BY LIZ HUNTERHow two New Yorkers have been raising the bar for more than 25 years in the desert of Arizona
There was a time when you wouldn’t have wanted to find yourself in the back of Tony Asaro’s car: More than 25 years ago, the Desert Rose president was a cop with the NYPD. Now, anyone seeking luxury chauffeured ground transportation when traveling in the Phoenix area would count themselves lucky to be in the back of his vehicles.
But just how does a cop from the gritty, fast-paced city of New York end up in the hot, natural landscape of Arizona? Tony and his wife Sandy, both longtime New Yorkers and married for 37 years this May, packed up their lives 25 years ago and moved to Phoenix when Tony retired from the force. Together, they run Desert Rose Worldwide Transportation in a market that could not be a stronger contrast to the city they used to call home.
“After I retired, we wanted a change of pace,” says Tony. “New York was expensive, so we decided to go west.”
Before he retired and decided on the move, Tony had already dipped his toes into the limousine business as a part-time chauffeur for a friend’s company but soon invested in his own limousine. “Sandy was working with an advertising company and we thought it would be more profitable to be on our own. We bought a formal limousine, which is before they started stretching. She would run the office and I would drive,” he recalls of the early days. “We put an ad in a direct mail magazine: $10 off an airport transfer. Once that hit mailboxes, the phone started ringing like nuts. It was crazy.”
The Asaros hired additional chauffeurs and bought a stretch limousine, thanks to that one coupon. “It just started to take off. A lot of people didn’t want to ride in a taxi. They wanted private vehicles because of the status, and a lot of people love coupons.”
While the business grew, so did the Asaros’ family. “We had four kids within five years,” says Sandy, CEO of Desert Rose. However, working from home posed challenges with the commute for trips, as they lived on Long Island and getting to JFK or LaGuardia airports could easily take an hour.
Once Tony retired and they set their sights on Phoenix, the Asaros sold their client list but kept one of their 70-inch stretches. “We made a vacation out of it. We drove across the country with the kids in the back. We took our time and about two weeks later we were in Phoenix getting settled,” says Tony. After a few months of downtime and adjusting to the new area, the Asaros joined the Arizona Limousine Association and the rest, as they say, is history.
It was quite a change of pace for the Asaros. When he referred to the Phoenix Yellow Pages, Tony saw a small fraction of the number of pages he’d find in New York City. But as people relied on those nearly extinct books to find transportation, he advertised, but not heavily.
“Our business was built on word of mouth,” says Sandy. With her sales experience and Tony’s “never say no” mentality, they started handling farm-out work and their quality service was memorable and attractive to affiliates.
In those early days, Sandy says the foundation of their business was not really corporate, but rather weddings, proms, nights on the town, and funerals. “We ended up with a virtual monopoly on funeral home business,” she says. “We believe in keeping a mix of clients.”
For 10 years, Desert Rose was run from the Asaros’ home. “It was me and Sandy, plus four chauffeurs who would come to the house to pick up cars. We had six limousines at the time and the office was downstairs,” says Tony. “Some days I’d come down after waking up without a shower and would never get to take that shower because the phones wouldn’t stop ringing. If people knew what we looked like while giving us those jobs... I’m glad we didn’t have Facetime back then,” he laughs. The Asaros were in the true 24/7 grind. “There where times when I was on the baseball field with the kids, watching them play from the sidelines and taking calls on my cell, booking jobs at their games,” says Tony.
Eventually it became clear that the Asaros’ home could no longer accommodate the growth, but they were hesitant about moving into office space. “I consulted with friends and told them we were thinking about moving the business out of the house. One said: Think of how many calls you’re missing when you leave the house,” says Tony. “That put me over the edge. I knew it made sense to open the office.”
That friend is now Desert Rose’s General Manager Neal Smith, who has been an integral part of the company’s growth since day one by continually sharing his 30 years of industry experience.
“We were nervous about the expense of rent and utilities, but we needed it,” says Tony. “Once we opened the office we decided to build up and do affiliate work. We hired a manager, got two or three affiliates, and it snowballed. We were getting referrals from those affiliates asking who they recommended in Arizona.”
That reputation hasn’t faded in the 25 years Desert Rose has been operating in Phoenix. “I learned right off the bat never to say no. We don’t tell clients we can’t take their airport trip, or their wedding, and it’s the same thing for affiliates—or else you’ll never hear from them again.”
