BY JOHN GREENE
As 2016 moves us another step farther from the economic meltdown that chomped on our bottom lines like a ravenous shark, we find that industry optimism still continues to grow.
But before we all start thinking of retiring to the Bahamas, it’s perhaps wiser to look at 2016 as the year for building upon our momentum while keeping in mind that the public (not to mention the stock market) can be a fickle mistress, especially in an election year.
That being said, let’s look at seven key areas that we should continue to focus on in the new year to help increase our bottom lines and better serve our customers.
Just because TNCs are trying to emulate chauffeured transportation doesn’t necessarily mean we should be trying to restructure ourselves to be an “on-demand” industry; if that’s what we wanted to be, we’d be out there gobbling up taxi medallions. We are not an on-demand service, and it’s this very trait that allows us to charge more for our services—because we offer more. Throughout 2016, we must continue to be the best at what we do, and keep upgrading our service and technology in order to evolve and move forward. But this is hard to do if we are always looking over our shoulders.
TNCs have also tapped into our driver pool with wild claims and promises, but that will change in 2016 as potential chauffeurs are now learning they probably won’t make $15,000 a month as some TNC ads have suggested. And as those chauffeurs return, it is important to welcome them back for the value they add to your company, not as some petulant child who ran away from home. We all know that good ones will make or break your company. And if you choose to hold a grudge, you will find that by cutting off your nose to spite your face only renders you unable to inhale that sweet smell of success.
2. VEHICLE FORECAST
As Town Cars, stretch limousines, and 15-passenger vans continue to fall by the wayside like fax machines and wristwatches, we see our clients—who on occasion still need to transport 15 executives on a road trip—want something more comfortable and sexier than a traditional van with bench seats. Thus, we will see the continued popularity of vehicles like the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, which offers more comfort, additional bells and whistles, and the ability to move seats around to better accommodate customers who would prefer not to have to talk over their shoulder to someone sitting behind them.
These vehicles have made a huge impact on our industry, because they not only look darn good but also are great in increasing your bottom line. We used to send 72-inch stretches out 20 times per month and bring in $5,000; we now have Sprinters hauling clients 60 times per month, producing $15,000. I see their potential use in 2016 only increasing.
3. CHAUFFEUR TRAINING
Your company is really only as good as your chauffeurs, which means hiring and expanding your roster in 2016 are more important than ever. Your business mirrors the quality of your chauffeurs, so it is imperative to make sure they both do their job well and want to stay with your company. We must end the perception of a chauffeur position being a waystation until “something better comes along.” This has become harder as the job market has improved, but it’s up to us to change this notion.
The only way to hire and retain good help in 2016 is to make it worthwhile for them to stay, and that starts with a fair wage and a sense of belonging. The days of the contractor are over. When you hire chauffeurs, you should consider them paid employees who deserve benefits like vacation time, sick days, and bonuses.
Remember that you are also hiring a company ambassador: Chauffeurs are the direct link between your company and the client, and they should feel like they have a vested interest in your company’s success—because they absolutely do.
When we get a call to help out with some charitable endeavor, the easy route would be to simply pop a check in the mail and save our cars for the next big paying client—but that’s not how it should work. If you donate your time and services to a community event, you need to be a part of it, and you want to make sure your other clients are aware of your actions. While you certainly participate in charitable endeavors because it feels good and is the right thing to do, it also allows you to put your name—and your brand—front and center with the hope that it might catch the right eye.
We have also found partnering with professional sports teams to be beneficial in driving our business, whether it’s taking on sponsorships or donating services. From a business standpoint, being involved with sports teams in the community comes with “perks” in the form of tickets, signage on scoreboards, program ads, and select nights when you can woo your VIP customers and potential clients. Aligning with a local team also boosts your credibility and strengthens your brand. People tend to feel that if a major sports team is letting you drive around an athlete who is worth millions of dollars, then you are a trustworthy organization.
Another method we found effective in increasing our community footprint is joining large regional organizations or associations, but also remembering not to ignore smaller businesses. It’s easy to think that only a large regional chamber of commerce has clout while the local business groups are populated with the likes of the manager of a nearby Best Buy. But you need to remember that if the CEO of Best Buy ever visits that particular store in your neighborhood, he’s not going to take a cab from the airport. Build those connections.
