Limousines and Town Cars Things of the Past? Say It Ain't So!

With the country suffering the worst economic crisis in a generation, meeting planners and participants are watching perks like business-class flights and now luxury ground transportation disappear like pigeons in a magic act.

"People are cutting back," admitted Alex Danza, COO of Savoya, a global ground transportation firm based in Dallas. "We've [had] planners say, 'We're going to have everyone take a taxi from the airport.'"

About half the planners surveyed in a straw poll said private ground transportation (sedans and limousines) is a luxury they can no longer afford for all meeting participants. Executives, keynote speakers, and sometimes staffers are exceptions to the rule.

The straw poll's other half responded that ground transportation is still an important part of the meetings dynamic, although limousines are out, while sedans and small, eco-friendly cars are in.

Along with business-class flights, private ground transportation has been a staple perk in the meetings industry—if not for all participants, then at least for keynote speakers and executives. But now, Danza noted business has dropped off, especially from financial and automotive clients.

Have meeting planners tagged ground transportation from the airport to the hotel as a new over-the-top line item to be excised? Or is it still an important component of a successful meeting that can't be sacrificed? We asked an informal panel of meetings professionals to respond.

In New York City, Quint Strategies founder Wendy Parsley's response was echoed by many respondents: "Limo service is typically reserved for VIPs and keynote speakers only—has been for a long time. We have never provided limo service as standard for regular meeting attendees. However, for larger trade shows, attendees do expect shuttle service to be provided from the hotels to the convention center. We continue to provide it, not on a continuous basis, but rather during peak hours."

In the current business climate, the appearance of luxury is to be avoided in favor of spartan functionalism—especially in the pharmaceutical industry. Even in the choice of vehicle, "the appearance of frugality is considered," said Mark Leonardi, CMP, director of MLA Events, in Napa, CA.

For pharma companies, which still represent a major part of Savoya's business, the appearance of austereness is key. "The luxury aspect of ground transport has to be very downplayed in the pharmaceutical industry, especially after recent scandals." Danza said.

All of which means that the line of stretch limos outside hotels during meetings will be shorter and shorter.

If not whiskey, cigars, and cavernous vehicles with those little twinkling lights inside them, then what amenities are ground transportation suppliers offering to lure meeting planners back into the fold?

Service, said Danza. He mentioned "contact calls," such as when a driver calls the meeting planner 10 minutes before arrival to let her know the executive or keynote speaker is ready to be delivered. "Planners know that this is the first point of contact [with the VIP]. They want to meet their party in the lobby with a key to their room, a firm handshake, and a seamless arrival."

Danza added: "We offer our clients the option of having a dedicated, one-person contact that will be on site for the entire meeting. That contact can change ground transport for participants and update the manifest through our new software system in real time."

The software, called Group Smart, also can be used online by planners themselves, automatically upgrading or downgrading car services by changing Excel spreadsheets and manifests. Such "robust technology" and cutting-edge communications are the new lures that will replace lattes and fresh copies of the Wall Street Journal as standard perks in ground transportation, according to Danza.

Other organizations are compensating in other creative ways.

Uncasville, CT, casino resort Mohegan Sun, for example, is partnering with New England motor-coach firm Dattco to offer buses—equipped with color monitors and wireless Internet—that can transport 57 participants from airports in Hartford, Providence, northern New Jersey, Westchester, Boston, and New York City for about $27 roundtrip per person.

"We feel that these buses will not only provide cost savings, but also increase productivity," said Christopher Perry, Mohegan Sun's VP of sales and marketing, who noted, "They are a great teambuilding opportunity."

Originally published Feb. 2, 2009