The choices are many for mobilizing attendees to and from the airport, and between their hotel and other sites at the destination. Mass transit, cabs, car rentals and the numerous companies that offer private shuttles and buses are the traditional pieces to the puzzle of ensuring logistical convenience while respecting the meeting budget. The latest “piece” is the ride-hailing phenomenon, mainly represented by Uber and Lyft. The use of these services in lieu of cabs from the airport is on the rise, planners have observed.
“We’ll do shuttles for those core hours, and then if you ride outside of those core hours, we allow people to use Uber or taxicabs.”
— Judy Anderson
“I’ve definitely seen more people using Uber versus a cab, especially younger attendees,” says Jennifer Squeglia, CMP, owner of Warwick, Rhode Island-based RLC Events. And surprisingly, sometimes attendees will even prefer Uber and Lyft to company-arranged transportation. Sue Klick, meeting manager at Medtronic in Santa Rosa, California, noted that at the company’s recent physician-attended meetings, sales representatives have been forgoing car service in favor of Uber. “It just happened recently for a program I was working on that the salesperson said, ‘Don’t worry about that I’m traveling with doctor so-and-so and I’ll just call Uber.’ It actually surprised me that they would turn down the car service,” says Klick.
Not only meeting attendees, but also the hospitality industry is welcoming the sharing-economy approach to ground transportation. Hilton Hotels, for example, recently integrated Uber service with its HHonors app, allowing guests to order an Uber directly via the app and view their hotel stay information on the app en route to the hotel. The app is the next development of a partnership with Uber that began last September with the Local Scene and Ride Reminder feature on the HHonors app.
Companies that set up a corporate account with Uber can accrue savings in comparison to cabs and private cars; Uber indicates that its rides are “up to 40 percent cheaper than a taxi.” From another perspective, however, the service quality of Uber and Lyft compared to private cars and shuttles, especially when VIPs and clients will be the passengers, can be a source of concern.
Moreover, some attendees will expect pre-arranged transportation once they arrive at the airport. “Our attendees are at the level where they typically expect that when they arrive at the airport and get their bags that they should immediately be transferred,” says Teri Abram, president of Dallas, Texas-based EventLink International. “So in order to make sure there are enough transfers available at a set cost we typically have to pre-arrange versus (letting them use) Uber and Lyft.”
Coordinating those transfers can be a matter of weighing optimal convenience versus cost. Ideally, one shuttle per arriving flight is assigned, even if two flights are arriving at the same time. “I do tend to get two vehicles in that situation, in case one of the flights is coming in early or late, just so nobody has to wait,” Squeglia says. “So most of the time, I work with the clients that will support that, because it is just a better guest experience.”
Money also can be saved by restricting the pre-arranged service to core hours. “For our conferences, we provide transportation for our attendees, but it gets quite expensive so what we’ve done is taken the manifest (the flight schedule for the group), and we only provide transportation for the core hours,” says Judy Anderson, CMP, director, meetings and travel for Grapevine, Texas-based GameStop. “We’ll do shuttles for those core hours, and then if you ride outside of those core hours, we allow people to use Uber or taxicabs.”
An alternate approach that may be workable for some meetings is to offer attendees the option of purchasing car service from the company’s preferred provider to and/or from the airport, as real estate company Keller Williams has recently started doing for its annual convention, the “Family Reunion,” which brings in about 10,000 associates.
“We have partnered with a transportation company to sell tickets online that attendees can purchase round trip or airport transfer, $20 each way,” says Mindy Grubb, executive director of events for Keller Williams. “It’s been a slow takeoff, but we’ve been advertising it with our marketing materials. The arrivals aren’t as popular but the departures are very popular. We try to compare it to a super shuttle, and it is a cost savings for them compared to that.”
Whatever the strategy in providing pre-arranged transportation, partnering with the right company helps to ensure success. Resources for sourcing these suppliers including hotels, CVBs, colleague planners and even transportation companies used in other cities. “They will often have opinions on who they would recommend in a different city,” Abram notes. “We really try to reach out to our whole network, and oftentimes the same names start coming back to us. So we would weigh heavily if we get referrals from several people for the same company and they’re very cost competitive.”
For Squeglia, the hotel is an especially good resource in cases where her client does not already have a preferred transportation provider. “My first point of contact is my hotel conference service manager. I ask them if they have an alliance with a preferred transportation company,” she explains. “Because I find that when you hire a transportation company that is preferred by the hotel, the company is very familiar with the hotel (in terms of) where they stage, depart from, drop off, etc. Some of them will also have agreements with the hotel so your transportation charges can go on a master account, which for some clients is great because then all the billing is in one place versus having all these different costs.”
Facilitating budget management is a big plus for any provider, and Anderson has utilized CMAC Transportation for seven years in part due to this quality. “I think the most important thing is relationship and trust. I know I can trust CMAC to get us quality transportation when and where we need it, and I also trust in the quote that they provide upfront,” she says. “Normally when you get the quote from the transportation company it’s going to vary so much from when you get the actual bill that it could even be double. They also make suggestions on how to minimize my costs, such as using them on core hours and then having Lyft and taxis on the shoulders.”
Toward managing costs, Squeglia also suggests that planners be clear on when the billable time starts. “Does it start when the vehicle stages at your event or when it leaves the depot? I find it used to be the depot, but most times these days companies will start the clock when they actually stage for the event,” she says.
