BY SUSAN ROSE
The beauty of chauffeured transportation is that it exists on a spectrum. Many creative and successful operations have run the gamut on price points, the types of customers they cater to, and the markets they pursue, with plenty of business for everyone.
The industry is often grouped in with taxis and rideshares—for obvious reasons. But fleet aside, a more apropos comparison is the crossover between high-end hospitality and our industry, because at its very foundation are customer service, consistency, and an exceptional experience. The operators who strive to serve at a 5-star level get that, and they know that despite the vehicle, the hotel room, the meal—which are all important—the key will always be how you made a client feel. There’s a reason why so few are willing to pay Ritz-Carlton prices for a Super 8 room.
Those tenets have also been the founding principles of Ahmed Atris’s business, U.S. Sedan Service, since he opened his Washington, D.C.-based company in 1994. The company president came from the hospitality world—working in management at famous luxury properties such as the Marriott and the Watergate Hotel—so delivering ultra-premium service was second nature. From the very beginning, his business mindset and training appealed to the one percent of the one percent, and his company thrived through his connections with capital movers and shakers.
“There’s only one Four Seasons in the city. My philosophy is you have to be the brand that nobody can come close to, which is why I set my expectations so high,” he says. “The thorough training of our chauffeurs, changing our fleet every two years, constant customer service education, and understanding clients’ needs—if you don’t have that, then you don’t have a high-end premium service.”
He says that his connection to Elizabeth Dole, then the president of the American Red Cross, opened many early doors. Dole had been a longtime fixture in D.C. politics, not only as the wife of Kansas Senator Bob Dole, but with a trail-blazing career of her own that included serving in two Presidential cabinets, the Federal Trade Commission, and even as a Senator and Presidential contender. Word gets around in circles as finite as those, especially when influential people appreciate what you’re offering, and he was soon working with private aviation (Signature Flight Support), top properties in the region, and moving guests of the State Department and local embassies.
Monday through Friday, the city is abuzz with political deals or business transactions being made over drinks or dinner, while power players need to be shuttled to their appearances at fundraisers and benefits, and global leaders and dignitaries swoop in for a visit to local embassies or other important political events, then back to their private jets at FBOs or ushering them to their high-end accommodations. Unlike retail work, his clients’ nights usually don’t stretch beyond 10 or 11. The weekends are a bit quieter, which is often when he holds his staff meetings, although he says Sundays are starting to pick up as a busy day for them.
There is little room for mistakes when dealing with such discerning international clients who value consistency as much as discretion—and when your rates are often higher than the competition. So, how does he maintain the company’s high level of service? It starts with his team.
“There’s only one Four Seasons in the city. My philosophy is you have to be the brand that nobody can come close to, which is why I set my expectations so high.” – Ahmed Atris, President of U.S. Sedan ServiceAtris has structured his organization in a way that management is there to support his front-line team with the tools they need to get the job done—which involves regular training and a late-model fleet that includes Mercedes-Benz, Lincoln, and BMW sedans, Executive Sprinters and minicoaches, Cadillac Escalades, and coaches up to 55 passengers—and then get out of the way. Micromanaging, he says, isn’t his style ... or productive.
“I tell all my managers: you’re serving the people who are serving the clients. Not a lot of people get this concept, but I feel it’s the manager’s job to take care of employees so that the employees can take care of our customers,” he says. “My role is to offer guidance to my managers, to encourage them, and to be a role model. That’s what I do every day.”
Among his key managers is Sennait Ghebresellase, his right-hand person and the company’s affiliate and global meetings and events director. Ghebresellase also has a background in hospitality, which Atris says lends to her strength when it comes to handling events and customer relations. Operations Manager Adel Adam, who also had a former career in hotels, has been with the company for more than 25 years, and manages the dispatch and chauffeur teams. But Atris says the whole team between two offices is rock solid.
“Our managers—and all our team at both locations—I’m lucky to have them. They are all rock stars,” he says.
If you know anything about 5-star lodging, it’s that their training is second-to-none. Marriott, Atris’s alma mater, prepares managers to “Take care of associates and they will take care of the customers.” The Ritz-Carlton, also renowned for its personal service, regards their mission as “We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen.” That type of customer-service attitude is infused in everyone on staff, from the smallest gestures to the biggest details.
Atris takes care of his employees by offering incentives, retirement benefits with matching contributions, and annual profit sharing where 10 percent of the net proceeds is shared among the team.
