BY MADELEINE MACCARThe premise of our industry is deceptively simple: Safely transport people from point to point on time and comfortably.
But as any operator worth their years in business knows, that seemingly straightforward objective is influenced and colored by different business philosophies, technological advances and advantages, fleet preferences, chauffeurs’ abilities, company size, offered amenities, and regional markets’ expectations (just to name a few), which both personalize and set a luxury chauffeured transportation business apart from its competitors.
For operators whose companies are not located in North America, however, there are additional factors frequently at play; things like exorbitant tax rates, juggling myriad currencies and time zones, finding livery software available in non-English languages, crossing international boundaries daily, and navigating cultural differences of all kinds. Given the complex nuances of just one typical day of operation, the international luxury ground transportation has standards and expectations all its own (and specific to their own corner of the world) that may be surprising to their North American counterparts.
With technology and communication working in tandem to make physical distance a smaller and smaller hurdle in these thoroughly modern times, with jet-setting travelers taking advantage of an ever-increasing trend toward becoming citizens of the world, and with global connectivity putting vastly different cultures at our fingertips almost daily, it is increasingly important to be well-versed in how a single industry translates differently from country to country.
Global travel comes with scores of intricacies and potential problem areas that could trip up even veteran travelers—that goes for your clients and you.
Fortunately, there are tons of resources you can utilize to minimize the potential of culture shock and other less-than-glamorous realities of traveling abroad. Safety warnings and travel advisories, local calendars and customs for even the most remote places in the world, conversational basics of unfamiliar languages, and currency converters are all a Google search or app download away and will help sidestep easy-to-make cultural blunders.
The U.S. State Department maintains this website of country and region information so you can learn about your destination. Its travel alerts will keep you updated and its country-specific details are a thorough primer on safety and security measures, health and health insurance issues, local laws, customs, and fact sheets that demystify a foreign location.
Everything from 12 tips to make international travel easier, how to tip a bellman, what international cities are the most expensive for travelers, and the usual globe-trotting headaches and surprises are covered by a team of bloggers whose real-life experiences will ease even the most nervous traveler into the most foreign locales.
Like the fish that doesn’t realize it’s surrounded by water, it’s easy to take for granted the cultural mainstays and cues that are so deeply ingrained in us that they’re practically second nature—and potentially an egregious offense to someone whose own region has reinforced it as a gesture of rudeness. Brushing up on these surprising problem areas will keep an American in foreign good graces and can help you in your business dealing with international operators.
Why It Matters
Reconciling and understanding not only why such differences exist but also how to respect them is crucial, especially in an industry driven by the strength of its relationships. It’s one of the reasons two of the most consistently successful events at the annual Chauffeur Driven Show are its International Meet & Greet and Affiliate Central Global Partners Forum: The rare opportunity to bridge geographic divides for an in-person introduction or reunion is a warmly received one. (At our 2016 show, we also brought you a three-person panel featuring prominent European operators who provided insight into ways American companies can get the most from their international affiliate relationships: You can read about some of the most salient points made during our “Beyond Borders” session starting on page 38.)
Even though most of your day-to-day business remains domestically focused, your VIPs will be conducting business on international soil and your road warriors rely on your expertise to match them with a seamless international ground transportation experience—including those corporate clients who are now trusting you with their leisurely excursions abroad since you expertly choreograph so much of their travel plans already. They may rely on you to provide some pointers for sidestepping common cross-cultural missteps, but it’s the quality of your connections with affiliates the world over that ultimately depends upon how well you work with companies whose standards and expectations might be downright incongruous with yours. You need to minimize your clients’ potential for culture shock, which can include everything from eye contact and handshakes during a greeting to the tips and gratuities given to a chauffeur.
“... with global connectivity putting vastly different cultures at our fingertips almost daily, it is increasingly important to be well-versed in how a single industry translates differently from country to country.”
The industry runs on small businesses, and that is especially true on a global scale. You have transportation giants Addison Lee and its familiar acquisition Tristar based in England, Chabe in France, and Eco Rent a Car in India, all of which boast fleet sizes in the hundreds—but rather than belonging to a small group of elite large operators, they are more of a rarity.
Consider the unique position American operators are in just by the fact that the country is the world’s fourth-largest in land mass. It also remains unencumbered by other large countries’ environmental and travel limitations (like China) while not being home to relatively large swaths of inhospitable terrain (like Russia), all of which severely limit the number of cars on the road and companies in the game. With 3.797 million square miles of business prospects and roads, America is the land of opportunity for growing international transportation companies looking to become formidably sized powerhouses.
The Global Perspective
It is that size disparity that lies at the heart of many misunderstandings between two companies abiding by two very different cultural norms.
Ralf Rehder of Action Worldwide explains this as a simple difference stemming from the basic logic that a large company is handled much differently than a small one. A company requiring a large staff is often employed by specialists who pour themselves into one element of the business and tend to be industry experts on a departmental level, whereas a small company with fewer resources generally tends to rely on its staff to be jacks of all trades—and often masters of them all, too.
“When you have a small staff, like most German companies, everyone knows everything about everything,” he says. “It’s just the nature of things: You have fewer redundant positions and more work spread across the staff. But when you have a larger company, you need people dedicated to one role because that one role supports a very many people.”
Just like a large country breeds big operators, a large company breeds a big-company mentality—which can be to the unintentional detriment of smaller operators when their bigger counterparts take their positions for granted.
“I notice a difference in the big American companies versus the smaller German ones,” says Rehder. “It’s neither good nor bad, but bigger operators expect us to be able to be reached 24/7 and immediately answer their emails. When you only have a staff of 10 people, your office is closed during certain hours, otherwise you’re overworking your staff—and we have strict laws about that.”
