LIMOUSINE LIVERY EXPANDS BUS FLEET TO COUNTER FOR-HIRE CAR SERVICES
By Harrell Kerkhoff, Busline Magazine Editor
Change is part of life. How a person — or company — handles change can lead to success or eventual failure. For example, a major transformation has taken place in the lives of many residents of New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. Meanwhile, an adjustment of another sort has been required recently for sedan and limousine providers that are facing stiff competition from upstart, for-hire on-demand car services.
Both of these events — the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the recent growth of on-demand car services — has forced Limousine Livery to change course as a company. During the past decade, the business has changed ownership and increased its focus on bus and motorcoach transportation.
Today, the New Orleans, LA, transportation provider has an approximate fleet of 50 vehicles, the majority of which are sedans and limousines. However, the company now has 10 small to mid-size buses, with plans to expand its bus fleet and service in the coming years.
Limousine Livery services include hotel and airport transfers/shuttles, corporate and convention transportation, wedding and other special event transportation, crew transport for the oil and gas industry, and global customized reservation shuttle services.
“With bus transportation, we are very strong in the New Orleans’ corporate meeting and convention business. We work with groups that need transportation for 10 to 6,000 people,” Limousine Livery President Christy Dirks said.
She owns the company, and works alongside her husband, Aaron Dirks, who is director of business development.
“We help customers who are looking for transportation in New Orleans and surrounding areas. This includes convention, hotel and airport shuttling, as well as transporting people to and from dinner and off-site meetings,” Aaron Dirks said. “A lot of times, a group of corporate clients want to visit a plant or factory while in town. We can provide this type of transportation as well.”
According to the Dirks, Limousine Livery has the largest number of hotel transportation contracts in New Orleans, and has benefited from three decades of providing high-end service to The Big Easy marketplace.
“Over the years, Limousine Livery has built a solid reputation while transporting hotel guests,” Christy Dirks said. “Our reputation has helped us find new customers and business segments, along with building many lasting relationships.”
Along with local service, company representatives can also provide global transportation connections for customers looking to travel well beyond southern Louisiana. These representatives work with reservation agents from around the world to reserve clients’ transportation desires. This includes traveling schedules, rates, availability of vehicles, meet-and-greet capabilities, key addresses and directions, and billing requirements for every destination.
“We started asking our local and out-of-town corporate customers if we could help with their global transportation services to other cities and a good percentage of them said, ‘Yes, that would be great,’” Aaron Dirks said. “This is not a big part of our company’s focus, but it’s something we offer for those customers who need this type of service.”
Starting With A Rolls Royce
Mel Clark found himself with quite a gift in 1984. At the time, he was working as a part-time doorman at the Royal Sonesta New Orleans, an historic hotel on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter. During his doorman years, Clark, who also worked as a union crane operator, had developed a friendship with a frequent guest of the high-end hotel. Eventually, the friend gifted Clark a used Rolls Royce, telling him that he should take the car and make some money by transporting people around town.
“One thing led to another, and Mel started a transportation business with that car. It was a unique scenario,” Aaron Dirks said. “Mel eventually built his company to over 40 vehicles by providing one of the largest luxury transportation services in New Orleans. He focused on the hospitality business, serving luxury properties with limousine and sedan transportation.”
Unfortunately for Clark, as well as many other business owners in New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005.
“Limousine Livery suffered significant losses from the hurricane. These losses did not come from flooding, but rather theft and vandalism,” Aaron Dirks said.
By this point, Clark, who was in his 70s, was ready to retire.
“This is when my wife (Christy Dirks) became a part of the transportation industry and purchased the company. She saw it as an investment for our family and our city,” Aaron Dirks said. “My wife and I felt the hospitality industry would eventually come back strong to New Orleans. Of course, the risk was that something like Hurricane Katrina could happen again, and further devastate the hospitality and convention business. These segments represent a large portion of the visitor base in New Orleans.”
Christy Dirks is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, and is a former U.S. Army logistics officer. She later worked as a pharmaceutical sales representative.