“We give a $50 bonus to chauffeurs every time they get a compliment from a customer,” he says, adding that even he has been surprised at times by the amount. “I had a concierge once tell me, ‘Ahmed, every time your cars come in I can see the difference. When we open the doors of some other services, I feel like a French fry is going to fall out. Picking your company was the best decision I’ve made after my marriage.’ Quite a complement from a client.”
U.S. Sedan’s training also borrows heavily from other leading customer service programs such as Forbes 5-Star Training. Atris has also used PAX Training, which coincidentally was founded and is led by Bruce Heinrich, who received his own hospitality education through The Ritz-Carlton.
“Just like every Starbucks is going to be the same, every room at a Marriott is going to be held to the same expectations,” he says about his own training. “We are very blessed with great managers who keep the service levels up. That’s what the hotels taught me. I owe a lot to the hospitality industry. It taught me that those standards and the customer service mentality have to be upheld.”
U.S. Sedan’s client list spans the globe well beyond the power and politics of the Hill, and it was soon clear that Atris needed a second hub in Miami. While he does work with a select group of affiliates—he regularly refers retail and other work to his network—the additional office was all but inevitable. He opened the location nearly seven years ago, and it’s quickly outpacing their headquarters in terms of volume. In total, he operates 85 vehicles across two states.
The D.C.-based company opened a South Florida office seven years ago, and is now considering a third office abroad.The South Florida locale is where his clients go to work and play, with many maintaining additional residences as well as private yachts along the Sunshine State’s waterways—which he is frequently invited to join. The cosmopolitan port is also close to his South American business clients, but its appeal is clearly global. In fact, Miami is second only to New York as the most visited destination among international travelers.
Bookings are also growing in Saudi Arabia for the company as one of its largest clients is Saudi-based Aramco, the second largest corporation (in terms of revenue) on the planet behind Apple and a major global producer of oil and natural gas. Atris says he is considering opening another location there, possibly within the year.
Atris splits his time between offices, often spending a week each month in Miami, another in D.C., and the rest networking with his extensive book of business. The Egyptian native is also an international traveler, stopping for a visit home over the holidays with his wife, Merja, where they enjoyed a charter boat with one of their clients. Back in the States, Merja is the office mom, handling and arranging staff events, sending flowers and gifts for birthdays, weddings, and babies, and generally taking care of the personal side of the office—a task Atris says she loves.
Their 24-year-old son, Karim, also joined the company full time a little over three years ago, and is already building a solid footprint within the organization. He started where many other young offspring of entrepreneurs in the industry start—washing and detailing vehicles—but he’s handling reservations and using technology to help chauffeurs improve their drive times and attention when behind the wheel. Maybe someday he might be the next generation to lead U.S. Sedan, but Atris is letting him figure it out in due time.
As we welcome a new year, business continues to be strong as the company is ramping up in preparation of some anticipated embassy visits and other important events in the coming weeks. For most operators industrywide, 2020 was a wash for revenue but the slowdown was temporary for U.S. Sedan as reservations were robust heading into 2021, returning to pre-pandemic levels that same year. Because he likes to maintain a late-model fleet, generally no more than two years old, Atris says that replacing vehicles has been among the bigger operational challenges.
The Miami location continues to be a bright spot as well, with a full team of office staff and chauffeurs—even a waiting list, according to Atris. Hiring additional chauffeurs for the D.C. location has been a slog, although he remains positive. After all, you can teach someone the hallmarks of customer service, but they have to have a fire in their belly to serve for it to be authentic.
Reflecting on his nearly 30-year-old company (which he will mark in 2024), Atris is happy with where he’s heading and what he’s accomplished with his team and business. He regularly joins his colleagues, especially those he met through the Virginia Limousine Association, at industry events and meetings, and says he’s troubled by the undercutting that some companies across the industry are doing. Although his clients are less price-sensitive, he does worry about his business friends and competitors as well as the impact it could have on chauffeured transportation in general.
Atris says he is lucky to have found a career that he loves, even through the less-than-ideal days of demanding clients or operations emergencies. Striving for perfection, he says, does not always make a lot of money, but it does give companies very high standards. But what he likes most about the industry is the constant change and the opportunities for growth.
“Every day is something different, and I’m always learning something new from our clients, from our chauffeurs ... It keeps you on your toes,” he says. [CD0123]