Johannes Baeck of Premium Drive has similarly noted how smaller companies have had to find ways to adapt to American-driven expectations that his smaller German company has had to creatively resolve.
“The main thing that changed is that the speed of the operation has increased a lot,” Baeck observes. “Everything and everyone needs to be flexible and fast. And that relates to the second-biggest thing that has changed for us: the transparency, or control. Clients want a steady stream of status updates and constant feedbacks that we can’t always give them.”
“The main thing that changed is that the speed of the operation has increased a lot ... Everything and everyone needs to be flexible and fast.”
– Johannes Baeck of Premium Drive
And as Maria Brugnaro of Italy’s New International Limo says, that very American need for an ASAP response paired with time zone differences can be tricky for international operations.
“Cancellation policies are the most sensitive issue,” she says. “When you’re working with different time zones, 24-hour notice should be the minimum period to allow an operator to review his working schedule without any penalty fee. This is because we are providing a service that needs to be coordinated, not just simple transportation.”
Colin Devine of Devine’s Worldwide Chauffeur Services in Ireland also points out that American infrastructure is only a few centuries old and has the benefit of being built with travel in mind, whereas comparatively more historical countries had had to retroactively adapt their roads to the best of their abilities—and physical allowances—to accommodate vehicular travel. It’s a feat that he says has not always been feasible, especially in areas that are dedicated to preserving their natural landscapes.
“There are some remote parts of the countryside where the roads can be quite narrow and slow because they were built originally in a different age,” he says. “But the narrow roads and our hills in many ways add to the country’s charm.” In South America, Robson Maciel of Chauffeur Services Brazil has to make the difficult decision of when it’s time to cut their losses and prohibit service to especially difficult areas.
“This is a major challenge, despite being modern vehicles with the latest technology, and it’s a shame to put these types of vehicles on unpaved surfaces,” he says. “Depending on the ground conditions, we do not authorize the vehicles to do the services; but in some cases, we put our vehicles on difficult terrain. At the end of the service, we do the complete cleaning of the vehicle (air pipe, outside and inside) and renew the lubrication of suspensions.”
We live in a truly global age. News from halfway across the world reaches us in record time, high-speed travel options are closing geographic gaps faster and faster (Elon Musk’s Hyperloop, which aims to exceed airliner speeds by topping out at 760 mph, is looking less like science fiction and more like a future inevitability every day), and conference calls spanning a half dozen time zones are increasingly common.
With advanced connectivity comes a comingling of cultures and increased international influence: Living in a bubble is not an option for those who wish to stay current and not get left behind by rapidly shifting times.
But the US of A still leads the charge in innovating this industry on a worldwide level.
“From many years serving American companies, we have learned a lot from them because we are fully aware that they are the most professional in this executive transport segment,” says Maciel. “Even the system that runs our company was purchased in the United States.”
Indeed, American software is leading the charge for technologically uniting the industry—though it does present difficulty for companies whose owners and management teams may speak fluent English but whose staff members are not so multilingual. Rehder and eight other German operators formed a coalition of livery services who pooled their resources in order to develop software that would emulate the streamlined backend services that North American and English-speaking countries alike may occasionally take for granted.
“We knew it would require time away from our companies themselves, but we needed to do something and the only solution was to work together for the good of the German industry,” Rehder explains. “It’s not profitable for American companies to create software in a language only a few people will use, and we understood that. Now, all of the German operators we deal with are using the same technology, which has been good for us.”
Still, for all the ways that the American livery industry has changed its global counterparts, some things—like foreign tastes in fleet vehicles—are difficult differences to reconcile.
“Some issues we face, and that U.S. companies are not always accepting, is that in some cities in the interior of Brazil, the most sophisticated model of vehicle is a Toyota Corolla, a model in which does not satisfy the standards for American vehicles,” Maciel says.
Indeed, operators all over the world agree that the American preference for SUVs is not nearly as well-received by their native clients—or simply are either not available in some countries or relegated to navigating ancient roads and unfriendly terrain.
These differences are easily handled with the constant communication that international operators are still adjusting to.
Handy Guides ...
Our mobile phones—the one for business, the one for personal use, the one for emergencies—are extensions of ourselves these days, and their ease of use and constant nearness have yielded some pretty cool (and free!) apps that will make your forays into foreign lands far less daunting for you and far more harmonious for your destination country.
Nearly two-dozen languages are yours to learn in a gameification approach to building upon the foundations of learning a new language. The lessons naturally increase in complexity and utilize various learning styles (primarily visual and auditory) to get through to even the most maladroit tongues.
Useful to those on the go and those whose business dealings transcend national boundaries, there are as many of these handy apps as there are uses for them. XE Currency is a perennial favorite for its ease of use and simple interface, and even gives you historic rates of whatever international currency you’re currently handling. Bonus: There’s no excuse for stiffing a chauffeur with a too-rounded-down tip!
Guides by Lonely Planet
Go where the locals are and hold your own among the native population with the finely nuanced tips this app offers to travelers abroad. Among its many ancillary offerings are phrasebooks, which will certainly help supply a script for those afraid of putting their foot in their mouths.
The Bottom Line
So what’s the simplest way to help minimize the potential for misunderstandings in vehicle, service, or personnel expectation as you reach across international borders?
Respect, common decency, and empathy—which, again, should be second nature to any reputable company.
“There’s nothing that can’t be resolved with patience and understanding,” Rehder says. “Mistakes happen, miscommunication happens—but it’s how you handle it that matters. Nothing translates as well as a little courtesy does.” [CD0717]