Sunday, October 21, 2012

What's In a Name?

I have a jaded view of the limousine industry. That attitude grew from observation of how limo company owners operate, specifically their treatment of people - customers and workers both.

My experience is limited, of course. But of the three or four big operators in my area, I know drivers who work for all of them, and they tell me the same story; the guys and girls who run these places are big on vision but light on the down and dirty business of working in a luxury/discretionary area. It's tough out there, and drivers often take all the heat, from crappy money to disgruntled customers.

Which is why the naming conventions of limousine companies gives me reason to smile. They are all so chipper:

~ Above All Limo and Town Car

~ Prestige Limousines

~ Diplomat Limo

~ Regal Limousines

~ Diamond Limousines

~ Elite Limousines

~ Royal Coach Limousines

~ Premier Cars

~ TLC Limousine

~ High Class Limo

...and so on.

It's a joke to believe that they're ALL the BEST, because it simply isn't possible. Just once, I'd like to see someone advertise a limo business as "...decently priced with okay cars..." or "...mostly good drivers..." or " get what you pay for..."

As far as I can see, only habit keeps people returning to a specific company (if they're regular users) and either price or recommendation if they're one-offs.

Naming therefore reflects the lack of imagination of owners, making practically zero difference with any individual consumer's choice. Clearly, owners haven't figured out this fundamental fact.

My favourite name for a limo company is "Rollex Limousine". Yeah. Just like the fine Swiss timepieces.


Thursday, April 21, 2011

Daylight Limo Rides

Daytime limousine rides are a rare but sweet kind of fruit. Obvious advantages over night-time runs are the fact that it's light (yes, obviously, but very importantly) that you generally feel better (not exhausted by being awake when the body says go to sleep) and that they finish at a reasonable hour (therefore I can get to bed at the same time as regular people.)

The people who book a stretched limousine from noon until 10:00 pm are different from the night-time crowd too. They tend to be older, richer and happier. Often, the booking is made months in advance.

A recent run was representative. I was to meet eight folks in the parking lot of a local restaurant in The Boss's super stretched SUV. Naturally, he has given me NO idea of who the customers are, where we are going, nor if it's a special occasion. All I have is a time and a place.

But experience told me the people would be fine, as indeed they were. As is usual, the organizer introduced himself to me, and gave me the outline of the day. His friends all arrived, and they're loaded with food and booze and in very high spirits. That's good. Happiness breeds happiness. When I see bottles of champagne, I too am happy.

But not everything is rosy. The airconditioning in this machine works satisfactorily, but not brilliantly. It's a constant refrain from the back, asking that the a/c be turned up. All I can do is to tell them that it will cool down as we get under way, and that it's a big volume of air to cool on a hot Florida day. They don't care. If the least thing is wrong, people bitch. Sigh.

Another pending problem is that I have a navigator on board. A navigator is someone, almost always a guy, who wants to know every turn you plan to make. If you don't describe precisely the route, they'll pick it up and correct it. Unfortunately, this turkey is sitting right at my shoulder...which leads me to raise the divider. Thank goodness for the divider.

The plan was a common one: to Tampa for a matinee live performance (The Jersey Boys) then to an early dinner at a fancy steak house, and then home. That part was easy, and almost quite fun. I had time to read three newspapers, finish my book, make a few calls, spruce up the interior of the limo and take a half-decent lunch. (The latter's not always easy, given how tricky it can be to find a park for the beast.)

After dinner, I was looking forward to dropping off these people and getting home. After all, I'd not finished until 4:00 am the morning before. (More bullshit scheduling from The Boss.) And then came the kiss of death...they wanted to stop for ice-cream. Oh, great. No-one can agree on where to go, and everyone's tired, so they're not communicating. The difficulty for me at a time like this is that I hear three different instructions from the back, but when I try to clarify which ONE I should follow, no-one speaks. It's like I have to play the parent to a bunch of nine-year-olds.

Mr Navigator then springs into action. Okay, if you just make a U-Turn here, he says, pointing hopefully at a break in the median. My eyes roll in their sockets. This thing takes about TEN lanes to make a U-Turn, and gently suggest that another, wider intersection a little up the road will work better. He starts questioning me, asking what I'm doing...

