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CLEVELAND, Ohio — This coming election is bound to be one of the most interesting (and controversial) in recent history. Whether you plan to vote Trump, Clinton, or a third-party, there are still plenty of opportunities for each candidate to sway new voters to their side.
Politics aside, this event also provides an opportunity for luxury ground transportation operators to see red, white, and green. Members of the media, delegates, and corporate sponsors attending the event will need to move around on the ground, and for more than just a few hours at a time. Larry Chrystal, president of A1 Mr. Limo in Wickliffe, says, “In this five day period, a lot of the customers are looking for 12 to 24 hour a day service.” That being said, an incredible amount of planning is needed for companies to prepare their vehicles, chauffeurs, and clients.
For LCT's coverage of preparation for the DNC, click here.
Reaching Across The Aisle
While there are still quite a few weeks before the event, operators are doing everything they can to prepare, which, because of strict security measures, isn’t much.
“So much of the actual planning can’t happen until the secret service, the committee on arrangements, and Destination Cleveland [the city’s convention and visitor’s bureau] part out information,” says Steve Qua, president of Company Car and Limousine in Cleveland.
“They haven’t announced the actual perimeter, what it will take to get inside it, whether or not we can take people to a designated area, or what we do if we have credentials to get in. They’re giving the information out very last minute.” This is out of necessity for everyone’s safety, of course, but it certainly makes things more difficult.
Mary Jo and Tony Mazzarella, director of sales and general manager for American Limousine Service, are longtime members of Destination Cleveland, which gave them a bit of an upper hand. Early on in the process, when Cleveland was one of the cities being considered, they were contracted to handle the selection committee.
“We are fortunate we had that experience because it helped us get in the inner ring. It allowed us to forge relationships that will help us operate a lot more smoothly,” Mary Jo says. But this doesn’t necessarily mean they were given any extra information regarding specific logistics.
“I don’t think we’ll get a lot of the logistics until about 10 days prior to the convention, so it’s been really difficult to figure out how we’ll navigate the city,” Tony says. “We’ve obviously ramped up our reservations department and our chauffeur pool. We’ve been working on that for six months as far as staffing it appropriately.” He reached out to school bus drivers who are off in the summer, and has received a huge response over the last two weeks. “We are just trying to gather as much information as possible, which is not an easy thing to do with this event,” he adds.
Qua is also trying to ensure he has enough staff on hand: “Although we’d like to do more concrete planning, it’s had to be a bit more abstract due to lack of official information. We can do financial planning and logistics planning. We know we’re going to have to bring chauffeurs and vehicles to Cleveland, but when it comes down to who’s going to go where, it’s going to have to happen closer to the event.”
Chrystal, a medium sized fleet operator, sought out advice from an affiliate who handled the RNC convention in Tampa, Fla. in 2012. “The convention in Tampa was kind of all over the place. Cleveland is pretty well centralized. All the events going on are located downtown,” he says. “The challenge here as we go along is trying to anticipate how much we are actually going to do and then trying to staff for that.”
Smaller operators such as John Petrus, owner of Petrus Limousine in Brunswick, are more frustrated with the lack of communication and consideration. “We are getting no guidance at all. We’ve received one email and one phone call for the RNC. I know a lot of other small company owners, and they’ve not received many calls either,” he says. “I would have to assume the RNC planned for this a year ago, and they probably contacted a national company to book all of their vehicles. That’s probably why us little guys are not getting the call.”
As the RNC gets closer, all operators are planning to beef up their fleets with the help of affiliates or other branches in their companies. The most popular vehicle choices so far are sedans, SUVs, and vans.
No Client Left Behind
These operators do know one thing for sure: They will not be leaving their regular clients to fend for themselves. While new customers pour in, the Mazzarellas know consistency is important. “We still want to live up to the expectations of the services we provide,” Tony says. Mary Jo adds, “It’s a delicate balance: you never want to water down your product by adding on more than you can handle.”
The two have contacted existing clients by letter well in advance and have talked to them. “We wanted to reassure them their service would not be downgraded in any way,” Mary Jo says. “They are our priority. We created a pool of chauffeurs who are going to be dedicated to our existing clients. They won’t be getting someone who is unfamiliar with their procedures.”
Qua also started reaching out to his clients via email about a month ago to remind them the convention was coming and explained to them how it would affect their travel. He also says the next two correspondences are going to say something along the lines of, “We will run out of vehicles, but we want to look after you first. Please make your reservations now.” While he doesn’t normally take reservations himself, the ones he does are very appreciative of the reminders.
Luckily for Chrystal, who does mostly weekend retail business, most convention goers are only going to be there from Sunday through Thursday. While this means he’ll probably be getting the stragglers who are still looking for last minute rides, it actually works out flawlessly. “It’s perfect for us because we can get all of our weddings and night outs on Friday night in without having to really worry about scheduling conflicts.”
The First Amendment provides many freedoms, including the right to peacefully assemble. Unfortunately, not all protestors understand this means staying in a designated area to make their point. Luckily, operators who have spoken with members of the security team for the event say there won’t be too much to worry about when it comes to navigating around those chanting and holding up signs.
“I’ve been to some of the security meetings and I get the feeling they will have a very good handle on the protestor situation,” Chrystal says. “You know how Trump was saying there would be riots if they don’t put the popular person in? Well, now he’s in.”
That’s not to say operators aren’t preparing for the possibility, however. Mary Jo has attended protest meetings to get an idea of what they are saying and what their plans are. “This way, we aren’t just getting second hand news. We actually know where they are gathering and where they are going to march from.”
And Tony makes a good point: “All we deal with in this business are disruptions. Flights and plans change all the time for our clients. It’s going to be business as usual — just adapting and changing the schedules as needed and communication between dispatch and chauffeurs making sure they know the open routes and where to navigate. It really is the nature of our industry.”
Another newer disruptive element luxury ground transportation companies must deal with are TNCs. The Republican Party has been quite vocal in praising the sharing economy due to its free-market innovation, so it will be interesting to see how companies like Uber and Lyft are able to conduct business in an environment where permits are absolutely mandatory to enter specific areas.
“I think the answer is going to lie specifically on how comfortable people are 10 days out that they will be able to get on-demand transportation. I don’t think those who are used to getting a ride at a moment’s notice are going to think ahead enough,” Qua says. “I think it’s going to be big business, but I don’t think it’s going to be as big as it was in Denver or in Charlotte. If you think about potentially having a million dollar week, it isn’t here anymore because of the TNCs.”
The Mazzarellas don’t worry too much about the TNC situation, saying those who want premium service know better than to look for it in the arms of Uber. “We just want this to be a great thing for the city of Cleveland and hopefully promote to the world what a great town we have and be able to capitalize off this event to bring other large conventions to this town.”
LMCPays will be the newest agent office for the major industry credit card processor.
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