“My wife Christy’s background includes transportation logistics and sales. She has brought this expertise to our passenger transportation business,” Aaron Dirks said. “Christy took over Limousine Livery in June 2006. I joined her in April 2007 after working in financial services. I am also a West Point graduate and an entrepreneur.”
Once the Dirks took over, their main goal for Limousine Livery was to return the business to its previous prominence by providing high-end transportation services for the hospitality segment, namely the area’s leading hotels.
“We also started expanding to other transportation segments. This included transportation management for global corporations,” Christy Dirks said. “We built our affiliate network to provide corporate transportation service for our clients wherever they are traveling.”
With the Dirks’ military background serving as a backdrop, the couple also looked into providing disaster support services. Limousine Livery was able to secure a contract with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
“We performed a significant amount of work under that contract in 2007 and 2008 due to Hurricane Ike and Hurricane Gustav,” Christy Dirks said. “There were a number of times when we helped evacuate hundreds of people in Louisiana and Texas on behalf of the federal government.”
This work led Limousine Livery to also provide transportation services for nearby oil fields, as oil and gas production remains prevalent in southern Louisiana and a large portion of the Gulf Coast.
“We started getting calls from corporations to help them provide disaster support. This included evacuating employees from oil rigs due to approaching storms,” Christy Dirks said. “We have since grown this type of work, and now transport oil field service crews during normal operations. It’s no longer just focused on evacuations.”
Christy and Aaron Dirks also report there is now a larger focus on tourism in New Orleans, one that rivals the pre-Katrina era. This, of course, is good news for the company’s different transportation segments.
“For the first time since Hurricane Katrina, there has been a larger yearly visitor count in New Orleans. This occurred in 2015,” Aaron Dirks said. “I see future growth in tourism continuing for the city. There are some very big headwinds in place. For example, New Orleans will celebrate its 300th anniversary in 2018. City officials have been preparing for this event. This includes a new terminal for Louis Armstrong International Airport.
“Also, Copa Airlines has announced new nonstop service between New Orleans and Panama, and there are negotiations in place for new flights between New Orleans and such European cities as London and Paris. All of this should help build tourism for our city.”
Aaron Dirks is a newly appointed at-large member of the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau Board of Directors, and has learned the true value of the city’s appeal to a large scale national and international audience.
“New Orleans continues to be a top worldwide destination in many different categories that are monitored. For example, it’s highly rated as the best place to get married, to visit during Halloween, to visit for New Year’s Eve, etc. The city keeps making these lists, and moving ahead of traditional leaders in the tour and travel segment,” Aaron Dirks said. “Of course, New Orleans’ walkability, international charm and architecture continue to draw both large conventions and smaller meetings and events. As a result, area hotels and transportation providers are benefiting.”
Due to historically low natural gas prices, Aaron Dirks added that an industrial boom is also taking place in southern Louisiana, especially with its large petrochemical industry. This is helping grow the local economy.
“Natural gas is a major component in the production of chemicals and powering factories. I have heard that $20 to $30 billion is being spent in the southern part of Louisiana on industrial projects,” Aaron Dirks said. “This could lead to additional growth over the next 10 years in the New Orleans’ region.”
Despite the disastrous events associated with Hurricane Katrina over a decade ago, Aaron and Christy Dirks continue to see plenty of growth opportunities ahead for Limousine Livery and other area businesses.
“While we all suffered from the loss of business after Katrina, many companies are benefitting from being in New Orleans due to our area’s resurgence and growth in tourism and travel,” Christy Dirks said. “The past five years have brought a lot of change and hope for the region.”
The fact remains, however, that southern Louisiana, and the entire Gulf Coast, are located in Hurricane Alley. Therefore, planning and preparation stay important objectives for all citizens and businesses in the region.
“There is a process everyone down here needs to go through to make sure preparations are made for when another hurricane strikes. It’s just part of life in this part of the country,” Aaron Dirks said. “As a company, we go through exercises, and have developed a disaster plan in the event that another catastrophe occurs.
“Part of this plan involves our employees, our vehicles and how we can keep important transportation services in place, such as for evacuations.”
