Chauffeur Driven: Can you tell us about your role?
Kyle Hammerschmidt: In its simplest form, my job is to carry out the mission, vision, and strategy of the NLA Board of Directors. I like to think of the Board as air traffic control and I am the pilot: They tell me their goals and we as a staff take them from ideas to implementation.
CD: What did you do before joining the NLA?
KH: I’ve been in association management for about 12 years. I was a financial advisor out of college, but quickly decided that it wasn’t for me. I found a role with a nonprofit association that I assumed would be temporary until I figured out what I really wanted to do—or so I thought. I stayed there for seven years in various roles with increasing responsibilities, then saw the post for the deputy executive director of the NLA. I stayed with the NLA until February 2018 and only left because I wanted the challenge of being an executive director, which was not available at the time. That allowed me to build a U.S. Department of Labor apprenticeship program from scratch, which was just getting off the ground when NLA leadership reached out to me after [former NLA Executive Director] Sara Gazi decided not to stay after the new partnership with CD. It did mean a lot to me that [President] Gary [Buffo] and the Board thought enough of my abilities and work ethic to extend the offer.
CD: How is your role different than it was the first time around?
KH: The biggest difference is that now the accountability lies with me. I report directly to the Board, and I’m responsible for the day-to-day operations of the NLA. This is a responsibility that I am both humbled by and take very seriously.
CD: How do you work with Associate Executive Director Sarah Mercer?
KH: I can’t say enough good things about Sarah. Knowing that she was staying on during the partnership transition made my decision to return that much easier. She started in a membership coordinator role, one that is now filled by Kelcey Phillips, and very quickly rose to the challenge with more and more responsibility. I knew everything would be OK and the transition would be smooth if Sarah was staying. We work well together and are able to bounce ideas back and forth, have debates, and collaborate on nearly everything. We don’t always agree on everything, which is how it should be.
CD: What’s it like behind the scenes in the NLA office?
KH: Besides communicating with members and working with the Board, a lot of what we do is planning. We’ve been working on the Vegas show for more than six months; we’ll start working on Day on the Hill next. A lot of it is figuring out what we’re going to do tomorrow, next week, and next month. We’re constantly trying to brainstorm ways to communicate better and craft our messaging more effectively.
CD: What are your goals for the NLA now and in the future?
KH: I really feel like the NLA is in a position to grow. We have more resources now to develop additional comprehensive member benefits, and one of our goals is to make it an absolute no-brainer to be an NLA member. We’re always trying to better the experience and add value to being a member. For the most part, the Board is larger and more established operators, but we need to hear more from smaller, newer, and younger operators—which is the majority of the industry—on what they want and need, and then explore ways to give it to them.
CD: How do you connect with those smaller and midsize operators?
KH: It’s about constantly asking for their suggestions and input. One of the best things we did in 2019 was start the No Operator Left Behind program in conjunction with Bill Faeth. This program is specifically crafted for members with fewer than 20 vehicles and there is no one better out there to educate them on sales, marketing, and strategy than Bill.
"We have more resources now to develop additional comprehensive member benefits, and one of our goals is to make it an absolute no-brainer to be an NLA member."Additionally, one of the ideas we had at our December Board Meeting was to form a small-operator council with a liaison to the Board. This will create a direct conduit to the Board where they can share their wants, needs, and ideas. We say that we need their feedback and involvement, but we need a better way to do it, even if it’s a monthly video call so they can get to know us and each other, or carving out time at the shows for an in-person meeting. Once we figure out who wants to be involved and engaged, then we can let them dictate how it’s going to look. It’s for them and it should be by them—it should be what they want. It needs to happen organically. We need to be doing that better, and I think every Board member would say the same.
CD: How is the NLA attracting the next generation of leadership?
KH: One of the most promising signs is the recent interest of younger operators running for the open Board seats. Having Jay Erlich, Ken Carter, and Matt Assolin join the Board this February will bring additional fresh perspectives from a different demographic. I hope that they will inspire others to get involved as well. I’d personally like to see a Board that is more closely representative of the industry’s demographics: We have a diverse membership, but it’s up to those people to want to be engaged on this level because it does require commitment. Everybody has the opportunity to run, and we highly encourage it.
CD: Of course, the types of vehicles used is also changing. How is the NLA pivoting with the industry?
KH: To the industry’s credit, operators have been adopting those vehicles at their own pace in terms of what’s good for their business, although there were definitely many who were early to jump into larger vehicles like shuttles and motorcoaches. I think what we need to do as an association is to continue to evolve at, or ahead of, the pace of our members.
