BY ROB SEMENTEKIt was a late night for Nick Boccio of Buffalo Limousine. Despite fulfilling the role of the company’s general manager during the day, a last-minute midnight run for a VIP came through the reservation line. Not willing to say no or send the job to a competitor, Nick dressed in a dark suit and put on a chauffeur’s cap to do the job himself.
Although that’s hardly a rarity for this multi-generational business.
“As far as we’re concerned, our service has never changed,” says Co-owner (and Nick’s mother) Carla Boccio. “We’re hands on. Nick and my husband Frank [also a co-owner] have no problem throwing on a suit and handling a trip. It’s all about making the client happy.”
And a reply of “you’re the best” from a client certainly makes it worth it.
This type of never-say-no attitude is what has driven the third-generation, family-run Buffalo Limousine throughout their 61 years of business, making them a leader in the Upstate New York marketplace.
Established in 1960 by Carla’s parents John and Camille Patti, Buffalo Limousine has its roots in being nimble and accepting jobs that may be outside their norm. The company was initially envisioned as transportation serving the area’s funeral homes with hearses and formal limousines, but things began to shift when the Pattis got a call from a local promoter to handle transportation for a touring rock and roll band. Their willingness—albeit, reluctantly at first—pushed them into a new business model, setting the stage for six decades of doing what it takes to satisfy the client. That drive seems to be genetically predisposed.
“I grew up in the business,” says Carla, who purchased the company with her husband Frank from her parents in 2000. “When we were kids, my sister, brother, and I all worked there at some point, even if it was just cleaning cars. However, I didn’t get involved right off the bat. I initially wanted to go into road management for entertainment, but [the limousine business] was a natural extension; I always had a flair for it.”
Nick had a similar calling toward the family business. Starting as a car washer while in college, he completed a degree in accounting. After realizing that the CPA world wasn’t for him, he returned to the family business in 2014.
“I decided to come back when the company needed help with the day-to-day operations. I started doing scheduling, learned to coordinate vehicle maintenance, and did some chauffeuring,” he recalls.
Nick also introduced the most up-to-date technology to the company—which, even in the early 21st century, was still putting pencil to paper for some tasks.
“I recreated our rate sheets in Google, which were previously just on pieces of paper. Then, I started to look at how we could use our FASTTRAK reservations software better. Now, as GM, I do a little of everything,” says Nick.
Nick was very close with his grandfather, who passed in 2014, and Carla says that he learned a lot about the industry and the business from the family’s patriarch—just like she and her siblings before him.
“There’s a lot of business to be done here; not many people think about Buffalo in that way. We’re the only company in the region that has more than one Sprinter van so we get a ton of affiliate work because we have a deep fleet.” – Nick Boccio General Manager of Buffalo Limousine“A lot of the things that Nick does reminds me of my father. I’d say he was bitten by the bug in the way that I was. I think he’s good at it. There’s something to be said about a third-generation of a business. He takes pride in it,” says Carla.
In addition to Carla, Frank, and Nick, the Buffalo Limousine team is supplemented by Carla’s sister Julie Kremer. Working with the company intermittently for decades, Julie fulfills a major role as the office manager, a true Jill-of-all-trades.
“This is truly a family business,” says Carla. “Julie’s really worked for my parents as long as I have, maybe longer. She’s my superstar. She stepped up during the last year or so because she knows what it takes to run a family business. Since the pandemic, she put on all hats: reservations, payables, answering phones. I don’t know how the last 16 months would have gone without her.”
By all accounts, 2020 was looking to be a banner year for Buffalo Limousine as the company was looking forward to celebrating a milestone rarely seen in the luxury ground transportation industry.
“July 20, 2020, would have marked our 60th anniversary,” says Carla. “And to be honest, we were planning on doing some sort of big splash in terms of advertising or marketing—especially within the industry and local press—obviously it didn’t happen. But, here we are at 61.”
Just as the Boccio family was beginning to cement their plans for the celebration, things went off the rails thanks to COVID closures and lockdowns.
“We do a lot of farm-out work for chairmen of banks, VIPs, CEOs, and the like,” says Carla. “Then, all of a sudden in February, everyone was canceling trips all over the country. We were all wondering what was going on. Then on Friday, March 13, it hit the fan. I sent everyone home and told them that we’ll reassess next week. I was thinking, ‘What are we talking here? Four weeks, six weeks, eight weeks?’”
Buffalo Limousine had seen plenty of tough times before. Initially, Carla was reminded of 9/11 and the shutdown of the travel industry. The situation also had echoes of the SARS crisis that affected the company in 2003-2004, when that virus temporarily paused flights in and out of neighboring Toronto.
“But that next week, it was like the world had exploded. As the owner, I was in touch with other operators. My angle was keeping afloat financially, while Nick was dealing with our team and operational tasks. We had just bought a Freightliner, and it was like ‘What did we do?’ I had the opportunity to sell one of my older buses, but we decided to keep it on another season. So all these things were going through my head: shoulda, coulda, woulda. Thankfully, that bus was sold a few months ago.”
