No one congratulates planners when ground transportation runs smoothly. But suppose a bus on its way to pick up attendees has an accident, gets stuck in heavy traffic, breaks down or becomes lost?
Such mishaps can ruin an entire meeting or, at the very least, aggravate attendees. Transportation is an attendee’s first and last event experience, so a bad start can curb enthusiasm for the upcoming event, and a mishap at the end can leave negative memories.
It’s difficult for even the best meeting experience to make up for transportation snafus, but with the right planning, attention to detail and transportation partners, everything can run smoothly.
According to Jessica Niblett, CMP, national sales manager, AlliedPRA Orange County/Los Angeles, many common problems are preventable if planners set expectations ahead of time with transportation vendors.
Start with the site visit. Planner and provider should together walk through what the transportation experience will look like for guests. This can help planners decide if they need additional staff, signage or perhaps heaters if guests will be waiting outside for a shuttle, Niblett explains.
“When conducting a site visit at a hotel or offsite meeting location, I always make a point to show clients exactly where the buses would pull in, where the guests would queue and what needs to be done in order to ensure that transportation can run smoothly, including traffic officers, cones, staff, permits, etc.,” says Niblett.
In addition, she says, “A planner of a group that expects vehicles to be staged and ready 15 minutes or more prior to departure should communicate it to the transportation partner. If guests tend to arrive early or late, let the partner know.”
Even when planners do everything right, glitches occur and one of the biggest is traffic.
It’s a problem that Niblett knows all too well. “Operating programs in Los Angeles, we always have to account for traffic,” she says. “It can take 30 minutes to go 1.5 miles in downtown during rush hour. The best way to handle this is to be upfront with clients about what backup plans there are if any routes become too congested. Pretending traffic is not an issue will result in unhappy guests.”
Karen Shackman, president, Shackman Associates, a New York City DMC specializing in domestic and international corporate meetings and incentives, offers the following advice on traffic:
“The biggest mistake in negotiating ground transportation is allowing budgets and lowest-cost options to be a determining factor in the decision-making process.”
— Frank Macaluso
“Never underestimate rush hour and potential bottlenecks around special events,” says Shackman. “This sounds like common sense, but even the best planned events requiring transportation of groups can take wildly varying amounts of time if held in a major urban area. I recommend finding unique transportation staging areas that are close to the gala or major event.”
Plan alternate routes and make sure the transportation provider is proficient with the latest traffic apps. According to Shackman, “GPS-enabled transportation may not be adequate if you are transporting a group during peak rush hour. We understand how data on apps can change quickly in New York, so local expertise in anticipating problem areas before they turn red on the app provides a huge advantage in major destination meeting cities.”
Planners typically face the challenge of getting the best ground transportation possible on a tight budget. That requires knowledgeable, savvy and mistake-free negotiating.
According to Frank Macaluso, director of transportation, AlliedPRA Las Vegas, “The biggest mistake in negotiating ground transportation is allowing budgets and lowest-cost options to be a determining factor in the decision-making process. This short-sighted approach saves on budget at times, but often to the participants’ detriment. There are ways to negotiate price based on volume, season, etc.”
Experts offer the following tips on negotiating transportation contracts:
Work with a transportation provider early in the planning process. Don’t create your own transportation plan and then ask companies to implement them, because you may overlook key details.
Decide whether it’s best to hire a destination management company (DMC) or go directly to a transportation company. The latter provides a coordinator to manage logistics, and planners bill the company directly. A DMC contracts with ground transportation companies to provide services for planners at a pre-negotiated percentage of the bill. Whether as a DMC or planner, make sure to get quotes from a handful of companies.
Determine whether the supplier knows the difference between “ground transportation” and “event ground transportation management.” The former simply provides buses or vans to transport groups from one place to another; the latter offers ground transportation services for large groups encompassing numerous and complex movements of attendees from one site to another.
“The two are very different animals,” says Macaluso. “Transportation providers offer basic equipment and drivers. Ground transportation management involves everything from the preplanning process, communication, routes, dispatch, lead staff and ground staff.”
Choose an event ground transportation management provider when possible. “I would say that a client who goes directly to a company for group transportation is going to get just buses and drivers,” says Niblett.
