With more and more customers pricing and reserving cars online, the task of upgrading the company Website has crept onto the to-do list of a growing number of operators. But such a project carries some risks. Just ask Miami Rent a Car in Florida.

Miami Rent a Car was recently sued for copyright infringement when a company hired to revise its Website copied material from MetroGuide.com in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., without permission.

“We hired this company to put some local events, hotels and attractions on our Website,” says Miguel Garau, owner and president of Miami Rent a Car. “We wanted to be at the top of the search engines, so people coming to Miami would find us. The Web company added the information we requested. They charged us, and they were gone. I couldn’t get a hold of them.”

After the site was up for about one month, Garau says, he took it down to make some other revisions. Even though the site was no longer accessible, it came up on the search engines.

“The site was removed but some files were left that put our site first,” says Garau. “MetroGuide found those files and realized that the events on our site were copied from them.” Garau didn’t realize this until MetroGuide filed a lawsuit.

As soon as Garau learned about the lawsuit, he called MetroGuide. He spoke with Scott Rogers, general counsel to MetroGuide. After hearing Garau’s story, Rogers went to Garau’s office to further discuss the case. “After meeting with him, I felt he was being honest and he had been duped,” says Rogers. [PAGEBREAK]

Garau discovered that he had not only hired the wrong Website designer, the Website designer had copied material from the wrong site. MetroGuide spends hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to protect its intellectual property.

MetroGuide has a content creation team. Part of the team’s job is to search the Internet for sites using the company’s content without permission. In the past year, MetroGuide has been involved in at least six copyright infringement suits. It has won them all.

“The amount of content that has been stolen from us across the Web is simply staggering, so when we run across an infringer, we require that they disgorge the infringing domain name,” says Mark Metz, MetroGuide founder and CEO. “In this case, Mr. Garau immediately assumed full responsibility for the infringement and immediately removed the infringing content. He convinced us that he had been duped by a Web designer who had stolen our content to finish his job. We therefore didn’t pursue the domain name and instead required him permanently to link to MetroGuide and LodgingGuide as part of damages.”

In January 2003, a judge issued a permanent injunction, prohibiting Miami RAC from infringing on MetroGuide’s copyrighted work. Miami RAC also had to pay MetroGuide an undisclosed sum of money and create links on its Website to LodgingGuide.com and MetroGuide.com.

“Once they contacted me, we settled everything within about three weeks,” says Garau.

Though Miami Rent a Car learned a costly lesson about copyright infringement, Garau hasn’t let the setback deter his attention to marketing. [PAGEBREAK]

Commitment to Marketing Critical to Success
Miami Rent a Car’s Website is the company’s biggest source of sales leads. Garau says the company gets 10 to 20 inquiries a day via the Internet. Website content is available in both English and Spanish. Miami Rent a Car also produces a quarterly e-mail newsletter.

The company has also generated positive word-of-mouth with its customer service. What’s more, the company has found success by targeting customers with an appetite for fast and luxurious cars.

In addition to offering traditional rental cars, Miami RAC rents exotic cars. These include Ferrari, Jaguar, Porsche and Mercedes Benz models. Such vehicles rent for $300 a day and up.

“The Ferraris are $1,500 a day,” Garau says. But the company doesn’t own the exotic models. They belong to another rental operator that wanted to expand its reach to another location. Garau says his company gets 30% of the rental fee. Renting the exotic cars has increased Miami RAC’s business by about 15% to 20% in six months.

Miami Rent a Car’s quarterly e-mail newsletter contains hotel information and specials, car rental information and upcoming events in Miami. Currently, the subscriber list numbers about 4,500. People who visit www.miamirentacar.com have the option of putting their name on the e-mail list. They can also have the newsletter customized.

“If all they want is information on car rentals, that’s what they get,” says Garau. “If they want hotel information, that’s what they get. We prepare a page with everything on it, a page with just car rentals, just hotels, etc.” [PAGEBREAK]

Customer Service Extras Reinforce Marketing Efforts
Another service Garau provides is airport pickup. Currently, the Miami location is about 20 minutes from the airport. To compete with airport-based rental agencies, Garau will get flight information from clients and have the car waiting for them at the airport. He will send two vehicles — a rental for the customer and a second car to shuttle the rental car driver back to the office. Garau says he checks flight arrival times before sending the vehicles to avoid wasting time.

In the future, Garau wants to offer a package deal, allowing customers to get their car and hotel from Miami Rent a Car’s site at a special rate.

Garau also runs a car repair shop. In fact, that’s how Miami RAC got started. A lot of his customers were asking for a ride home while their car was being repaired. About six years ago, Garau purchased two cars, which he rented to customers. Before long, the rental fleet grew to 10 cars.

Three years ago, the Miami RAC Website made its debut and some local hotels contacted Garau about getting rental cars for guests. Garau bought 35 more cars. E-mail requests for rental vehicles started flowing in, and the vehicle count grew to a total of 75 cars.

Currently, the company’s annual revenue is about $800,000, including the car rental, repair service and the exotic car rental operations. Garau says about 50% of his clients are from Europe and South America. And their first introduction to Miami Rent a Car is often through its Website.