Fortunately, the company’s place at the forefront of their market, along with the Boccios’ resilience, put them in a relatively solid place.
“I knew we’d get by,” insists Carla. “We were fortunate that the company was in good shape financially when the pandemic hit. It also helped that we immediately sprang into action with deferments, insurance reductions, etc. Also, we sold off a few vehicles by May or June  to generate some cash. I negotiated with our finance companies and we have a great relationship with our local bank. It was all about keeping them informed. It was stressful, but once things fell into place with PPP and EIDL, we started doing shuttle work. We were running lean. Another thing that helped tremendously is that Frank and I were personally very stable financially speaking so not taking our salaries during the pandemic also helped the business stay sound.”
Having a fleet that includes minicoaches and executive vans allowed to the company to pivot into a shuttle service for frontline workers on COVID wards.
“In Buffalo, we had one specific hospital that was 100 percent devoted to COVID patients, and we were transporting traveling nurses. It was every day, four vehicles a day. These shuttles for travelling nurses, though not COVID-related, are still going strong.”
The company also found themselves doing last-minute VIP work for some of their long-time clients who couldn’t fly. Sometimes, these trips would require up to eight hours of travel, but Carla says they were glad to have the work during this slower period.
“We took every precaution: We had shields put in our vehicles, chauffeurs were getting tested weekly—clients would pay for it. We felt our chauffeurs were safe and our passengers were safe.”
While Buffalo is often considered a “tier 3” market in the luxury ground transportation industry—its population is just over 250,000 and is the second largest city in New York state—it’s an unusual city in that it straddles the border between the US and Canada.
“There’s a lot of business to be done here; not many people think about Buffalo in that way,” says Nick. “We’re the only company in the region that has more than one Sprinter van so we get a ton of affiliate work because we have a deep fleet. We have a lot of long-standing clients who are from generationally wealthy families in corporate business, so we do a substantial amount of farm-out work around the country.”
“We’re an extension of N.Y. and N.J. companies,” adds Carla. “We’ve been doing affiliate work for many companies for years. Also, we’re fortunate to have NHL and NFL teams in our city and we’ve had relationships with those teams for easily 40 years. We also have Niagara Falls, of course, which is one of the wonders of the world, but we’re also a border town. Business is global these days, so there’s a lot of cross-border work.”
Buffalo Limousine’s ability to service its Toronto-based clients was integral in helping Canadians return home after spending their winter in Florida and other warm-weather states. With border restrictions in place due to COVID, any Canadian resident flying into Toronto Pearson International Airport was required to be shuttled on a bus to a hotel, where they were quarantined for 72 hours. In addition, they’d had to pay a fee of $2,000.
“We got a few calls from Canadian snowbirds in Florida interested flying into Buffalo. The workaround was if you traveled into Canada by land, say, via for-hire vehicle, you could quarantine at your home. That opened up a huge amount of business. We’re still doing some of these trips now, but they’re about to open up the border on August 9,” says Carla.
“Chauffeurs are considered essential workers, so there’s no testing or quarantine requirements to go over the border,” explains Nick. “Canadian residents just need to have a negative COVID test and fill out information on an online platform, including address, quarantine location, and time of border crossing. However, come early August, they’re letting fully vaccinated US citizens over the border. Previously, you couldn’t even come over even if you owned property in Canada.”
These cross-border trips provided Buffalo Limousine with an enormous—and somewhat unanticipated—amount of work. Carla estimates that they performed 2,000 trips into Canada in recent months; quite an improvement to the four or five trips a day they were doing at the height of the pandemic.
While Buffalo Limousine has managed to stay afloat during these uncertain times, they still are dealing with a large common challenge faced by so many in our industry: hiring chauffeurs.
“Because we’re a third-tier market, we probably have bigger issues with hiring than other markets,” says Nick. “There’s just not a big enough labor pool for potential drivers. Like everyone else, regardless of COVID, it’s been difficult to fill positions. We’ve picked up a handful of drivers who were doing Uber and Lyft, and we managed to get referrals from our chauffeurs for CDL drivers.”
“Labor was an issue going into COVID. It was almost the theme of the CD/NLA Show in Vegas, if you remember. It’s just gotten worse,” adds Carla.
But despite a difficult year-and-a-half, and the trials facing business owners everywhere, the Boccios remain positive about Buffalo Limousine and their outlook.
“As much as I may complain, it’s a labor of love. I perform best under pressure. And this is a high-pressure business—especially now,” says Carla. “But a pandemic can’t keep us down; we’re as solid as we’ve ever been. I think that because of the pandemic we’ve been able to regroup and focus on one thing. Buffalo Limousine in 2021 is looking forward to Buffalo Limousine in 2041 with Nick at the helm.” [CD0821]