Growing The Bus Segment
Although the history of Limousine Livery has been focused on transportation services that are primarily provided by limousines and sedans, a turn of events recently in the transportation industry has led company officials to grow their small and mid-size bus fleet.
“We recognize that with the disruption from different on-demand car services in the for-hire transportation industry, the small vehicle category is becoming disturbed and commoditized,” Christy Dirks said. “Therefore, we believe our future investments should be focused on the larger asset classes for transportation. This includes different bus categories.
“We have developed a business plan for aggressively competing in such contract bus work as shuttles, parking lot services, and regular trip making. In the future, this may include acquisitions, helping us enter different tour and travel categories.”
The Dirks feel that the same forces that led to the relatively recent trend toward more on-demand for-hire car services may not be in play for larger vehicle transportation, such as buses. This is due to increased government regulations found in the bus industry.
“What these on-demand car services have been able to avoid — in some instances — when it comes to government regulations, could be more difficult if they decide to enter the bus segment,” Aaron Dirks said. “However, I feel the traditional transportation industry will continue to be disrupted in the small vehicle category. The size of the market for the newer for-hire companies should remain the same, and possibly grow. I see more stability taking place in the larger vehicle categories for traditional operators such as ourselves. This is an area of business where we will continue to grow.”
As a longtime provider of small-vehicle transportation, Aaron Dirks said he sees the need for more regulation to take place pertaining to on-demand car services.
“I never thought any regulator would allow a person to pick up another person in a for-hire environment, while in a personal car, without being assured that the driver was properly identified, had gone through a background check and that the vehicle was validated to be properly inspected,” Aaron Dirks said. “As an established company, we have to follow these regulations. I feel the government should either regulate everything or deregulate everything. You shouldn’t have it both ways.”
He also sees a time in the not-so-distant-future when driverless vehicles will cut into the for-hire vehicle transportation marketplace when it comes to smaller vehicles such as sedans.
“I’m not overly optimistic that the growth for human-driven, for-hire, smaller vehicle transportation will continue in the future. However, I don’t anticipate driverless vehicles will influence the bus industry within the next two decades,” Aaron Dirks said. “Right now, the biggest challenge for our company is the disruption of our small vehicle transportation services by the recent influx of new, for-hire on-demand car providers. We have answered this challenge by providing a greater focus and investment in the bus category.”
The Value Of Quality Equipment & Chauffeurs
As Christy and Aaron Dirks focus more on their company’s expanding bus segment, it’s important for the couple to build a strong fleet of vehicles. This includes a focus on sustainability and technical advances.
“I’m an environmental engineer, and my wife has an environmental science degree from West Point. Therefore, we have always been dedicated to living our lives as sustainable as possible,” Aaron Dirks said. “When Christy purchased Limousine Livery, she wanted the company to be forward-moving and a market leader in transportation sustainability. As a result, we now have some all-electric sedans in our fleet, and incorporate many sustainable practices in the office. This is a big part of our company’s culture, along with using the latest in technology, such as with our newer buses.”
For example, the Dirks recently purchased a new Turtle Top VT3 mid-size bus that seats up to 17 passengers, and features some lighter weight, yet strong, materials for improved fuel economy. The VT3 will be used for a wide variety of services, including executive meeting and convention-type transportation, according to Christy Dirks.
“We try to highly utilize all of our vehicles. We will use the new Turtle Top to transport people to and from high-end restaurants and hotels, and anywhere else they want to charter a vehicle,” she said. “Our goal is to always look for work that is the most profitable, while also providing the best use for each specific vehicle — given upgraded features.”
Other uses for the company’s new Turtle Top VT3 will include crew transportation moves, airport shuttling and share-ride services.
“We have been able to incorporate technology in our fleet of vehicles for a long time, which includes all of our Turtle Top buses. We have found Turtle Top provides vehicles that are up-to-date, ahead of the market, impressive and in alignment with our mission as a transportation provider,” Christy Dirks said. “We were introduced to Turtle Top around 2009. The company’s executive vans have been market differentiators for us when it comes to providing transportation to executive groups looking for an experience in luxury.