Their customer service-centric mindset comes naturally, as Asaro reveals that he and Sandy both spent time in the restaurant industry, too. There is a correlation between the industries, which both thrive on exceeding customer expectations and making clients happy.
“We are a concierge service,” says Tony. “We’re not just driving you, but once you ride with us, it’s the service that matters. We’ve been here 25 years, and three years before that in New York—I’ve never had anyone call and say they didn’t like our service.”
Sandy adds that putting a personal touch on service matters. “If we have a client call and say he is taking his wife out, we’re more than happy to recommend a restaurant or set up the reservation. We’ll put flowers in the limousine, or alcohol if you’d like,” she says. “We try to go above and beyond in that phone call and make the client feel like it’s a special event.”
While most chauffeured transportation companies have shifted away from the limousine end of the business, in the Phoenix market those stretch vehicles are still valuable due to the resort-like atmosphere of the metropolitan area, which also includes Mesa, Tempe, and Scottsdale. Desert Rose operates a fleet of 24 vehicles, including sedans, minibuses, SUVs, Mercedes-Benz Sprinters, hearses, and limousines.
As Arizona’s capital and its most populous city, Phoenix is known as the Valley of the Sun. People come for the arts, culture, nightlife, and a multitude of five-star resorts that offer everything from gyms and spas to golf courses and restaurants. But its subtropical climate is not fit for everyone. “The summers are so hot, and business gets slow because people don’t want to visit,” says Tony. “We have to deal with cars overheating, or repairing the AC because it doesn’t feel cool enough. There’s nothing we can do about it.”
But if that’s the worst Phoenix can dish out, the Asaros can take it. “It’s a great place to raise kids, away from the hustle and bustle of New York City,” says Sandy. “When we moved here, we didn’t know anyone but it worked out for us, and Tony—who was born in Sicily—actually loves the heat. It can be 120 degrees and he’s out there golfing.”
Approximately 16 million people visit the greater Phoenix area each year for its attractions, which include more than 200 golf courses, and is home to the Phoenix Open, an annual tournament that draws huge crowds and celebrities. Visitors to the city and surrounding area can find something that appeals to them, whether it’s seeing the magnificent Grand Canyon, Meteor Crater, or Sedona to the north, or any of the museums like Phoenix Art Museum, Arizona Military Museum, or Children’s Museum of Phoenix, to name a few.
The resorts are perhaps the biggest draw, making it a prime market for luxury transportation clients, both in the affiliate realm and through local interest.
Desert Rose recently obtained an exclusive contract with one of these resorts. “We had been doing trips for them through a concierge service, but they approached us about six months ago and asked for a meeting. Now we are getting all of the transportation in and out of the property,” says Tony.
As a destination market, Phoenix has more people coming in for vacations and sporting events, which is another aspect of Desert Rose’s book of business. The company is the preferred transportation for Talking Stick Resort Arena, which is home to the NBA’s Phoenix Suns. “We handle groups and VIPs, and we are very happy to work with them,” says Tony. “We also handled the Suns’ charity gala, which was 25 vehicles for the players, owners, and management.”
Group moves and major events are areas the Asaros have emphasized in recent years. “We work with some DMCs and our affiliates send groups. They know it’s going to be taken care of, we don’t just mass produce,” says Tony. “Each job is handled the way it should be. We’ve managed to survive three Super Bowls, three NBA All-Star Weekends, a Major League World Series, three college football championships, and we’re annually involved in the Phoenix Open, which is the most-attended golf tournament.”
As GM, Smith works closely with jack-of-all-trades Reid Patterson in this division of the company. “Reid assists him with manifests and Neal coordinates which passengers can be grouped together depending on airline and arrival times. We do all of that. It’s part of our service,” Tony says.
Sandy says they would love to expand and invest in a motorcoach for this type of work. “It’s where the business is going and it would be great to grow and offer trips to the Grand Canyon and Sedona,” she says.
“Right now we have a couple companies in town who help us when we need a motorcoach, and we have our own minibuses. We’ve never had to turn anyone away. A full-size coach is a large expense so I’m taking my time,” says Tony.
