As the demand for luxury ground transportation rallies, the limo industry is reinventing itself
By Keith Loria
There’s no denying that ground transportation businesses, along with the rest of the travel industry, was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic as business trips essentially stopped for a year and people were shuttered in their homes for the most part, with no need to travel. During the shutdown, the black car sector came to a screeching halt in Q2 and Q3 of 2020, and many hard-working independent companies were forced to downsize, with some companies shutting down completely, and others forced to reduce their fleet by as much as 90 percent.
But in Q4 2020, the industry began to show little signs of life and in Q1 of 2021, a surge in travel demand returned. The industry is slowly recovering and independent car companies that survived are returning cars to the road. In fact, a 360-degree view of the industry in 2021 is very different than it was at the start of 2020, with a lot of black car companies no longer around, and consolidation happening everywhere you look.
Heading into the summer, things are starting to look up for limousine companies who are being proactive and redefining their offerings, whether by adding a luxury ride-share component to the equation, or just adding new on-demand solutions that highlight luxury, cleanliness and convenience.
According to a survey conducted by the National Limousine Association at the end of April 2021, the demand for chauffeured car services is very much on the rise. The poll found approximately 72 percent of respondents reported future bookings are either slightly or significantly higher compared to March 2021, and 45 percent noted that Q1 2021 revenue was up compared to Q1 2020, with 17 percent seeing revenue rise by as much as 50 percent or more.
Robert Alexander, president of the National Limousine Association, notes the industry is rebounding. “Now, people are feeling comfortable traveling again, and the interesting phenomenon of that is, they are coming back in masses,” he says. “Weddings, going out on wine tours and corporate travel are all coming back. Every day it’s getting busier and busier.”
Alexander feels September will be the month when more people go back to the office and start business travel with more regularity. “We’re very bullish,” he says. “Savvy companies are making the changes they need to ensure that passengers are comfortable, and I very much believe people will continue to travel – and at a ferocious pace – going into 2022.”
The NLA came out with a cleaning protocol early in the pandemic, with disinfection techniques and other regulations designed to make people feel comfortable with traveling. The requirements have helped give peace of mind to some travelers. “The initial video was done in conjunction with the Global Virus Network, which is a foremost international group of neurologists,” Alexander says. “We relied on them to provide the roadmap for keeping our customers safe.”
Shifting Gears Eric Okon, co-owner and COO of The BLS Company, understands that as more people are returning to the workplace and starting to travel again, ground transportation providers need to increase their fleet and ramp up hiring to meet the growing demands of travelers. “BLS has been in growth mode for the past nine months anticipating these needs,” he says. “Overall, entertainment and leisure travel has been leading the way to recovery. Meetings/events and corporate travel are not far behind.”
BLS offers chauffeured car services to companies, travel agencies, hotels and resorts, and individuals. Okon says the company helps to advance the travel recovery process by assisting companies in their efforts to get travelers safely back on the road.
As the pandemic began, the company realized the biggest priority was going to be both passenger and chauffeur safety. BLS instituted a number of COVID protocols and retained the help of a board-certified infection disease physician and epidemiologist.
“We installed partitions in our global fleet along with HEPA filters,” Okon says. “Decontamination booths were made available at the beginning of the pandemic to make chauffeurs feel safe to get back on the road. Vehicles are sanitized multiple times daily via electrostatic device and chauffeurs disinfect vehicles in between rides.”
Additionally, BLS was the first to purchase COVID rapid tests and encouraged all employees and affiliates to get vaccinated. All employees and affiliates are COVID pre-screened before the start of their workday.
Joe Salemme is CEO of LUXY, a discounted booking platform that optimizes empty legs for independent black car companies. As consumer demand for safe, reliable, and luxury rideshare services has increased in the wake of the pandemic, Salemme notes that his company is providing business and leisure travelers the ability to request executive black cars at Uber-like prices.