...until he observes for himself PRECISELY how much real estate this damned machine needs for a U-ey.

But it all worked out. And it turns out that they were all real estate agents, on a pep-up trip, hoping and talking themselves into a better year ahead. Good luck with that, guys and girls.

And for a bunch of people who LIVE AND DIE on percentage sales commissions, the tip was abysmal. But I didn't care. I was home in bed before midnight.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

On Tiredness

For two days I have not driven further than the grocery store and the beach. There's not much driving work at The Boss's shop anyway at the moment (surprise) but sometimes I need concentrated down-time.

To the untutored eye, the life of the limo driver looks to be a lot about doing nothing. As I say to passersby and other people I talk to whilst on the job, my life is all about waiting. We wait for flights to arrive, we wait for people to emerge from their house, we wait for concerts to finish, we wait for strippers to take the last dollar from the bachelors. Lack of motion defines us.

Except that waiting is not the same as doing nothing, nor is it the same as hanging around at home. Waiting creates a sub-species of stress, based around being ready to spring into action at very short notice. Think of fighter pilots sitting in their jets at the end of the runway waiting for the call to scramble - sure, they're idling, but relaxed they're not.

Not that waiting for an arriving flight is the same as defending the country, although if we fail to find our customer at the airport some of them are prone to starting WW III. That's the stress. It is fear of something going wrong, for which we are blamed. Most people are pretty quick off the mark with a phone call to The Boss if something goes wrong. That tees him up ready to take a swing at us, notwithstanding that we've done everything right.

If the customer takes the wrong escalator to the wrong arrivals hall, it's not my fault. If the customer fails to meet the limo at the previously decided corner, it's not my fault. If the customer fails to tell me that it's not THEM travelling, but their daughter and her boyfriend, it's not my fault if I don't recognize them.

But it ends up that I get heaped upon, because the driver is at the end of the power line, and at the head of the blame line.

So much of my time is spent out-thinking customers. I'll pre-call to confirm arrangements. I'll draw maps and make drive-bys to point out a place I can safely stop. I'll even park up the limo and follow people so I know where they are - drunks are prone to foxing innocent drivers by claiming to not know where they are.

It's all part of being a driver, but with all the sleuthing and figuring out human nature, I sometimes I think I should start a private detective agency.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Haves and Have-Nots

Insane political definitions aside, I have one simple test for defining whether a customer is rich or not. Ahem:

Those who fly in private jets* are rich. Those who fly on airlines are not.

Pretty simple isn't it? The reason I like it is because it is so clear-cut, eg:

Rich people don't mix with poor people at airports - they have their own terminals.

Rich people leave when they are ready, not when the airline says it's okay.

Rich people are orders of magnitude more wealthy than everyone else - to afford that fancy chunk of aerospace magic requires it.

So that's settled then. But that leaves a fair number of The Boss's customers who would disagree with my description. They would - I'm sure - say that they only travel first-class, that they are Diamond-Edged members of such-and-such an airline's Blah Blah club. All well and good, I would say as I drive them to the airport in a Town Car with crappy brakes and 300,000 miles on the clock. (Rich people use rich-people limo companies.)

But the litmus test is this: from a first class seat with an airline, can you stride to the cockpit and tell the pilot that you have changed your mind? That you just don't feel like Vail today, and that you'd rather go to Taos, where you've just heard the snow is perfect? And if you did manage to do that on your airline flight without being shot, gang-tackled, or generally beat-up by everyone on board, would the pilot actually do it?

No. Of course not. Rich people get to change their minds in-flight. The rest of us do not.

[*For consistency I include turboprops in the 'private jet' category, but not piston-powered planes.]

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Miss Apprehension

All I'm saying is, if the person blocking everyone at the gas station sports a long blonde ponytail, don't assume it's a woman. Sixties relics can be deceiving from behind.

How about moving your truck and getting outta the way, Miss?!


Monday, April 4, 2011


One fact about the limo game - there's always something unexpected in the wind. The Boss graciously assigned me a small-stretched run a couple of Fridays ago, six passengers for a local night out, pick-up time 23:30. Twenty-three thirty, that's thirty minutes before midnight.