“When the new model (VT3) came out, it was not a difficult decision for us to purchase. Turtle Top has been able to introduce improvements in all of the major categories that we look for, such as body styling and forward-leading technology. In our business, first impressions are a big deal. This is true for both the interior and exterior of a vehicle. Turtle Top vehicles provide very good first impressions, along with luggage capabilities and overall efficiency.”
These high standards are important for all of Limousine Livery’s vehicles. When it comes to the company’s entire fleet of buses, from example, key amenities and features involve upgraded flooring and seating material, plenty of space for passengers and an overall impressive look.
“All of our vehicles also utilize GPS tracking and digital status updates that communicate with our operating software, and ultimately, our customers,” Aaron Dirks said. “Our chauffeurs also have digital tablets, serving as mobile data terminals.
“Our operating software can provide GPS awareness to various groups and events, indicating where specific vehicles are located, and what time they are scheduled to arrive at a certain destination.”
Christy Dirks added that Limousine Livery relies on a newer fleet as well, with most vehicles purchased within the past five years. This way, major repairs remain under warranty. The company also employs two full-time mechanics.
Properly marketing the company is another important aspect to the success of Limousine Livery. Christy Dirks considers the company’s branding to be fairly rigid and consistent.
“The presentation of our brand, which includes the location of our logos, is consistent for our larger vehicle classes. It’s important that our branding is prominent,” she said. “We are also very diligent about cleanliness. We have spent a considerable amount of money on our auto and bus washing equipment as well as our detail crew. We instruct our chauffeurs to make sure they present our vehicles in a proper manner and remain in great condition.
“Frankly, it’s the performance of our chauffeurs that brings the majority of our ‘wows’ from customers. It’s important that they can successfully interact with riders. It does help to have vehicles that are new, feature a fresh design and are not common in the marketplace.”
Due to its business of providing high-end transportation services, officials at Limousine Livery seek chauffeurs (the name company officials chose to use to refer to all of their drivers) who meet two distinct requirements: No. 1, they must possess self-satisfaction and happiness when serving others; and No. 2, they must possess a high and flexible work ethic.
“The combination of these two features seems to produce our best performing professionals,” Christy Dirks said. “We invest heavily in a training program for chauffeur candidates that includes an intensive 40-hour program. New chauffeurs also participate in ride-along trips with our trainers before being allowed to perform a ride on their own. We also place new chauffeurs in lower risk services until we can validate their skills and safety. Those chauffeurs who get over all of these hurdles will then be allowed to drive our larger asset vehicles.”
Although driver shortages have been reported by many bus/motorcoach operators across the country, Christy Dirks said Limousine Livery continues to enjoy a high retention rate. This is due, in part, to the company’s philosophy of providing fair compensation and great working conditions.
“I feel Limousine Livery remains a very respected firm in our transportation marketplace. We rarely lose anyone to the competition. I would say our overall loss rate in chauffeurs is below the industry average,” Aaron Dirks said. “It’s important to make sure our new chauffeur hires understand the seasonality of the transportation
business. Our lowest month can be 50 percent below in work compared to our peak month. Demand in the transportation business is variable. There can be huge swings. Therefore, it’s important our new chauffeurs are aware of these swings. We can help them plan and budget throughout the year.”
Despite this help, there are times when the unusual nature of the transportation business is too much for some people to accept. As business owners, the Dirks recognize and understand these challenges, and know that not everybody is cut out for such work.
“Until a person actually goes through such changes in work demands, it’s hard to really know if he/she wants to do this type of job for a long period. Some simply do not, and we understand. They may end up driving for a trucking company or changing professions altogether. This is just part of the challenge of operating a transportation company,” Christy Dirks said. “The best we can do is show respect for our chauffeurs, pay them well and provide time with good benefits. We also try to have a comfortable and happy place for them to work and build a career. The same is true for all of our employees. This includes mechanics, dispatchers and office personnel. We have a staff of 120 people.”
Limousine Livery’s facility in the heart of New Orleans is located near Interstate 10, and not far from the French Quarter. It was purchased by the Dirks in 2011, and has since been expanded.