“We are not a limo company, we’re a technology company,” Salemme explains. “Our affiliates have neither the time, the money, nor the technology experience to compete with the rideshare booking process. LUXY provides that service nationally. This is a win for the small independent car company. To them, it’s additional, incremental revenue. It’s also a win for the passengers who get luxury rides at a discount and with the same ease of rideshare booking.” LUXY requires all of its affiliates to sanitize cars and meet all safety guidelines to guarantee the safety that business travelers are demanding in a post-COVID world.
“I think now coming out of COVID, people want safety, reliability and luxury,” he says. “We see the demand rise in the black car service industry because passengers don’t want to skimp. They feel more safe and secure with professional service and they are willing to treat themselves well after being cooped up for so long during the pandemic.”
Long Road Home Sascha Meskendahl, chief revenue officer for Blacklane, a global chauffeur service, says hygiene is talked about more than it ever has been in the industry, and even though the cars were always clean and safe, now it’s something that everyone asks about. But to operate today, the company knows changes were needed, which is why all Blacklane chauffeurs are required to wear masks, bow to customers instead of the once-standard handshake and ask guests if they are comfortable with them handling the luggage.
“I do believe some of these procedures will be here to stay, and others will not. But we’re being flexible and doing what we need to ensure passengers that their ride is safe and clean and for us and our drivers. Hygiene is of utmost importance,” Meskendahl says.
While revenues obviously plummeted during the early stages of the pandemic, Meskendahl notes that the length of the trips more than doubled, since many people felt safer in a car rather than going by train or plane. So when they needed to travel, they did so in one of Blacklane’s vehicles.
“We saw this as an opportunity to innovate,” Meskendahl says. “We made a new product of this which we call Blacklane Intercity, to offer chauffeur service for medium and long distances as an alternative to trains and flights, because people don’t want to be in crowded train stations or airports or on crowded bus transportation.”
One route that it saw a big increase in was Los Angeles to Las Vegas, where riders could arrange a pickup at their home without having to enter an airport to rush for a flight and get in another car once they land. It’s cheaper and has less of an environmental impact than flying. “And for those traveling with a party of two to three, it can also reduce the price per person, because you’re not paying by the seat the way you would do for a plane or train,” Meskendahl says. With the return to offices, people are more hesitant about using public transportation to get to work because of cleanliness and hygienic concerns. To accommodate that demand, Blacklane has transitioned its services in this area as well, increasing its on-demand services.
Sharing the Trends It’s not just the black car companies who are making change. Rideshare companies such as Uber and Lyft have joined the fray, offering more white-glove, black car-style services. The result is a sort of crossover market that seems to be gaining traction among travelers who want to know their rides are clean and healthy, as well as safe.
For instance, Uber Reserve, launched in November 2020, provides added control over a trip, including advanced booking, upfront driver matching and on-time pick-up guarantees. Premium Uber Black and Black SUV rides are currently available for those utilizing the new service. A spokesperson for Uber notes that the service is great for business travelers who need to book their car service more than a month out and want the reliability and cleanliness that Uber has been come to be known by.
Similarly Lyft has championed its Lyft Lux service, which offers high-end sedans and SUVs for those business travelers who want the combination of reliability and comfort.
According to Okon of BLS, the consolidation trend will continue throughout the next year or two and the company is looking for the right deals in the space. BLS expects to open a London office in 2022 – something that was halted by the pandemic last year – and plans to expand its global footprint even further in the future. Okon is optimistic,
expecting volumes to return to pre-COVID numbers by the second quarter of 2022. One thing he knows however, is that the limo industry has forever changed. “There is no going back on most of the health and wellness protocols implemented during the pandemic,” he says. “Disinfecting of vehicles is here to stay.”
Salemme notes LUXY is seeing an increase in leisure travel so far in 2021, but he foresees an increase in business travel in the months to come now that the vaccine has reached a critical mass in the US. “As the vaccine rollout continues globally, we hope to see more international travel,” he says. “As the economy reopens, LUXY appeals to the top three factors on the passenger’s mind: safety, luxury and reliability.”