By Julia M. Johnson
Transportation companies say their services are often an afterthought in the mind of today’s busy meeting planner. Groups often call late in the game, causing a last-minute scramble for available vehicles and drivers.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Providers say that when you’re in the early stages of orchestrating an event, it’s as important to arrange for your wheels as it is to plan for your meals.
Especially when your group is on the larger side, or has functions to attend at multiple locations, it’s key to start planning early with your transportation provider. Vehicle options vary widely, and so do costs – so getting an early start on planning is the best way to make sure you see all your options, says Mike Sinatra, president of the Carey Limousine division of Kansas City Transportation Group (KCTG). His company encompasses three businesses: Yellow Cab of Kansas City, the Kansas City franchise of Carey Limousine and Super Shuttle of Kansas City. It can be found on the Web at www.kctg.com.
Simple vs. Sizeable
Sinatra says small groups on a tight budget can obtain permission to place a link to his Web site on their own home pages, so attendees can arrange their own cab or shuttle transportation to and from airports, meeting sites and hotels. “Movements of small groups like this are pretty easy, especially when functions are close to attendee hotels and things are within walking distance,” Sinatra says. “In this case, it’s low-maintenance, and the planner doesn’t have to babysit the whole thing.”
The other side of the coin is the big-budget group that has hundreds or thousands of attendees and is willing to pay to have everyone picked up. In that case, you may need a provider that can put 20 full-size motor-coaches on a regular schedule between the airport and multiple hotels, according to Sinatra. The transportation company should have employees available to serve as greeters, baggage handlers and route coordinators connected by walkie-talkie, so the drivers don’t have to fill those roles and risk slowing down the route rotation. “It’s much easier to have our people communicating with the dispatchers instead of making the planner do it,” Sinatra says. “It’s easier for us to make the adjustments and keep things running smoothly.”
Because transportation scenarios of this size require a lot of coordination and manpower, they can cost in the $100,000 range, depending on the length of the conference, Sinatra says.
And mid-sized groups may opt for a combination of large and small vehicles, depending on the location and number of events they are attending.
With medium- to large-sized groups, it’s vital to use a provider that can have a couple of extra shuttles standing by in case of mechanical trouble, schedule changes or unexpected emergencies, according to Sinatra. “There often are times when someone gets sick, or there’s a family situation, and an attendee has to get back to the airport quickly,” he says. “Your provider should have vehicles standing by to handle this. Even with new equipment, mechanical problems are inevitable. If we’re providing 20 rotating shuttles for an event, for example, we will keep two or three vehicles with drivers on standby in an unused parking lot to handle emergencies.”
Whatever the size of your group, it’s important to know in advance how much time your attendees can afford to wait for pickups, then communicate that to your transportation provider so he or she can determine what size vehicles best fit your needs. Full-size motor-coaches typically hold 45 to 55 people, and mini-coach shuttles usually seat 28 to 35; large SUVs and limos can handle several people at a time. And while some groups may be willing to have their attendees wait up to half an hour for a pickup, others may consist of VIPs or busy salespeople who can’t afford to wait more than 10 or 15 minutes for a ride.
Motor vs. Mini
Motor-coaches can hold more people, but they’re not right for all situations, according to Sinatra. “If you’re maneuvering through downtown streets, mini-coaches can zip through turns and traffic faster,” he says. “They are easier to load, pull to the curb and park, and can often get your attendees there twice as quickly as a motor-coach.”
If you’re transporting your attendees long distances or to outlying areas, motor-coaches with restroom facilities may be more appropriate. Consider, however, that they are more costly to operate and tend to come with higher hourly-use minimums, Sinatra advises. “Motor-coaches may require a five-hour minimum, while mini-coaches may have only a two-hour minimum,” he says. “If you’re only doing one short transfer of passengers, mini-coaches may be the way to go. Or you can ask about using a combination of both.”
Mini-coaches may also be more appropriate for groups going to sites off the beaten track, says J. Howard Fisk, owner and president of Fisk Transportation in Springfield. His company specializes in limousine, sedan, SUV and mini-coach/shuttle transportation. “These days, a lot of groups want to use unusual venues like tents under the stars,” he says. “Chances are you can’t get a large bus to a site like that. There’s a real trend toward using smaller coaches here.”
Sinatra says hourly rates for motor-coaches and mini-coaches are often comparable at around $90 to $100 each, but the cost difference is in the minimum number of hours required. Some transportation companies may also agree to a flat fee for simpler transfers from point A to point B, he says.
Get on Board
Make sure your transportation company is informed well in advance of the requirements of any disabled attendees, advises Cheryl Dozier, a meeting planner and chief executive of the Jefferson City-based Dozier & Associates marketing and public relations firm. “Be sure your provider has enough vehicles that are wheelchair accessible and have lifts, if that’s what your attendees need,” Dozier says. “The provider should know in advance if the venues being used have enough room to load and unload people in and around disabled parking.”
And be sure your provider takes luggage considerations into account when planning how many vehicles and staff members to deploy, Sinatra says. Some groups may include family members who plan to do a lot of shopping and will return with more baggage than they arrived with; others may consist of attendees making only a short stay with little luggage.
If despite your careful planning, an unexpected need for transportation does crop up at the 11th hour, it’s important to know you’re dealing with a provider who is flexible, according to Fisk.
“Some companies are not willing to handle last-minute requests,” he says. “It’s a quirky industry, but you need to find a company that wants to be part of the solution, not just take the easy work.” Although he’s head of the company, Fisk says he has been known to hop behind the wheel of a 35-passenger shuttle himself when a client’s attendees found themselves stranded at the airport.
According to Fisk, it’s helpful to ask if a transportation provider pays its drivers by the trip or by the hour. “We have observed that if drivers are paid by the trip, they’ll want to get it done quickly so they can go take a break, whether that serves the client best or not,” he says. “But we pay our guys by the hour, so there’s no incentive to hurry. We want them to be safe, not rushing across town.”
Fisk says his company offers a guide on its Web site, www.fisklimo.com, to help planners gauge how many and what types of vehicles they’ll need, and what they can expect to spend. “It’s all about courtesy to the client,” he says. MM&E
(Julia M. Johnson is the Assistant Editor from St. Louis, Mo.)