“The original building has been around for 30 years, but we have expanded by adding 6,000 square feet for new office space,” Christy Dirks said. “Geographically, we are ideally located for reaching the majority of our customers. This includes quick access to various hotels, the convention center, the airport and downtown New Orleans.”
Aaron Dirks added that the company’s facility is technology-driven, and is employee-friendly for its staff of chauffeurs and other workers.
“We have heavily invested in our chauffeurs’ lounge. It includes reclining chairs, such as those found in movie theatres, and a modern entertainment system,” he said. “The idea behind the lounge is to provide a comfortable place for our chauffeurs when they are not driving. This is all part of providing a physical representation of our company’s spirit, making sure our chauffeurs understand that they are very critical to our company’s importance in this business. We want all of our employees to be proud that they work for Limousine Livery.”
Discipline, Passion And Caring
Being a hometown transportation provider, officials at Limousine Livery know the value of taking care of customers. The company’s valued reputation is at stake every day. Therefore, customer service must remain strong. Christy and Aaron Dirks rely on their experience in the military, when it comes to satisfying various customer groups.
“We have brought what we have learned in the military to our company when it comes to customer service. Discipline, passion and caring are three core virtues that we try to instill and define for each of our departments and service categories,” Aaron Dirks said.
He outlined how each of these virtues can make a difference in customer service when properly implemented by specific Limousine Livery employees:
– Discipline — For chauffeurs, it’s important that they make sure each Limousine Livery vehicle is ready to be properly presented to customers. The company’s chauffeurs must also be dressed and groomed in a way that best represents Limousine Livery, and must display the right attitude at all times, in an effort to make somebody’s day special;
– Passion — This virtue comes about by employees loving their work and wanting to serve other people. It’s also about exhibiting passion for their profession when answering the telephone, working with customers who have specific issues, and helping other people take care of challenging work-related demands; and,
– Caring — Taking care of customers who are often far away from home requires a unique type of service, one that also includes the important virtue of “caring.” This often involves Limousine Livery employees “going the extra step” so that customers can experience a positive “wow” factor.
“I have been involved in a number of industries my entire adult life. One thing remains the same: It’s easier to acquire and retain customers when you have a differentiation strategy in place that goes beyond ‘price,’” Aaron Dirks said. “If you only have price as your main differentiator factor as a company, it becomes much easier for customers to leave. It’s important to bring additional value — such as discipline, passion and caring.
“With Limousine Livery being primarily focused on specific markets and strategies as a transportation provider, this also helps customers see the true value of our company. They are better able to understand the additional value we can bring to the table.”
Christy Dirks added: “Performing quality work is necessary to succeed. Our differentiators have also always been focused on implementing forward-leaning technology, becoming more sustainable as a business and providing high-end assets.”
Looking ahead, Christy and Aaron Dirks are working on developing a partnership between Limousine Livery and the couple’s new startup companies Joieful and MyAirportTrip.com. These entities offer curated experiences of all types in the New Orleans area — from walking tours and swamp adventures to top local attractions — and also for-hire airport transportation options ultimately around the world.
“Joieful is a tour and attraction ticketing and fulfillment platform. We feel it will break new ground when it comes to supporting hotels and ancillary services,” Christy Dirks said. “We are very excited to further build relationships with our customers through this new platform, and also with MyAirportTrip.com. It’s a way of finding more business, as well as building additional transportation markets.”
Both Christy and Aaron Dirks said they remain excited for what the future holds for Limousine Livery, and the entire U.S. bus and motorcoach transportation industry.
“We feel growth will continue in our transportation marketplace over the next decade,” Christy Dirks said, “and that Limousine Livery will capture a large portion of this growth.
“Operating a transportation company can be difficult, but anytime you achieve something that is difficult in life, you gain a lot of pride and sense of accomplishment. We have been fortunate in the last decade to grow our business and do well, which brings a lot of pride. An added bonus comes from seeing further development take place in New Orleans. A transportation provider can help a city grow in so many ways. It’s all about helping people who are in need, including those times when natural disasters occur.”