For the uninitiated, the French West Indies territory of Saint-Barthelemy — commonly known as St. Barts — might be best known for tabloid paparazzi shots of celebrities cavorting on one of the island’s 14 world-class beaches.
For Hertz licensee Sebastien Loret, St. Barts is all business. As the largest car rental operator on the island, Loret is constantly looking for an advantage over his competitors.
Late last year, he implemented a self-service car rental option that allows round-the-clock access to vehicles parked at his airport location, hotels, and streets in Gustavia, St. Barts’ main town.
Loret, the island’s Hertz licensee for the past seven years, had first considered a self-service option using RFID technology. However, that system required users to access the service through a card with an embedded RFID tag. As 99% of Loret’s business is leisure, it didn’t make sense to burden staff and holiday renters with cards, he says.
Loret researched different solutions, ultimately finding and implementing Rent Centric’s app-based, self-service carsharing platform.
Renters can complete a transaction on the spot using a mobile web browser, but downloading and using the app is more convenient, Loret says.
Loret installed the technology in 50 vehicles out of a fleet of 400 and has plans to add the carsharing platform to more cars.
While many tourists come to St. Barts with pre-booked reservations, others don’t. “The benefit we offer is that tourists can rent from the hotel for a few hours to go to the beach or wherever,” he says. “It’s very easy.”
In fact, hotels are the best marketers of his self-service program. While most hotels have a partnership with standard car rental providers, Loret says hotel staffs are happy to remove themselves from the rental process.
At only 8 square miles, most of St. Barts is reachable within a 20-minute drive. With 12 car rental operators, “The car rental market is very competitive here, even more so recently,” says Loret.
Heightened competition has forced down car rental rates on the island, which has also put pressure on rates for hourly rentals. Sometimes cars can be booked at a hotel for a day for about the same price as a few hours’ rental — though not as conveniently as self-service.
Loret’s average self-service rental is about two hours. At his present pricing structure, self-service is profitable with four to five hours a day in utilization, he says.
Loret says he is measuring which locations have the highest yield. He’s looking to increase self-service volume, which would increase rates and profit margins. Yet he intends the system to be complementary to standard daily rentals. “We don’t want all customers to go to self-service and stop renting cars by the week,” he says.
On this small island, some services are hard to come by. Loret had to contract with a worker from off the island to install the hardware in each vehicle, a process that will repeat as the fleet turns over. “To put [the hardware] in the new cars, it will be more tough work,” he says.
Remotely maintaining the self-service cars is another challenge. Loret says that renters accept that a carsharing vehicle may not be up to the “just-washed” standards of a regular airport rental, though renters coming back from the beach often create an extra cleaning job for the staff.
Refueling is a bigger issue. Larger mainland carsharing networks put fuel cards in the vehicles to allow renters to refuel. Gas stations on St. Barts don’t accept fuel cards, forcing staff to fuel the vehicles themselves.
While figuring out the logistics of self-service has presented challenges, so far, “The technology is great,” Loret says. “The customers are happy.”