We’ve managed to survive three Super Bowls, three NBA All-Star Weekends, a Major League World Series, three college football championships, and we’re annually involved in the Phoenix Open, which is the most-attended golf tournament.” – Tony Asaro
The Asaros always seem to be looking forward, planning for the next step. “I’ll never say I’m done. I can’t be happy with where we are; I always want to further our horizons,” says Tony. And thankfully, they have surrounded themselves with a team who shares an owner mentality and also wants to elevate the company.
Along with Smith, who has been with the company for 13 years, Kelly Ouellette is a 14-year veteran who does everything from reservations to dispatch. Patterson is head dispatcher, software integration specialist, and night manager with six years under his belt at Desert Rose. Michael Walker has been with them the longest—15 years—and handles IT and is a night dispatcher. Their newest employee is Desiree Maggard, a reservationist who came on board about a year ago.
A team of 25 full- and part-time chauffeurs round out the staff at Desert Rose. Each one of them has contributed to the service levels that uphold the company’s reputation. “I’ve had people stop me when I’m driving one of our vehicles and tell me how great my company is,” says Sandy. “And we make sure to praise and reward our employees.”
“I don’t like to rule with an iron fist,” says Tony. “It may be old school but it has worked for me; I believe in treating people the way you want to be treated. You’ll get it in return. Clients come back because of the service, from the first phone call to the chauffeurs. If a client comes back and requests a certain chauffeur, that’s a high compliment.”
Sandy calls it a domino effect. “The minute our staff picks up the phone, they have to sell the service. Then it’s up to the presentation of the chauffeur and an immaculate vehicle. It all leaves an impression,” she says.
In this sense, the Asaros believe service will always prevail over technology. “We embrace technology but at the end of the day, the person in the car has to be happy with you and the service,” says Tony.
“It’s amazing what can be done with the touch of a button on your phone, but I feel you lose the one-on-one connection. I’d rather talk on the phone than use an app,” says Sandy.
TNCs—which continue to be a threat in most markets—have been operating in Phoenix for years, says Tony. “In this town they are more of a threat to taxis than limousine companies. We’ve had clients call and tell us they tried Uber and didn’t like it. One corporate client went out of town and found that the hotel used Uber as a car provider, so she called us to arrange ground transportation for her trip,” he says.
With this anecdote, Tony gives a hint to what continues to matter in this industry: service. And it’s always at the forefront for Sandy and Tony, who is a member of Spinning Wheels—a group of like-minded industry peers who meet quarterly to discuss challenges and solutions.
“This is my third year as a member and I love everyone in the group,” says Tony. “I pick up bits and pieces from everyone; how to do this and that. You could be in business 100 years and there is still something to learn. You can’t close your mind after 30 years. Things change.” The Asaros even played host to the group earlier this year. “We worked a lot and played a little,” Tony says with a smile.
Which begs the question: What do the Asaros do when they want to let loose? Sandy says they enjoy cruises in Europe, and whenever an industry show comes up, they like to extend the trip for a few days and make it a vacation. But most of their time is filled with family, as Sandy helps with the grandkids, and her family also moved from New York to Phoenix several years ago; although surprisingly, none of their four children got into the family business.
“We kept them away intentionally,” says Tony. “We wanted them to get an education first.” And their children have ended up in very diverse careers. Daughter Josina is a pediatric nurse who is going back to school for her nurse practitioner’s license. She is married to Matt, GM of a local restaurant and also a part-time chauffeur, and together they have one son. Barbara is a district facilitator for a school and pregnant with her first baby, a boy. Her husband also helps with the Desert Rose website. Anthony is a supervisor at Wells Fargo and is married with two sons. Matthew is a chef at a resort in Clearwater, Fla.
Besides family, Sandy says charity work is an extremely important part of their lives. They regularly fundraise for the local school district, children’s hospital, and cancer foundation. “We give back to the community whenever we can,” she says.
Looking back on their 37 years as not only husband and wife but also business partners, Sandy and Tony say there have not been any challenges where they did not see eye to eye.
“We have always been on the same page, knock on wood,” Sandy says.
“We have always gotten along,” Tony adds. “I remember when we were working out of our house and people would call and ask for ‘the girl from New Jersey’ because of her accent. They wanted to talk to her, so she answered the phone and I would drive. Either way, we always agreed that service was at the top of the list.” [CD0417]