When a hurricane is imminent, how do rental car operators prepare? Preparation procedures can include evacuating staff members, relocating unrented vehicles, and getting the facility ready.
“My main goal is to keep my people safe and with their families and to minimize the damage of our stores and vehicles,” said Cameron Bethmann, general manager of Carl’s Van Rentals, which has multiple rental locations throughout Florida.
We talked to several car rental operators who have put their natural disaster plans into action for Hurricane Matthew — or other hurricanes in the past.
Some car rental operators, especially in the Caribbean, face hurricane threats on a regular basis.
Todd Foss, owner of Grace Bay Car Rentals in Turks and Caicos, first prepares his company’s main rental facility as a shelter for its employees and their families. This means stocking up on water and supplies, including raincoats and flashlights.
“I provide our facility as a shelter just in case staff members don’t feel comfortable waiting out the hurricane in their own homes,” said Foss.
Preparation also includes making sure the hurricane shutters are up at all of the facilities, computers are unplugged and bagged, and generators are filled with fuel, according to Foss. Additionally, Grace Bay distributes an emergency list with all of its employees’ phone numbers.
“Once all the facility preparation is complete, we buy a bunch of wine and hunker down until the storm passes,” said Foss.
For Leisure Car Rental on the island of St. Maarten, at the first sign of an approaching storm, the first to-do item is to take down the company signs.
“In the past, replacing signs after a storm has cost us thousands of dollars,” said Jimmy Fitzpatrick, general manager at Leisure Car Rental.
Next employees check to make sure there are no loose or old tree limbs that need to be removed. The facility’s trees are usually trimmed regularly, but it’s part of the protocol to double check before a storm, according to Fitzpatrick. Then all of the facility’s glass windows and doors are secured.
To make sure the generators at each store are running properly, Bethmann instructs employees to start up the generators and run them for a bit beforehand. “That way, if we don’t have power after the storm passes, we will know if the generators will work,” he said.
As part of its customer service, Grace Bay Car Rentals’ staff notifies each customer on how to prepare for the storm. This includes not driving the vehicles during the storm and avoiding large flooded areas after the storm, according to Foss.
In an effort to minimize client losses, Leisure Car Rental tries to give its customers the opportunity to return the rental car before the storm hits. Then the customers can come back and pick up the vehicles after the storm passes.
“Unfortunately, over the past few years, less than 5% of our clients have turned in their rental car before the storm,” said Fitzpatrick.
Carlos Dolabella’s rental staff will go directly to the customer during a storm to get the vehicle. “We contact all of our customers and offer to collect the rentals while the storm is in effect,” said Dolabella, co-founder of First Class Rent A Car, a luxury rental company based in Miami. “They don’t have to come to our office; we will go wherever they are to collect the cars.”
With five of its Florida stores in the path of Hurricane Matthew, Carl’s Van Rentals called all of their customers who had rentals out and were scheduled to be returned during the storm.
“We asked these customers if they could return the vehicles early,” said Bethmann. “If they couldn’t, we told them to keep the vehicles longer at no charge. Then we contacted customers who were scheduled to pick up vehicles to see if they could get them early or pick them up after the storm — at no charge.”
Prior to Hurricane Matthew, Fox Rent A Car kept in touch with its customers through a social media group. “We put information about our store closures and when we anticipated the re-openings,” said Kelly Grahaat, Fox’s regional director for the East Coast. Fox closed its three Florida locations once each airport was shut down.
Where do operators store the unrented vehicles? How can they protect these valuable assets during a hurricane?
Some operators have specific lots to park their unrented vehicles.
Two years ago, Grace Bay Car Rentals picked a 1.5-acre piece of land — in a strategic location — and built a “storm parking lot.” This lot is complete with fencing, security systems, and water storage wells for heavy rains.
“Before we created our storm parking lot, we used to spread vehicles out in groups of 30 or 40 around various locations and resorts to lessen the risk of a single location being flooded or badly damaged,” said Foss.
When moving vehicles to its off-airport lots, Fox Rent A Car makes sure that anything prone to getting blown down is either taken down or tied down. “We secure the lot, de-key the vehicles, and park the shuttle buses around the entrances and exits,” said Grahaat.
To minimize the damage from flying debris, Bethmann had each location group all the vehicles together — as close as possible — and surround them with the oldest units. The vehicles were parked away from big trees, signs, or power lines.
“If we did experience damage, hopefully it will be on the older units and only a few of them versus a bunch of vehicles damaged,” said Bethmann. “I also had each location park the cargo vans across the front of the stores to protect the glass windows from flying objects.”
When moving unrented vehicles, Fitzpatrick looks to park them on higher ground — as far as possible from the ocean. If the company can’t find secure parking for all of its vehicles, the remaining cars in the lot are parked close together. That way, the wind won’t blow between them, says Fitzpatrick.
Speed Luxury Car Rental and First Class Rent A Car, Miami-based luxury rental companies, both have a warehouse to keep their fleets protected during a hurricane.
“Our warehouse is located at our rental company’s office,” said Dolabella. “In 1992, the warehouse protected our cars when Hurricane Andrew hit Miami.”