature event for Cardiff and for the Coachella Valley is the annual national Coachella and Stagecoach music festivals every April.

The event requires 520-550 buses of all types, and Cardiff devotes 10 of his to regular shuttles during the double-weekend event. Shuttles typically run between 10 a.m. and 4 a.m. among hotels and the venues. A management company runs the logistics of about 12 to 14 different routes where buses can be deployed.

The festivals also bring in plenty of VIP and private chauffeured business. Cardiff sells out two-thirds of its minibuses, all of its Sprinters, all of its SUVs plus five rentals, and two thirds of all sedans and limousines. “I ran out of drivers,” he says of past festivals. “I brought in about three other companies from out of the area, and I used about five companies from here, one or two cars from each one for our customers. That's all just the first weekend.” A key challenge is scheduling driver shifts, breaks, and time off during an event that requires service up to 18 hours per day.

During the second weekend, Cardiff himself had to put on a suit and tie and drive a Sprinter to do an airport run. “I went to somebody's house with a Sprinter and stood there for two hours until they finally left. They didn't leave when they said they were but you do what you have to.”

In the early years of Coachella when it was much smaller, Cardiff managed its buses and 40 out of town buses. Now that Coachella requires more than 500 buses, Cardiff lets the motorcoach event management companies handle it.

Located in a commercial area of Palm Desert, Calif., Cardiff Transportation over the years has acquired buildings and parcels that can house and accommodate all aspects of its operations, including parking, fueling, washing, and maintenance.

Located in a commercial area of Palm Desert, Calif., Cardiff Transportation over the years has acquired buildings and parcels that can house and accommodate all aspects of its operations, including parking, fueling, washing, and maintenance.

Customer Service Lessons

A defining attribute of customer service is paying for mistakes, Cardiff says. On a van run to LAX for example, the diesel engine broke down, and instead of waiting for a replacement vehicle, the passengers took Uber the rest of the way. “I didn't charge for that and I called the customer and we paid for everybody's Uber.” Even if the customer screws up, such as a customer who doesn’t follow a DMC’s pick-up schedule, Cardiff will pick up the charge. “I think when we have a mistake we accept it and we try to make up for it.”

The price of wanting to grow more is more runs and jobs that come with more mistakes. “There will be more issues and you can’t hide from them. You have to meet them head-on, and deal with them, and take care with them. Don't try to blame anybody else; just accept the blame.”

The uniforms help upgrade the image of bus drivers to that of chauffeurs and communicate a higher level of professionalism. (They can take off their jackets while unloading luggage).

“Every driver of every type of vehicle for us is a chauffeur. They're not just drivers. We want them to treat their customers like a chauffeur in a sedan, and we want them to be perceived as a top-level chauffeur.”

Most importantly, Cardiff advises operators to be prepared, stay involved with their business, and set aside your ego.

“Even as an owner after 30 years, I will jump in a vehicle and go meet a client if there's a problem. If, a vehicle breaks down, or one of my drivers sleeps in, I'll jump and run. It doesn't hurt me. It doesn't hurt my ego. The people I pick up don't know I'm the owner. I'm just a chauffeur who came and picked them up.”

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Gary Cardiff is quick to credit his success to many of the employees and drivers he’s worked with along the way as well as outside vendors.

Gary Cardiff is quick to credit his success to many of the employees and drivers he’s worked with along the way as well as outside vendors.

FAST FACTS: Cardiff Limousine & Transportation

  • Location: Palm Desert, Calif.
  • Founded: Sept. 1, 1990
  • Owners: Gary and Sharon Cardiff
  • Service areas: Palm Springs/Coachella Valley region, Southern California, western U.S.
  • Fleet vehicles: 74
  • Vehicle types: Prevost and Van Hool motorcoaches; Grech Motors minibuses and Sprinters; Ford Transit; Cadillac Escalade and XTS sedan; Lincoln Navigator, Ford Expedition, Chevrolet Suburban; Lincoln Continental sedans; Lincoln Continental stretch limousine; Chrysler 300 stretch limousine.
  • Client markets: Corporate conventions/DMCs; global leisure and tourism; local and regional chartered bus tours; schools; military; special events; weddings; traditional chauffeured service.
  • Major events clients: Coachella and Stagecoach music festivals; national golf tournaments.
  • Annual revenues: 50% motorcoach/charter/tour; 50% chauffeured transportation
  • Total chauffeurs and employees: 115 full- and part-time.
  • Website: www.cardifflimo.com

Related Topics: California operators, customer service, driver training, finance, Gary Cardiff, motorcoach operators, motorcoaches, operator profiles, Safety & Insurance

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