It's not that unusual, the late-night start. The under-thirty crowd is aggressively nocturnal, apparently, and arriving at a bar close to midnight is cool. By necessity that usually means being there for closing, often a messy thing. Most places in our neck of the woods have a 2:00 am close.

So I resigned myself to another back-of-the-clock night working for peanuts. I had an airport run late-afternoon, so I tried to nap for a while before heading off to prep the vehicle.

Although I'm used to this kind of weird working schedule, a small knot of dread accompanies me with late-night gigs. There's no way to avoid the fact of circadian rhythm, which for most people means slowed thinking processes, tardy reaction times and skewed decision-making. It's the reason pilots must have certain periods of rest between duties, and why the accident rate skyrockets for shift workers. In a potential bomb like a fully-laden limousine, mistakes can be fatal, and with lots of drunk passengers, it's easy to go wrong too.

I began the usual routine, around 9:00 pm. Shower and shave, dress, drive to The Boss's warehouse; check out the car, load the ice, inspect for cleanliness; make sure of the address, lock up and head out, allowing plenty of time to get to the customer's place. I'll need caffeination, so there's a mandatory stop for coffee.

All the time, the start time is bugging me. The Boss, of course, imparts no extra information. All I know is an address, a time, and a total of six people. Nothing more.

Oh, and a cell-phone number. Approaching the condo, I call. The woman on the other end tells me the gate code, and that 'he' will be down shortly. Who is 'he'? Where are the others? How come you're not coming? All questions I want to ask, but cannot.

Travis looked eighteen years old, but was polite and chatty. We were to head off to another address to collect five of his friends. About half-way there he moved forward to talk through the divider. Turns out that he was recently back from Iraq, serving with the US Army. Tonight's limo ride was a gift from his mother...because at midnight he would turn twenty-one.

Click. He was planning his first legal drink as soon as possible. Now I understood.

Good guy. He was the perfect client, the best and brightest indeed, a tribute to his unit. His friends, however, could have done with some of the civility that army life apparently imbues.

But that's another story.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Familiarity Breeds Happiness

The essence of happiness for a driver is knowing the future - when going on a run holds few mysteries or potential surprises. That (mostly) means that we know the client and where they are planning to go, or likely to go.

The best example is collecting a regular client from the airport. In our case, that means one of the airports more than an hour away from home base, to make it worth our while in terms of what The Boss pays. The local airport is (fortunately for us) poorly served. That means anyone looking to travel without connection is forced into using a Town Car service for the first or last hour of their journey. It's our bread and butter.

I know that Doctor S likes newspapers, I'll happily buy a handful to keep him happy. He often travels with a checked bag, and so prefers to meet his driver in the airport in baggage claim. And so it happens. We both know each other, and it works. Once in the car, he immerses himself in the papers, emerging only when I tell him he's home.

Guaranteed low-stress trip.

Max W, a super-busy business guy hasn't time for checked bags, so he will always meet curbside. I'll wait until his flight is a little distance from landing, text AND voicemail him with my exact position, and he'll appear there. Sometimes we even meet at departures, or at a less busy airline's baggage area. He likes to outwit convention, even if it only saves .04 seconds. He'll be on the phone when he emerges, so he'll look up at me, say "Hi Wombat" while I grab his roller bag. I put that in the left rear seat while he's getting in the right, and I melt rubber screaming out of there. Metaphorically of course. Max just likes the idea that we're hustling all the way. And he likes Coca-Cola, so of course I have some on ice already.

It's a well practised, predictable operation.

Mr and Mrs B are wealthy-ish older family folks who turned a Snowbird habit into permanent Floridian life. She's a bit wobbly on the pins, so definitely needs meeting in the baggage claim, as well as me carrying all her bags. They love to chat, starting at the point of us finding each other, ending only when I finish complimenting her on her beautiful garden. It's ninety minutes of more or less non-stop banter. They sit in the back of the Town Car, telling me what they've been up to inbetween calling ALL their VERY LARGE family informing them they're off the plane and in the car, on the way home.

