February 01, 1999
Meetings & Conventions Ground Control February 1999 Current Issue
February 1999

Ground Control

Stranded attendees? Packed buses? Shoddy service? Learn to check the tires and more before choosing a supplier

By Sarah J.F. Braley

Meeting planners who can figure out the ground transportation equation were probably adept at math word problems in high school: “If you have 2,000 people and you need to make sure they can get back and forth between five hotels and a convention center anytime between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. over four days, how many buses do you need, and how big should those buses be?”

If only people-moving during meetings could be determined by such relatively simple equations&In reality, so many factors are involved, no easy formulas apply. To master the challenge, heed the following words of advice from planners and transportation suppliers.

Where are they?
Tracking down transportation companies is actually quite easy. Start with the Web site of the convention and visitors bureau where your event will be held or call the CVB. Members of Meeting Professionals International ( can run a search in the members-only directory of member suppliers. Two other helpful online resources are the Bus and Travel Resource section of the American Bus Association’s site ( and the search engines (by name or location) at the United Motorcoach Association’s site ( More than 40 transportation operators belong to the Springfield, Va.-based International Motor Coach Group; to learn about its members call (888) 447-3466.

Many planners forego contacting the ground transportation company directly, preferring instead to hire a destination management company at the event site. DMCs have intimate knowledge of local carriers and possible routes to facilities, and they may have special contacts at the venues to iron out any wrinkles.

In other words, DMCs like USA Hosts with nine outposts around the country, some of which own their own shuttle buses can handle all the busing and limo headaches while the planner concentrates on the meeting itself. Carol Chorbajian, general manager of USA Hosts’ Monterey, Calif., office, likes to dig up the dirt on limo and bus companies so she can be sure she does right by her clients.

“We’ll go in and track down the suppliers who are going to be the best,” says Chorbajian, who is also a vice president of USA Hosts. “I ask, ‘Who are your major customers, and can I call them?’ We look at the vehicles they own. I say, ‘Show me the best and show me the worst.’”

DMCs also handle smaller jobs like hiring limos in specific colors for VIPs and arranging shuttle service to and from the airport and often will supply an on-site supervisor to make sure all the transfers go smoothly.

The inside story
Information about the destination can be helpful in evaluating transportation company options. For instance, find out the state and city rules regarding drivers and their break times; this will be helpful in managing shuttle schedules and long-distance drives.

Also, quiz potential suppliers on their knowledge of the area. Donald DeVivo, vice president of the New Britain, Conn.-based transportation company DATTCO, Inc., proves his worth in a few sentences: “In downtown Hartford there is a special group in the police department that handles convention traffic. If the planners don’t know that, their buses might show up and not be able to park.”

Planners who are working on large conventions have another matter to consider: Is the convention and visitors bureau willing to subsidize transportation in order to bring the convention to town? “It’s not unheard of for a city to offer a package that helps with the negotiation,” says Jason McGraw, director of expositions for the Milwaukee-based Construction Industry Manufacturers Association and for the four-day CONEXPO-CON/AGG, where 100,000 attendees hop on and off buses throughout the day.

Along for the ride
One of the trickiest things to determine when contracting with a ground transportation company is whether it will be subcontracting some of the business. Take the situation a planner for the Xerox Corporation encountered when a minibus carrying VIPs to a dinner came from (surprise!) a third party.

“The drivers were not dressed appropriately, one had not been briefed on what the trip was supposed to be or where he was going,” says manager of meeting services Joan Balla, who works out of the company’s Stamford, Conn., headquarters, “or that he was supposed to get to the destination by a set time. He got there too early and circled in a bad neighborhood, which was not the thing to do since he had passengers on board.” The same subcontractor later left Balla behind after closing time at a venue, and she had to find a taxi back to her hotel at 1 a.m.

Planners should anticipate subcontracting and try to sniff it out. “A lot of contractors seem to be like management consultants who go out to subcontractors that actually have the vehicles,” says McGraw.

This is another area where having a local DMC can come in handy. The DMC should have intimate knowledge of area transportation companies and know whether or not bus company A has the number and type of buses you need. Thus prepared, the DMC should know whether that company will need to outsource.

The gang’s all here
Shuttling 10 people to the airport is a straightforward task, as is carrying 100 to a one-time off-site outing. The real challenge is choreographing the dance of attendees between several hotels and a convention center. It’s a complicated process only perfected with practice.

“You have to look at the quantity of people you have to move and the frequency with which you want to move them, and then factor in the distance and traffic,” says CONEXPO-CON/AGG’s McGraw. “If you want 15-minute pickups at peak time, you might have to start running your buses at 6 a.m., then back off the buses at midday and only have bus service every half-hour, and then add buses again late in the day.”

Some ground companies actually do start with an equation. American Coach Gray Line of Atlanta shares its starting point for taking people from the Marriott Marquis to the convention center: “It’s about a 15-minute ride, so a bus can theoretically make four turns in an hour,” says director of sales and marketing Pat Johnson. “If there are 500 people traveling from the hotel, take 500 divided by 45 [seats on the bus], divided by four turns an hour you’ll need about three buses.”

