Touch of Class Limo fleet parked during low volume of social gathering events due to Covid-19
Written by Breanna Hardy
Many facets of the economy depend upon social gatherings, and with nowhere to go, the limousine business has been hit hard.
Nick Cooper, owner of VIP Transportation and Red Lion in Fresno, started with 13 vehicles and had to sell seven. His business is down 75%.
“Obviously it’s been devastating to our business,” Cooper said.
A lot of his business comes from weddings, corporate travel, nightlife and quinceañeras. He chose to keep vehicles that could hold smaller groups of people.
He sold the vehicles to stay afloat with the hope to grow the business again in 2021.
VIP Transportation depends on corporate holiday parties during November and December, but, “It’s hard to say if companies will have company dinners; that’s the biggest mystery,” Cooper said.
This would also be the time when he sees bookings for high school formals, but most schools have either forgone formal or made it a virtual event.
“The whole Zoom-at-home thing has really changed things,” Cooper said.
When Cooper sold the seven vehicles, they were shipped out of state to regions where businesses have fewer restrictions. He said a lot of vehicles were transported to Florida and Georgia.
Though large parties aren’t happening, Cooper has seen an increase in some weddings. Most have been smaller than usual, but people are still celebrating.
Cleanliness and sanitation are his No. 1 priority in the meantime.
A Touch of Class Owner Deena Papagni said she’s used this slow season to strengthen the Fresno-based company.
“We’re still below what our normal revenue is, but we’ve taken the opportunity to eliminate waste and unnecessary spending,” Papagni said.
Though they’re down 60% of their normal operating revenue, she said the already-strong financial structure of the business has lessened the blow.
The company is 30 years old, and has survived other economic downturns before the pandemic.
“It’s actually not been a horrifying experience for us,” she said. “We’ve learned about how strong the company is, which is a good thing.”
A Touch of Class’s slowest months so far this year have been during the spring.
“We were very, very slow April and May, and we worked with our clients to keep them as happy as humanly possible,” Papagni said. “It has been very interesting.”
During this modified entertainment season, they’ve still managed to drive people to the coast and to outdoor cafés. Papagni also said parents are still throwing their kids drive-by birthday parties.
“We’ve continued to get people where they want to go,” she said.
Papagni has invested more money in cleaning protocols, and so has Paul Mendes, one of the owners of Visalia family limo business Absolute Comfort Limo.
Mendes invested in an expensive sanitizing fog machine, followed by sanitizing with wipes. Temperature scans, Covid screening and mask-wearing are all part of chauffeurs’ new normal.
“It’s added a lot more expense to the business, as well as turnaround time for having a vehicle ready for another trip,” Mendes said.
Mendes said they used to be able to clean on the fly when vehicles were running between bookings. Now all vehicles have to drive back to the main location for fogging, which takes extra time and mileage.
They’re making enough money to cover overhead costs, but Mendes has seen a drastic decline in business. “We’re down 60% compared to last year,” he said.
Absolute Comfort Limo came into 2020 strong and had purchased new vehicles, only for them to go unused months later. Luckily they haven’t had to sell any this year due to financial relief, but the future continues to be uncertain.
Like Cooper, Mendes is also booking vehicles for more weddings than in the spring and summer. Booking times and car capacities have changed, too. Limos don’t get as many bookings because generally people sit shoulder-to-shoulder.
“What we’ve noticed is that our largest vehicles are the most popular — being the busses and things like that — because they have a lot more space and more room for people to kind of social distance,” he said.
Customers used to book weeks in advance, but now people call as soon as the day of their event.
“You plan for something one month, and something changes,” he said. “A lot of times people don’t know what they can do — what they’ll be allowed to do — so they wait until the last minute in case restaurants close again or there’s a shutdown.”
Papagni said that nationwide, the limousine business has seen permanent closures, noting, “It’s not pretty, for sure.” But she said this is a time where businesses are morphing, rebranding, and reinventing themselves.
“The most important thing is we have to be conscious of the virus and what’s going on, but we have to be able to adapt and live with it and just take the right precautions,” Mendes said.