Mr B wants nothing more than some ice-cold water and the local newspaper, so he can catch up on what little occurred while he was away.

It's another well-rehearsed and happy groove.

If only all jobs were as calm.

Monday, March 28, 2011


I'm contemplating wacking a bumper sticker on my car:

Welcome to Florida - Don't Forget to Leave.

Jaded, you say? Well, pretty much. Our yearly influx of Snowbirds is currently augmented by Spring Breakers, meaning that my small Gulf Coast town more than doubles in size. And by the Wombat Traffic Theorem, traffic idiocy is proportional to the cube of car numbers, expressed thusly:

I(t) kinda = (C*M*S)

Where I(t) is traffic idiocy, C is total cars, M is total minivans, and S is total SUVs.

If you sense my Road Karma Reservoir is running low, you would be right.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Too Much

Some people tip too much. I know, it's antithetical for someone like me to say, but it's true nonetheless, that some people are overly generous with the gratuities.

The gentleman I have in mind is an interesting study. Not the most charismatic guy, he's obviously set on looking after all of the drivers slaving for The Boss. Upon his insistence, we automatically add thirty percent to all of his invoices as a standard gratuity, but he also oftentimes palms us a note as well...and not a twenty, either.

Oddly, all this money makes me uncomfortable. There are two reasons for this. One is that while Mr Tipper is always polite and never demanding, I have no connection with him. We talk only perfunctorily, and never with humor. His wife, more friendly and outgoing, is kinda the same. Secondly, I really never feel like I've earned the tip. A lot of his jobs are very simple local limousine runs, collecting a couple or a couple of couples around five in the afternoon, and driving them to his house. They have dinner and a few drinks, and then I drive them back. It's so easy.

The only downside is that we have to sit in his underground garage for the three hours in which they're eating and socializing, but that's no imposition if one is prepared with books, newspapers and a nosebag. All in all, he's the ideal customer, but still there's something that makes me feel guilty about accepting such amounts for so little input.

The Boss's angle on all this reveals much about him. He is mostly pissed off with Mr Tipper for this reason: with that thirty percent tip, we drivers often net more money from the run than he does.

This makes him angry, which tells you all you need to know.

Monday, February 21, 2011


Yes, it's true. The partition is not soundproof, and pretty much everything that goes on back there is audible to the chauffeur.

Saturday night provided a prime example. My charges were a bunch of working folks on a night out to a sporting event. I think their boss had somehow subsidised the trip, because the hourly rate was well below that which The Boss customarily charges for the giant stretched SUV. Sigh. Who knows how these things work, but from my point of view, 15% of a smaller than usual number is a smaller number than otherwise. If you get my drift.

It's always interesting noting how people react to a limousine if it's their first time. It actually DOES make them feel important. A few elements contribute. There's the fact that I open and close the door, call them Sir and Madam; there are the tinted windows, and the general feeling that they might be famous; and there's that idea that everyone feels like they are SPECIAL for the night. Alcohol heightens all these emotions.

Along with the usual drinking/socializing banter, it became clear to me that the folks planned on smoking a little weed at some point. The partition was up, so they don't know that I could hear all this. The argument ran along two lines; they could blow the doobie now and be stoned for the game, or they could wait until the ride home and party on afterwards.

Fortunately they decided that walking into the game reeking of high-grade Chihuahuan Mind-Bender might not be good form. After the game it was to be.

Insert three hours.

At that point, once all the photos had been taken and everyone was on board, I quietly suggested to the group leader that there was no smoking in the limo. But if they wanted, we could stop at a nice rest-area a few miles down the road, and everyone could stretch their legs and take a comfort stop. Wink wink. The message got through.

Better than that, once at the rest area, all but two of the twelve disappeared out of view for fifteen minutes or so, thereby giving me at least some kind of deniability. It's a dumb move, really, because if Johnny Law stopped us and made the people for moronic dope fiends, I'm not totally out of the frame.

But that's a story for another time.

The lesson here is that sound-transparent partitions are a good thing, if it helps keep us all out of trouble. Only the stuff that affects me sticks in my head.