Nick Thomson isn't your traditional car rental operator. For one thing, he doesn't rent cars. He rents camper vans - a hybrid of a minivan and a traditional recreational vehicle - equipped with enough camping supplies for up to five people.
So it's no surprise that Thomson, along with his wife Emma, manage their San Francisco-based company, Lost Campers, in an unconventional way. The couple relies on a Web-based rental management solution and a "mobile office" to handle many of the traditional rental counter functions, such as booking reservations, processing payments and printing contracts, outside of the physical office.
Thomson says they chose to use Web-based software because it appealed to their on-the-go lifestyle. "Both my wife and I are very mobile people and if we had to generate rental contracts we could generate them on the road from our printer," he says.
Thomson's way of doing business is not unique to him, but a growing trend among franchise and independent car rental operations. The advent of Web-based software and more affordable hardware (laptops, printers, smart phones, etc.) has been helping the "mobile office" concept gain ground in recent years. This new way of doing business offers rental operators better connectivity, flexibility and mobility.
Adopting Web-Based Software
For proof of the growing popularity of the mobile office, just take a look at three of the major rental software providers - TSD Rental, Bluebird Auto Rental Systems and Rent Centric. All three companies offer Web-based rental management solutions, which allow operators to handle everything from fleet management and reservations, to sales and revenue reports.
The purpose of Web-based solutions is not to make rental counters obsolete, but to meet the increasingly mobile needs of rental operators and customers.
"The goal isn't to eliminate your need for a traditional rental counter," says Nick DiPrima, sales manager for TSD. "I think there are operators who will always be most comfortable with that setting...what we're really doing is making the software more flexible to support whatever applications our customers have."
Angela Margolit, president of Bluebird, agrees. "[Operators] can be on top of what's going on without having to physically be in their office, whether that's being out on the lot, picking up cars or customers, or dropping off cars and customers," she says.
Rental operator Sarah Romanowski is one of the early adopters of Web-based software. She started in 2001 with Bluebird's NetRent, the company's first incarnation of a Web-based program, and now uses the software provider's RentWorks Mobile solution to co-manage six rental locations in New Jersey and Pennsylvania with her husband Steven.
Romanowski says the software allows her to travel with her husband without having to feel pressure about being in the office. "We go away most weekends," she says. "I can really be in the office when I take my laptop with me...because I know I can login and do [work]."
Carlos Garcia, owner of Sun Diego Car Rentals in San Diego, Calif., is a more recent adopter of Web-based software. He started using Rent Centric's Web-based solution last year and says the solution gives him the flexibility to manage his operation while on the road or on vacation.
"[When] I get a call while I'm driving, I pull over. I am able to use the smart phone, log into Rent Centric, book reservations and send a confirmation instantly," Garcia says.
Several months ago when he was on vacation in Mexico, he changed rates and made minor adjustments to his Website while hanging out on the beach. "It is super convenient," he says. "With the old systems, you would have to come back into the office after you had already gone home, if you needed something."
Offering Better Customer Service
Web-based software is not only changing the way operators, like Garcia and Romanowski, manage their businesses, but improving the way they provide customer service. These software programs often deliver instant notifications via e-mail or text message to operators' cell phones, allowing them to take appropriate actions.
Garcia says the Rent Centric solution helps him meet customers' demands immediately. He handles corporate accounts, groups that rent four or five vans at once and other VIPs. "With certain customers...they just want the easiness of having everything done," says Garcia. "Some of these people are here for conferences on very limited time; they don't really have the time to come out to the office."
In addition to delivering vehicles to these customers, Garcia and his staff can print or adjust rental contracts on the spot, saving customers time and creating a positive experience for them.
Garcia says with the Rent Centric system he's able to respond to customer emergencies more quickly. If a customer locks his keys in the car, Garcia doesn't have to drive back to the office to retrieve the spare keys or even tell the customer to pay a locksmith to retrieve the keys. Instead, he can immediately check the car's mileage and see if it is still under warranty from his smart phone or laptop. Most of Garcia's vehicles are below 50,000 miles and within warranty, so he can call the manufacturer and have them help the customer.
Garcia says the ability to handle emergencies instantly and effectively provides customers with a good impression of his operation and can lead to repeat or referral business. "In the end, they are very happy and they will continue to recommend us," he says.
Setting Up the Mobile Office
The software requirements and overall setup costs for Web-based rental management solutions vary by software provider. TSD's program, Rental.net, is compatible on devices with Microsoft's Internet Explorer 6 Web browser. Bluebird's solution, RentWorks Mobile, works on devices with Microsoft's Windows Mobile operating system. Rent Centric's software is not platform-specific and can be accessed from any Web-enabled device.
Despite the differences in software requirements, all of these solutions are generally compatible with a variety of hardware. Desktops, laptops, portable printers, plug-in credit card readers and smart phones are common tools operators use to create their mobile offices.
Thomson, who uses TSD's Rental.net program, says he has a laptop, a portable printer, a point-and-shoot camera, a credit card reader and BlackBerry smart phone. He gains access to the Internet with a 3G "tethering" device that allows his laptop to connect to and use his phone's wireless connection. His wife Emma uses a 3G USB laptop stick on her computer to access the Internet.
Thomson relies on TSD to handle data security, but he also takes precautionary measures to secure his equipment. "We keep all of our virus software completely up to date. We don't let other people touch our stuff. Our laptops are all password protected, so if anything, I think it is almost more secure than even the car rental office," he says.
Romanowski takes a similar approach to data security and her mobile devices. She uses the Microsoft Windows Remote Desktop application on her Apple iPhone to run Bluebird's RentWorks Mobile program. Her daughter, Jenn, is also in the family business and uses the Bluebird program on an Apple iPad.
"She can do absolutely everything on the iPad ... She can have it in her hand and check out a car, send it to print and tell the customer
to pick up [his] contract when [he walks] in the door," Romanowski says.
She adds that the iPad, which retails from $499 to $829, was an affordable alternative to traditional handheld check-in devices, which can be more expensive.
Romanowski says both mobile devices are password protected and do not have any customer information stored on them. "All the information is at Bluebird. All of our computers, even the smart phones, are dummy terminals. If somebody stole a phone, they'd really have to know what they were doing," she says.
Transforming the Traditional Operation
The security, flexibility, mobility and convenience of Web-based software is changing the way operators do business. Rental operations are becoming more efficient and providing better customer service.
"The whole idea with the mobile devices is ... get the customer on their way as quickly as possible so they're not encumbered by having to go into the rental counter," Margolit says.
Operators no longer have to be in the office, but that doesn't mean they don't show up for work. Web-based software simply keeps them better connected to their operations and their rental customers.
"I am at the office nearly every day and that is only because I am a pretty hands-on guy with everything that we do," Thomson says.