The stock market made history Aug. 22 by becoming the longest bull market since World War II. This rising indicator of prosperity is only one sign of the boom times for many sectors of the US economy, including meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions. MICE planners and their suppliers have much to celebrate.

The North American meetings market is expected to grow 2.8 percent in 2019 due to the continued vigor of the US economy, according to projections from Carlson Wagonlit and the Global Business Travel Association’s 2019 Global Travel Forecast. “Trends show more events of every size,” says senior vice president and global head Cindy Fisher of CWT Meetings and Events. Meetings of 101 to 500 attendees will see the fastest growth, according to additional research from CWT/American Airlines Meetings and Event Future Trends.

Thus the opportunity for travel managers and meeting planners to up their game and refine the planning process can reap further dividends in 2019.  But, as they say on Wall Street, past performance is no guarantee of future results. The best-planned event that fails to consider ground transportation well before the doors open runs the risk of things going very wrong.

When it comes to booking meeting space and hotel accommodations, CWT M&E Trends Report recommends taking action 30-plus days for small groups and the “sweet spot” of 75-plus days for large groups. But what about ground transportation; how far in advance should planning begin?

Ground Transportation

“We encourage the event planners we work with to book travel early for peace of mind and the best availability of vehicles,” says CEO Liz Carisone of Groundlink. Choice is also important and a well-established provider should have access to a wide range of vehicles for different transportation needs, she says.

According to Jens Wohltorf, CEO and co-founder of Blacklane, “The key is to engage with chauffeur companies as early as possible. While we have organized countless numbers of rides with a few days or even only a few hours’ notice, that is the exception, not the norm.”

Wohltorf says travel planners don’t need to know every single flight number or exact departure times of every ride at the first contact, but a rough estimate of the number of vehicles along with distance or time required is enough to meet their needs.  Wohltorf also cautions that an event planner should work with their provider to scout locations in advance as well. “Each airport, conference center, event venue and restaurant has its own unique requirements,” he says.

“For large annual events,” says David Seelinger, CEO of EmpireCLS, “such as the Super Bowl and many others that occupy a significant portion of available inventory, we proactively contact our clients to let them know how important it is to put vehicles on hold in advance – but we don’t say ‘No.’” He says it’s more for internal planning than anything, but being proactive to encourage advance booking “has proven to be very successful.”

At Lyft Business, “We have a unique ability to act in real time to work with our business partners as needs shift throughout the day, week or month – and have developed valuable best practices from working with hundreds of corporate partners,” says vice president Gyre Renwick.

Social Faux Pas
Efficient and flexible transportation for attendees, staff and VIPs can be critical to the take-away that the event was successful and well-run, because in today’s world of social media, perception is (truly) everything. Missed pick-ups, delays, crowded and uncomfortable vehicles, a driver getting lost or worse can tarnish what should have been a great event. One negative tweet, Facebook posting or review on the event host’s website can send PR people scrambling.

To prevent unwanted – and perhaps unwarranted – comments, Seelinger says the first step a travel manager or meeting planner should take is to give your transportation provider a clear understanding of the event. Given this information, the provider can recommend various solutions regarding vehicle types, logistics, routing and other factors, all of which, if left to chance, can severely impact the “guest experience.”

Onsite management and coordination ensures “seamless service” on arrivals as well as departures. “There’s nothing worse than coming out of a large event in a sea of people and the guest’s only option is to try to reach his chauffeur via cell to coordinate a meeting point,” he cautions.

“Being able to access a travel management app can make planning an event simple and flexible for travel arrangers,” says Carisone. The app should enable a “one-stop shop for admins, travelers and managers.” Groundlink uses BRIO, an app they developed. “BRIO has a built-in algorithm that calculates airport pick-up and drop-off times based on flight information and traffic patterns.”

The app allows multiple travel arrangers to work on the same event, and passengers can be assigned different preferences with their favorites stored in the system. An app that provides extensive reporting is an invaluable tool for travel arrangers during and after an event, Carisone adds.

Success in running transportation for any event requires a lot of detailed planning, according to Mike Fogerty, CEO and president of Addison Lee Group North America. “Our top priority is that our clients’ attendees be met on time and that their journeys stay on schedule.”

A full ground transport plan is critical to achieving this, Fogerty says, in order to save clients time and money and at the same time providing a safe, secure and enjoyable guest experience. “When meetings and events contribute around $196.3 billion dollars to the US economy every year, each minute spent in transit has a significant cost for clients who should feel 100 percent confident that event attendees will not be waiting around for cars or wasting time stuck in traffic,” he says.