We’ve had talks with other associations like United Motorcoach Association and American Bus Association on how we can collaborate. There are things they can learn from us, and there are definitely things we can learn from them. And there are many ways we can collaborate, whether it’s joint committees, Board members acting as liaisons, or joining forces on a legislative front when an issue arises that impacts both our industries. We have to recognize not only current trends but also the future and what the trends could be in a few years down the road. That’s why we rely on the Board and the membership to be our eyes and ears on the ground: They’ll see it before we do.
CD: How do you support state and local associations?
KH: We often collaborate with other industry associations. We can’t know everything that’s happening, so we rely on those associations to come to us when they have an issue or need resources. For example, we worked with Greater California Livery Association on AB5. Together with their representatives, we had numerous conference calls with our lobbying and PR teams; we also teamed up on a joint open letter to Governor Gavin Newsom. We’re currently working with the Limousine Association of New Jersey on similar legislation. We are always open and always willing to help whether it’s working together or giving them access to the NLA resources. It’s the brainstorming and strategizing, but then it’s also financial support through our association rebate program: Since 2012, the NLA has rebated more than $250,000 directly back to state and local associations.
CD: What kind of pre-planning goes into Day on the Hill?
KH: Although it’s the smallest event that we do, there are a lot of moving parts that make the day happen. In late November or early December, Congress releases their calendar of when they will be in session for the coming year, so our goal is to be there when they are in D.C. It’s also balancing our calendar with other industry events, but once we have a date, we get that out to our members as soon as possible so that they too can plan ahead: Attending the Day on the Hill means not only travel expenses but time away from their business. We work closely with our lobbying firm Cornerstone Government Affairs to help establish our agenda and then set up meetings with representatives so the day is impactful for both our attendees and the legislators. We prepare documents that we can leave with legislators, including a list of NLA members in their district so they can see the power of our industry and take our issues as seriously as we do. Businesses means employees, and employees means voters, so it’s critical that they understand chauffeured transportation.
CD: Would you consider joining legislative forces with motorcoach associations that also organize events in the nation’s capital? KH: Yes, we would absolutely like to do more with them, although it may depend upon the timing and what specific issues they are focusing on—if their issues align with ours, then there would be no reason not to work together. One of things that I’d like to do is to have those conversations and figure out if and when we have common ground so we can collaborate and strategize together.
CD: The association obviously had successes with PSAs about the dangers of TNCs over the past few years. What’s the NLA’s focus for 2020?
KH: Now that Uber and Lyft are public companies, they are being held accountable more so than ever before—they’ve had plenty of public scrutiny with thousands of assaults and other crimes committed by their drivers not to mention exposure of the inner workings of their organization—so we’re likely to pivot toward a campaign that focuses on the benefits of consumers and companies hiring an NLA member. We’re hoping to put a more positive light on us rather than a negative light on TNCs—they are doing a good enough job of that on their own.
CD: What can members expect this February at the CD/NLA Show?
KH: Sarah, CD Publisher Chris Weiss, and the Show Education Committee have a really good handle on education with their fingers on the pulse of what operators want and need. This Show is the first in the new NLA and CD partnership, and it will also be host to the first-ever Driven By Excellence Awards. There will be not only awards honoring those industry members who continue to shine, but also check presentations made to some outstanding charities, and we’re really looking forward to that.
Another event that we’re pretty excited about is our Annual Membership Meeting. It’s our hour-and-a-half opportunity to show the membership what we’ve done in 2019, sharing more details about our accomplishments and goals for the coming year, and to have them hear directly from our Board members, committees, and Cornerstone about what they are doing for the membership. Transparency is important because ultimately, it is the members’ organization. We also need to ensure we are focusing on our members’ key issues. This meeting is a way to highlight what our members are getting for their dues and to hear from them in an open forum. To us, the benefits are obvious because we’re constantly looking to strengthen and increase these assets, but to the average member—and also to non-members—the benefits may not be so obvious. Any member can ask a question, share an idea, or voice a concern during this meeting—they can do that any time, but it’s always productive during this meeting to be able to hear it in person.
CD: Any final thoughts on what members should know?
KH: The association runs lean and mean—the volunteer Board is busy running their own businesses while also advocating for the industry locally and nationally, and, in some cases, internationally. What the average member may not know is that they have a Board filled with people who are passionate and care deeply about this industry and its future. They make decisions with members in mind. They put in a ton of time in meetings, calls, and work behind the scenes. Their passion is one of the reasons I came back, to be honest. I’ve witnessed how some other boards work and they weren’t nearly as dedicated as our Board is to its members. If you’re not involved or educated on what the NLA, its Board or staff does, it’s easy to be critical, but know that everyone involved has the industry’s best interests at heart in everything we do and that we are always open to hearing from members. Always. [CD0120]