Most companies will have such plans already mapped out, but to make everything go as smoothly as possible, planners have to know their own group’s patterns intimately. “The best planners to work with from my perspective are the ones who know their group and what they need,” adds Johnson. “Otherwise, I tell people they have to plan for worst-case scenarios. If they tell me, ‘I have 5,000 people coming to town, these are the hotels they’re staying at and this is where I want you to take them,’ that’s too vague.”

Change for the bus
How negotiable is ground transportation service? Carriers may tell you, “The cost depends on what type of service the planner is looking for.” Planners are more likely to say, “The negotiability of the contract increases with the size of the meeting.”

Xerox’s Balla primarily arranges small executive programs, ranging from 50 to several hundred attendees, which limits her negotiating clout. McGraw, with his huge convention, has more leeway, noting planners with similar shows might be able to negotiate free services, like shuttles for staff or limos for VIPs.

Size affects price another way, too: The larger the city, the higher the price might be. To see what the norm is in a given city, McGraw uses an extensive request for proposal process to compare bids and find the right contractor. His best advice on the negotiating front: “Get quotes.”

When it’s time to sign on the dotted line, Chorbajian of USA Hosts reminds planners to make sure the carrier knows exactly what is expected and agrees to those details in the contract. McGraw adds that some language about subcontractors should be specified in the document, for instance that the planner reserves the right to approve the supplier of any vehicles and to ensure the quality is up to par. “If you don’t say it,” he says, “you won’t know what you’re getting. The more detail, the better.”

Ada on wheels
Unlike the rest of the world, which was expected to start complying with the Americans With Disabilities Act when it became law in 1990, ground transportation companies were given an extension so the industry could devise viable solutions for outfitting vehicles.

“Originally, new regulations were supposed to go into effect in 1996,” says Peter Worthington, director of sales for the New Britain, Conn., transportation company DATTCO, Inc. Worthington has been working on those regulations since 1992, first as a task force member of the American Bus Association and then for Project ACTION (Accessible Community Transportation in Our Nation), which is administered by the National Easter Seal Society and funded through the Department of Transportation, the Federal Transit Administration and Easter Seals.

As it stands, interim regulations require both fixed-route bus companies (which operate scheduled service between point A and point B) and charter bus companies to provide assistance to people with disabilities on 48 hours notice. This doesn’t mean a handicapped-accessible bus has to be used, just that assistance must be available (for instance, a properly trained person can carry or guide the customer on board and off). With less than 48 hours notice, the companies must give their “best effort” to provide the service.

Beginning in 2001 for large fixed-route carriers and in 2002 for small ones, the rules will change significantly. Within 48 hours, carriers will have to provide an accessible bus (not just “assistance”), and they will have to purchase vehicles over the next five years so that 50 percent of their fleets are accessible vehicles. By 2012, that number must be 100 percent.

The effect on the charter bus industry is less dramatic. These companies will not be required to purchase vehicles, but an accessible bus must be available to them through a pool of companies. They also have to be guaranteed they’ll be able to get that accessible coach within 48 hours, whether it is their vehicle or another member of the pools’.

A rule of thumb for the meetings world is to consider the circumstances in which accessible transport will be needed. Does one person need to get to and from a convention center and a hotel? If so, it’s not necessary that motorcoaches are accessible, as long as an appropriate van is on call. But when the purpose of gathering the attendees includes making sure everyone feels part of the group, avoid separating anyone. In that case, an attendee with a disability should have access to the same transportation as everyone else. SARAH J.F. BRALEY

On the safe side
When it comes to checking safety records, don’t take the ground transportation company’s word at face value. Do your own research.

Within the Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration’s Office of Motor Carriers offers the Safety and Fitness Electronic Records System (800-832-5660; ( Snapshot reports on the Web site show, among other information, how many accidents have been reported on the company over the past two years; insurance details including insurer, policy number and liability coverage; and the company’s safety rating, if it has been inspected.

Since January, the Web site of the International Motor Carrier Audit Commission ( has been taking the DOT’s information a step or two further. The organization has rated 501,000 truck and passenger carriers from 1 to 5 (1 being the best), using the DOT safety ratings and other criteria. Only the top 10 percent of the carriers will ever be rated 1 at a given time. IMCAC also conducts audits to verify the ratings; companies that have agreed to be audited within the past three years are indicated in the listings.

“If you have a carrier that’s a 1, but unaudited, it’s better to go with a 2 that has been audited, because its management controls have been checked,” says IMCAC vice president Dianne Matten. IMCAC’s goal with this service: To make bad carriers better or to put them out of business. Explains Matten, “If you stop hiring the bad ones, they won’t be in business anymore. It’s just common sense.”

Before contracting with any ground transit supplier, ask to see its liability insurance certificate, and then call the insurance company to confirm the policy is still in effect. The required coverage is $5 million. S.B.

To make sure you ask all the right questions when evaluating a supplier, refer to M&C’s Ground Transportation Checklist (Planner’s Portfolio, April 1998). For a copy ($3), contact Cheryl-Anne Sturken at (201) 902-1755 or e-mail

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