In 2016, you should continue to rely on advancements in technology. Here are some standard features needed for every successful ground transportation company:
Your website is still a cyber-brochure for your company, so you need to think of it as more than just an electronic picture album displaying shiny new vehicles. You must make it fully functional so that clients use the site to get a quote and book their reservations. Your website can then take it a step further by using reservation software that allows clients to track the progress of their reservations.
Do you love your software? It might be time to shop around to see if you have the best for your company. Our software gives us access to immediate travel information through a flight tracker, which relays FAA data for projected landing times, delays, and “wheels-down” status. The data is then routed from the dispatcher directly to a chauffeur’s cellphone. And through the system’s integrated mapping and GPS capabilities, all a dispatcher does is click on a trip and see where the chauffeur has been for the past 30 minutes. It also allows our clients, employees, drivers, affiliates, and agents to book, track, and manage trips, as well as review invoices and print receipts. Furthermore, they can monitor pickups, make changes, view the chauffeur’s status, flight status, book future trips, and even print out an invoice, all directly from a computer or handheld device. There are a lot of good options out there, so make sure you are current and using your package to its fullest capacity.
A GPS system in every car should be as much a standard feature as a steering wheel and gas pedal. But don’t think of this GPS as the basic Garmin you buy for $200. The high-end models you need to invest in also serve as a two-way communication device, and are able to automatically receive and transcribe data into an easy-to-navigate map. It also serves as a tracking tool so you know where your chauffeurs are at all times. At about $600 per unit, the money you save just in gas receipts from drivers wandering the streets of the city looking for their next pickup will more than make up the cost.
There is no shortage of articles about how Millennials are tethered to their phones and living in an app-focused world. So it’s wise to make sure they can reach you easily through your own company app. With this generation’s prevailing mentality being that if you aren’t represented by an app then you don’t exist, it’s worth making the relatively small investment—maybe $200—to get your business on an app store. Before you dismiss this demographic as no more than the cyber-stepchildren of Steve Jobs, remember that they will be running the C-Suite in the next decade or so—and many are already making their business travel decisions. And when they do, will they find you? We’ve also updated our software so we are able to communicate better with our clients, so they can see exactly where we are on Google Maps, a photo of the chauffeur, and estimated time of arrival.
While you can certainly use social media sites for a portion of your 2016 marketing, don’t hold your breath waiting for Warren Buffett to “friend” you. According to several industry experts, only three percent of companies have said they have ever sold anything on Facebook; but if used correctly, with added splashes of persistence and ingenuity, you can achieve the results you want through social media. Each month we do two blogs and one e-blast generated through our website and accompanying social media sites. Then our sales team, each of whom belongs to at least 50 social media groups (e.g., corporate travel planners, wedding planners, travel associations, etc.), sends it to their contacts, and so on.
Unfortunately, the downside is the daunting amount of accumulated data and contacts. We’ve found that without the manpower and hours available, they’re just names on a printout. So we have made the conscious decision in 2016 to go back to grassroots marketing—picking up a phone, knocking on a door, or sending out an invite—to “humanize” our marketing efforts beyond the traditional e-blast.
By connecting with other operators across the country, your client base expands as your client is met in another city by a ground transportation company you’ve aligned yourself with.
Outbound affiliate sales is just as important in 2016 as it’s ever been. It’s all about creating a network of companies that increase your business. But this network can be only as effective as the time you take to build it. We use a service called Affiliate Connect, which acts as a bridge between varying reservation technologies, allowing us to process each other’s information. Since these affiliates essentially represent your company, you don’t want your best client stepping off a plane in Chicago only to be greeted by a driver who looks like a street person holding up a sign with the name spelled incorrectly. So do your due diligence.
Creating an affiliate network is all about trust. But that trust can translate into hundreds of thousands of dollars in added revenue.
By paying attention to these important facets of your business, you will find that 2016 will prove to be a successful year that will serve only to whet your appetite for an even greater 2017. [CD0316]
John Greene is the president and CEO of ETS International in Randolph, Mass. He can be reached at email@example.com.