Maximizing Car Rental Operations for Major Events

Four franchise and independent operators share their best practices on preparing and managing operations when events travel to their cities.

©iStockphoto.com/AndreasKermann
©iStockphoto.com/AndreasKermann

Major events can be a blessing for any car rental operator, if it is properly managed. When the event markets itself, such as the Super Bowl or major conventions, any company is sure to feel the impact from the large influx of visitors.

Four car rental companies share their experiences and offer tips on how to best manage your rates, fleet and staff when a major event comes to town.

Rate Management

Austin, Texas hosted the Austin Grand Prix in 2012, giving Clearwater Transportation with its on-airport Dollar and Thrifty franchises a new business opportunity.

Monty Merrill, owner and president of Clearwater, says he knew about a year out that the event was happening. During this time, he kept a tight schedule on rate management and prevented customers from booking too far in advance of the race. “We showed no availability for a five-day period,” he says, adding that the further out people book, the higher his no-show rate tends to be.

Closing in on the event, Merrill kept an eye on his competitors, watching their rates rise to about $100 a day. At 90 days out, he opened up his reservations. Keeping reservations closed for so long didn’t worry him because he knew the event was going to sell out his fleet no matter what — and it did. “We averaged $110 a day with about a five-day rent,” he says. “But this next time, we won’t be as aggressive, only because we expect the competition will better manage their rates.”

Lisa Cisler, owner and manager of a U-Save franchise and ACE Rent-A-Car affiliate location in Tampa, Fla. says that her location always manages pricing more closely early before an event. With the Republican National Convention (RNC) in 2012 and other major events that regularly come through Tampa, Cisler is used to preparing her location for big crowds.

“We lower the rates further out just to get reservations in volume,” Cisler says, adding that her location doesn’t have issues with higher no-show rates since it takes credit card confirmations and charges a 24-hour cancellation fee. “Before we took credit cards, we were running a 30% no-show, but now we’re down to 5% in no-shows,” she says.

Cisler starts managing rates about 90 days in advance, and keeps an eye on utilization to determine when to raise prices.

Triangle Rent a Car also reaped extra business from the major election year in 2012 with the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Charlotte, N.C.

John Molina, location manager at Triangle’s South Boulevard branch in Charlotte, had more than a year to start planning for the event. While Triangle adjusts its rates for utilization, “We don’t get extremely high,” he says. And for its corporate customers, he says Triangle always offers the usual corporate rate.

Managing Customer Service

At the Tampa U-Save location, what started as a bulletin board for employees became a customer service tool for the location’s regular clients. The board visually warns customers on whether rates will be going up soon or if the fleet is selling out on a particular date. “Our regular customers know to look at the board,” Cisler says, adding that her location creates waitlists for sold-out periods.

Molina says as soon as he heard the DNC was coming to Charlotte, he started contacting current customers. Triangle also contacted the city government, which resulted in the company landing a large contract supplying the city with 15-passenger vans. “I like to reach out and touch people by phone — I think it’s more personable as email tends to get overlooked,” he says. “I even give my clients my phone number. I want them to hear my voice.”

For other regular events in the city, Molina pulls up the database of renters for the same event and starts calling.

Cisler does the same and often sends out postcards that can be redeemed for a discount, including to a group of kids’ soccer teams that come to Tampa every year. The teams rent large passenger vans, so as a “thank you” for their rental choice she includes a basket filled with granola bars and waters for the kids since they’re often arriving from a long flight.

In other offerings upon arrival, these operators suggest reminding travelers about road closures and other impacts the event could have on the area. Cisler says she printed out the map provided by the RNC that showed road closures and the best routes to get into the city.

Staffing Strategies

A trend among the major events: People trickle in but stampede out. Managing the increase of renters coming in doesn’t seem to be an issue for these operators, but managing the returns can be painful.

For the Super Bowl, Nifty Car Rental in New Orleans hired additional staff about four weeks in advance. But unique to New Orleans — with Mardi Gras happening as of this writing right off the back of the Super Bowl — Dave Burridge says, “there is no end to it.”

Burridge, owner of Nifty, says his company is using the exceptionally busy spring season this year to get new staff trained so he can expand to a new location. “We’re just going to use it all to expand and make Nifty bigger,” he says.

For the RNC, Cisler hired temporary staff to help move vehicles around — just local college students looking for extra dough.

Molina also hired extra drivers and coordinated front-counter staff schedules so the return days had all hands on deck.

U-Save in Tampa, Fla. starts fleeting up early on passenger vans, minivans and cargo vans when preparing for a large amount of visitors. Regardless of how many vans are added to fleet at this location, they are always the first to go.
U-Save in Tampa, Fla. starts fleeting up early on passenger vans, minivans and cargo vans when preparing for a large amount of visitors. Regardless of how many vans are added to fleet at this location, they are always the first to go.

Fleet Management

Cisler fleets up on passenger vans, minivans and cargo vans, which are often the first to go at her location during major events. Getting vans is also important since these vehicle classes can be the hardest to find, she says.

Instead of buying new under an OEM repurchase program, Cisler buys used from wholesalers, which she contends allows her to get fleet in quicker. She says this is also why she likes to get the bulk of reservations in early, since it gives her a better gauge of how many more cars or vans she will need even 30 days out.

If her location sells out, Cisler says she will call other area rental companies on behalf of the customer to see if they will match the price.

For Merrill, instead of beginning his normal winter de-fleeting in August, he kept some of that fleet longer to accommodate the Grand Prix. In addition, the company regularly shares fleet with other Dollar and Thrifty licensees, so instead of sending his usual batch to other locations for their busy seasons, he kept some of those vehicles in Austin. He says that he did order additional vehicles earlier, but if he could do it over, he would have ordered more. 

Triangle Rent a Car had a similar strategy during the DNC. With 28 locations, Molina says they always help each other out. “We didn’t actually go out and buy any new vehicles,” he says. “We wanted to be prepared to move vehicles, and we did. We ended up moving several hundred vehicles — mostly vans.” He says they moved fleet from as far away as Atlanta, Ga.

Burridge used the downtime between Super Bowl and Mardi Gras festivities for preventive maintenance. “We have to make sure we’re ready for the next storm,” he says.

Located blocks from the Superdome, Nifty also offers moped rentals to catch those that don’t need a car. And with so many road closures during major events anyway, the moped rentals offer customers an easier way to get around.

Unexpected Impacts

With any major event, the amount of international renters is likely to increase. For Merrill, his Austin locations usually see about a 5% international renter segment, but for the Grand Prix that shot up to about 40%. “It was the largest percentage of out-of-the-country, inbound travelers that we’ve had in Austin,” he says.

To ensure safety and to manage liability, Merrill says he had his frontline go through an “international refresher,” and went over the required licensing needed by international renters. But, he says, they didn’t encounter any problems. “The people who came were very well traveled,” he says.

Another unexpected impact from the Grand Prix was a change made by the airport that diverted rental returns from their normal drop-off point near terminal to the rental car service facility. The goal was to free the terminal area and rental car counters from congestion. “That was a hardship,” Merrill says. “We don’t have buses and that facility is not for customers. We had to put up tents and basically rent buses.”

To help get around this issue, Merrill says they told customers with an SUV or van to go ahead and take it to the usual airport return counter anyway. “It didn’t make sense to take a van full of people and put them in a 15-passenger van,” he laughs, adding that he doubts the airport will divert renters like that again.


More features from Auto Rental News' March/April issue can be found here.

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