One of Klick’s preferred companies is Savoya, whose billing practices are an especially good match with Medtronic’s reporting needs under the Physician Payments Sunshine Act, she indicates. “They give us the most fabulous spreadsheet and breakdown of all the numbers and all the attendees. They’re able to provide the level of detail that we need,” she says.
Another consideration is the kind of impression the company will make on the attendees, particularly when they arrive at the airport. Well-maintained vehicles and friendly, timely drivers reflect well on the host company that hired the service.
Grubb, who works with Atlanta, Georgia-based destination management company Scout Local for Keller Williams’ transportation needs, notes, “The first thing we look for is the vehicle cleanliness and that the drivers are well groomed, because that’s the first thing attendees see when they get out of the airport. That’s the first representation of Keller Williams for our events, so I want to make sure (the transportation provider) represents the No. 1 real estate company in the best way.”
The same point applies to meet-and-greet staff. “Typically the ground transportation company will provide meet-and-greet staff, and they’re at the baggage claim area with our logo sign,” says Abram. “And when you’re arriving, that’s usually the first touch, so I think it makes a big difference if there’s a friendly face and a ‘come right this way’ etc. It sets expectations for the conference.”
Apart from airport commutes, the other major area of ground transportation is of course offsite events, and here a little strategy is called for in vehicle usage. For short distances of about 5–10 minutes, multiple runs with towncars, vans or minibuses work well, while buses are typically used for longer trips. But a combination of the two sometimes can be advantageous. “A common type of motorcoach holds about 55 passengers, and (even if that accommodates the entire group), you do not want to hold up one bus for maybe two people who are running late,” Squeglia explains. “So I like to have a larger vehicle and then maybe a van, just so that I have that flexibility. For example, if a guest at the event is not feeling well or they have to get back (to the hotel), then it is nice to have that smaller vehicle.” Thus, if 200 attendees need to be transported, for example, three 55-passenger vehicles and two 30-passenger ones would offer more flexibility than four of the larger ones.
Buses do not usually evoke luxury, but in fact “most of these companies have very plush and luxurious buses in all different size ranges,” Klick observes. “They’re well appointed, and the seats are very comfortable.”
A step up is the double-decker bus, which really gives attendees a sense of the city as they head to and from their offsite event. For a client meeting in Chicago, Abram is considering that option. “The venue is at a location where we’ll be going by a lot of landmarks in Chicago, so we can highlight the city along the way,” she says. “They are more expensive, so it depends on the budget.”
A potential way to offset some of the transportation cost is to use buses as a sellable sponsorship opportunity for vendors. GameStop has some of its buses custom wrapped either with its own logo and content or with vendors’ images, which “will cover the cost of the wrap as well as some of the transportation,” says Anderson. “We’ll give our vendors the specs, and they’ll drop in their imagery. Then we’ll give it to CMAC, they’ll have it produced, wash the bus and the whole wrap shrinks to the bus. And we’ll use the wrapped bus as often as possible.” She adds, “I don’t think that a lot of companies know that they can do this; it’s a minimal cost compared to what we’ll get out of it for the sponsorship because the vendors are getting exposure not only at the event but also to and from the airport.”
Long motorcoach trips are also opportunities to show attendees videos and make presentations. “We make sure all of our buses have video player and audio. And instead of having someone speak on every bus and have inconsistent messages, what we do is create videos,” says Anderson. “Some of them might be created by the vendors (e.g. PlayStation, Xbox, Nintendo, Activision). If the vendor sponsored that bus, we’ll give them the opportunity to give us a video to put on the bus as well as corporate messaging.” It is advisable to avoid videos or presentations with heavy business content on the ride to the hotel, as participants may not be in the most lucid frame of mind after a long flight and navigating the airport. “We show engaging, fun videos, something that pumps them up and gets them excited and ready for when they arrive at registration,” says Anderson.
It should be noted that public buses are improving in many cities where the tourism industry is strong. In May, Anaheim, California’s Anaheim Resort Transportation (ART) unveiled a new and original design for its bus fleet. The colorful bus wraps express the theme “The ART of Connecting the Dots,” and have been introduced on its state-of-the-art electric buses. ART’s fleet of 82 electric and natural-gas vehicles traverse 21 routes and have reduced congestion in the city’s resort area, stopping at popular locales such as the Disneyland Resort, Knott’s Berry Farm, Angel Stadium and Honda Center.
Uber and Lyft are certainly game changers as attendees now have a particularly convenient way of handling their own transportation. But corporate planners will oftentimes still need to “connect the dots” when it comes to arranging ground transportation with suppliers. And for that, partnering with the right supplier makes all the difference. The criteria are many, including their ability to deliver value and cost-saving strategies; the professionalism and demeanor of their drivers; the condition and variety of their vehicles; and the quality of their referrals.
“Once you find a vendor that you like, and you continue to have that relationship, do a multiyear agreement so that you can perhaps get a discount,” Grubb suggests, or at least concessions such as complimentary airport transfers for staff or VIPs. In addition, “we still go out for RFP every three to five years to make sure we’re getting the best bang for our buck. You want to make sure you keep your preferred vendors on their toes, too.” C&IT