Pre-planning research for events is undertaken to fully document all client-facing procedures, he adds, which outlines the operational approach and resourcing. “We carry out full team briefings and communication channel tests and, upon request, can also produce in-car signage and materials.”

The Logic of Logistics 
In last month’s issue of Business Travel Executive (Point/Counterpoint, October BTE, page 46), Kevin McDonald, senior director for Strategic Procurement, PPD, explained how using motor coaches or buses can help drive event organization. Grouping attendees in larger vehicles gives the planner more control.

“All attendees arrive roughly at the same time (or for staggered event starts, per the necessary schedule) and it also facilitates departure once an event has concluded.” He adds that using these types of vehicles “create opportunities for ad hoc meetings, continued conversations, introductions and the like.” An added benefit, he noted, is saving money. “In theory, consolidating rides is more efficient and cost effective than scattering multiple rides and or vehicles,” he said.

However Ronnie Gurion, head of Uber for Business, counters that the prospect of paying for empty shuttles or buses causes unnecessary worry. “When planners make arrangements through Uber, they only pay for the rides that are needed. Uber for Business offers features that allow planners to really customize their ground transportation programs.”

He says planners can set time of day or spending limits and “geofence” the location of the meeting or event as well as determine what kind of ride can be ordered, whether it’s an UberPool, UberX, UberBlack or something else.

But Jake Shepich, marketing director of Carey International, has an anecdotal story that is a cautionary tale for all. He says a very large conference was held at a downtown Chicago hotel known for having a limited streetside capacity. Unfortunately, event planners neglected to arrange group ground transportation.

“About 300 guests, including C-suite executives, began to arrive at Chicago’s O’Hare airport within a two-hour period,” Shepich says. “But they had to hail their own transportation to the hotel.” The conference began at 6 PM, but snarled in traffic, event attendees were still arriving as late as 9:30. “This shouldn’t have happened,” Shepich says, noting that better planning “would have prevented this nightmare. Vetting group ground suppliers based on their local experience, logistics expertise and fleet capabilities is number one.”

Safe & Sound
Duty of care is no longer an option. Unfortunately, recent headlines have put an unwanted light on limousine and motor coach accidents. “Uber has made a number of driver safety improvements,” Gurion says. “We’ve strengthened our background checks, introduced new screening technology and have taken steps to reduce the risk of drowsy driving.” In some markets, he says, they’ve added an in-app emergency button for riders to automatically call 911 in the event of an emergency.

At Addison Lee Group North America, “duty of care is something we’re proud of,” Fogerty says. “Our driver guidelines require that the Addison Lee Group Fleet is maintained to manufacturers’ standards, and any faults are detected and fixed swiftly. This fleet is equipped with sophisticated in-car safety technology including cameras, automated braking, and blind spot indication warning systems.”

GroundLink takes a three-pronged approach to driver and vehicle safety, Carisone says. “First, we go above and beyond regulations when we choose our drivers. They all have at least two years of commercial driving experience with a spotless diving record.” Second, Carisone says all vehicles are regularly inspected for cleanliness and quality; they must be no more than five years old, in excellent condition. And finally, she says, “Our driver app provides us, our passengers, and travel arrangers with the GPS tracking of the vehicle, make and model of the vehicle, and a photo of the driver, adding another layer of security.”

Wohltorf says that all Blacklane rides – at events or otherwise – provide full duty of care. “Chauffeur partners must undergo rigid safety and security checks. On average, we check 15 documents for every chauffeur company that partners with Blacklane. Plus, we check another five documents on average for each chauffeur and each vehicle.”

At Blacklane, drivers must have at least one year of professional driver experience and a clean driving record, Wohltorf points out. “All of our chauffeur partners must pass our custom training program that includes chauffeur duties, our customer service mentality, safety and defensive driving.” In addition he says the majority of vehicles are no more than two years old.

Travel experts are seeing more versatility in group ground. With the widespread use of mobile apps, the early distinction between traditional and ride sharing providers in their tech offerings is fading. Yet conditions on the ground are fast moving and fluid. Uber and Lyft first took on black cars and taxis and are now challenging private shuttles, buses, subways and even food delivery.

But in the final analysis, when it comes to getting event attendees from Point A to Point B safely and on time, traditional providers continue to claim the advantage – at least for now – with a wider array of vehicles and more people-moving logistics experience.