“For a client looking for true transportation management, a DMC would be recommended,” she adds. “This would provide management of the arrival and departure manifest, meet-and-greet staff, handling changes, communicating routing to vehicles and the management of all staff and drivers. Once en route, they can make announcements to guests and are also the primary contact if an accident occurs.”
Meetings with many moving parts require experienced and reliable transportation partners who can manage different types of vehicles transporting attendees to multiple venues in a congested urban destination.
Macaluso says that checking references is key. “Client references and testimonials from similar-sized programs are always a good gauge of a provider’s competency,” he says. “What processes did the provider use to meet the group’s needs. It is also important to get an idea of how well the provider has worked with properties and airports.”
How does the provider select, screen and train drivers? “A high-end transportation company will tell you that their drivers, no matter what size vehicle they drive, are professionally trained ‘chauffeurs,’ not just ‘bus drivers,’ ” says Niblett. “The result of this is that, even if your guests travel in a motorcoach, the driver would show the same professionalism and customer service as a VIP sedan transfer. The chauffeurs trained in these programs take pride in their job and it shows to planners and attendees.”
How do the providers’ dispatch and reservation systems operate? “Transportation companies that specialize in corporate groups usually will have a separate group reservation department and possibly even a group dispatcher during peak times,” says Niblett. “This shows a planner that the company understands group transportation and not just individual transfers.”
What are the providers’ safety and security policies? Ask about contingency plans for challenges such as bad weather, accidents, special needs, VIP needs and security threats. Choose a provider with a proven track record for handling the unexpected.
Here’s more to ask:
Should planners rehearse transportation maneuvers? “It depends,” says Don Bontemps, senior event producer, AlliedPRA South Florida.
“That would depend on the maneuver, how many vehicles are involved, the number of routes, how many people, etc.,” says Bontemps. “We are working on a citywide group, which has 12-hour daily shuttle service between the convention center and nine hotels. We created four separate routes. We plan on having the drivers be familiar with each route in the event we need to swap them out with other vehicles and drivers. I would also hold dry runs for any drivers who are still unsure of the exact route.”
Experts suggest the following do’s and don’ts when planning ground transportation:
Plan early. It can help lock in good prices and vehicles required. Provide information about dates, times of departure, locations and number of attendees for each transportation even before a contract is signed. Don’t wait until the last minute to request transportation because it may require more flexibility on the types of vehicles, pickup times, costs and other factors.
Know where attendees should meet drivers and the type of signage they will display. Let attendees know whom to call if their arrival time changes. Determine how the transportation company should handle flight cancellations and delays.
Ask who is responsible for making signs. Be specific about what should be on signs including font size, color and logos. Avoid fancy fonts. Signage should clearly direct attendees to vehicles.
Have backup plans. Don’t expect everything to go as planned. Know what obstacles might occur and plan accordingly.
Know how far vehicles will park from a venue. How long will it take vehicles go from where they are parked to the pickup site in traffic.
Keep a vehicle on standby. In case an executive unexpectedly requests a vehicle transfer, have one ready.
Special needs. Know beforehand how many attendees will require access to a special needs vehicle.
“Don’t assume that the front drive of a hotel or venue will be available for drop-off and pickup,” says Macaluso. “You need to communicate closely with the hotel contacts, and then with your client and their lead trip staff.”
Don’t be surprised by hidden fees. It’s a mistake that many planners make, says Alton Hagen, CMP, DMCP, and general manager of Agenda: USA, a Mission, Kansas-based DMC. “Have the provider describe in their quote all possible additional fees or surcharges that may be applied — airport access fees; wait time surcharges; late reservation additions; change or cancellation fees; early morning or late evening surcharges; fuel surcharges; manifest preparation fees; ‘convenience fee’ for credit card payments; and gratuities.”
Don’t complicate things unnecessarily. Remember that the meeting begins at the airport. “Even if your attendees are arriving from diverse points of origin, when transportation from the airport to the hotel becomes chaotic and too individually customized, it can detract from early-stage networking and delay events,” says Shackman.
Don’t forget amenities. What are the requirements to receive complimentary airport transfer and in-vehicle amenities for VIPs or top staff? The leverage for acquiring such extras increases with large, complex transportation needs.
Transportation logistics, especially for large meetings spread over several hotels and venues, is the thread that holds the event together. Attendees must get to where they want to go on time and without major headaches. If that happens — and the rest of the meeting goes well — planners will have satisfied attendees. C&IT