It's not just the big boss who can have a chayffeur driven limo. Dave Richardson looks at today's options for ground transportation.
THE WHOLE SUBJECT of how your staff travel to and from meetings, and to and from airports, has become highly complex, whether it's the chairman with his chauffeur or junior executives taking taxis.
Who is allowed to take what? How much are they spending and how much can you control it? You might have tabs on your air, hotel, rail and car rental spend, but do you know how much travelling staff spend on ground transportation?
The answer is probably not, and at a time of tightening budgets and increased concern for the environment this is something you ought to be getting a handle on. The number of companies offering ground transportation is ever increasing, but only a few top-end firms have their own fleets and chauffeurs. The rest are tapping into the same pool of self-employed owner-drivers.
At the Business Travel Show in London last February, there were 19 companies listed offering chauffeur-drive, nine providing taxi services and six offering coach travel.
The way companies describe themselvescan be confusing. What's the difference between a limousine and an executive car? What's a premium mini cab? Why may a black cab be the costliest option of all?
Chauffeur-drive companies at the top end of the market have the closest links with the business travel industry, and apart from Premium Class on airlines, they are probably the most visible sign of prestige. But can the uniformed chauffeur purring up in his Mercedes really be justified in the tough economic conditions of 2008, and what about his carbon footprint?
Tristar Worldwide, British-owned, but with its own operation in the US and affiliates in other countries, puts its faith in a value proposition and the increasing focus on corporate social responsibility.
"You can be penny-wise but pound-foolish," says CEO Dean de Beer. "If a banker is late for an important meeting he could lose a great deal more than time, and if you need to be at Heathrow Airport at six in the morning and you're not close to Heathrow Express, what are your options?
"CSR legislation means corporations are vetting their suppliers more carefully. If you down-trade, you're in danger of cutting corners.
"A smaller company might claim to offer a more personalised service, but larger customers prefer a branded service provider."
Companies with access to international networks are strongly placed to respond to demand in emerging markets, and Tristar is experiencing many more requests for China and India - countries where the self-drive option hardly exists.
"If you have someone arriving in Shanghai late at night, you need a reliable service to get them to their hotel," says de Beer.
The major chauffeur-drive companies are all addressing the environmental issue in various ways, with some having introduced hybrid limousines, including the Lexus GS450 and LS600. Chauffeur-First, a London-based operation, is so proud of them, all their number plates include the letters EGO.
Affiliate director, Danyel Mukhtar, says: "We are a market leader in having hybrid vehicles, and it works wonders to be able to use them around London. We don't charge more to provide a Lexus rather than a Mercedes S class, although the purchase price is higher.
"On many journeys, we can work out 30 per cent cheaper than taking a black cab. With chauffeur-drive you pay a fixed price - with a black cab the meter is always running, including when you're stuck in traffic."
The same claim is made by one of the largest operators, Carey International, which says the average cost of a chauffeured car from Canary Wharf to Heathrow is about £80. Trials have shown that a black cab could easily cost £100 to do the same journey in rush hour.
But Carey is more guarded about hybrid cars, and warns customers against assuming that this is going to be the greener option. Carey UK managing director Greg Mendoza says other factors, including the company's recycling policy, should be taken into account.
"We operate a Mercedes fleet in the UK which is a luxurious brand, and the E class limousine, which we run in London has superior fuel economy than other makes. The E220CDi has comparable CO2 emissions to the Lexus hybrid, and Mercedes has plans to improve this even further in future."
Carey International is set for further expansion following investment by Avis Budget Group, the owner of these car rental brands in their US homeland. Avis Budget took a 45 per cent stake in Carey last October, with the option to increase this to 8o per cent within a year.
"This investment will help us develop the technology needed for international expansion, and Avis has huge experience in creating a global brand," says Mendoza.
He is confident that an economic downturn will not have a huge impact on the chauffeur-drive business, which faced hard times after 9/11: "Our service is seen as a necessity rather than a luxury, and at times of economic downturn people still need to travel and do business. We are controlling our costs more than ever before," he says.
One company that believes it really stands out in a crowded market is Burgundy Cars, which was acquired last year by The Courier and Passenger Transport Group, comprising CitySprint and WestOne Cars.
It is the only operator to have a Royal Warrant, retained after the take-over. A package of environmental reporting is available with the option to reduce or offset a customer's carbon footprint, which has proved popular with corporates.
Burgundy's client director, Dave Dennis, says: "Our sector has matured into a more professional industry. It reflects the needs of travel management in large organisations, reflecting aspects such as health and safety, CSR, green issues and more rigorous control of costs via Management Information.
"We acknowledge that there is a duty of care to our clients that needs to be upheld. This is why we have industry recognised in-house training for all self-employed drivers."
Chauffeur-drive is a crowded market, especially in London. Cabot Global Solutions claims to be the fastest growing operator in the capital, with over 200 vehicles based at Canary Wharf.
Network Cars has adopted airline-style differentiation with the `Economy' Volkswagen Passat, `Business Class' Mercedes E class and `First Class' Mercedes S class.
The Booking Room claims to have the most sophisticated booking system for chauffeur-drive in the world, with live online tracking of pick-ups and drop-offs made available to the booker.
A new entrant to the ground transportation market for business travel this year is Fraser Eagle, a large company providing coach and taxi services to many customers including UK rail operators when lines are closed because of engineering work.
It has taken on an expert in the business market, Matthew Hassell, as a consultant. He helped develop Burgundy Cars and set up rival operator Matrix Connections, and launched Fraser Eagle's new service at last month's ITM conference in Dublin.
"We believe it will offer the first truly national passenger car service," says Hassell. "We're using Fraser Eagle's existing infrastructure to diversify into the corporate sector and this is the first time someone has brought together a national network as a one-stop solution for corporates," he claims.
Whether or not you agree with that proposition, there is no doubt that companies offering a range of options rather than only top-end chauffeur-drive feel they are in a strong position. London-based Addison Lee is a good example, offering chauffeur-drive, but also 2,000 people carriers, which it describes as a "premium minicab" service.
Managing director Liam Griffin explains: "These are £20,000 vehicles such as the Volkswagen Sharan and Ford Galaxy. Companies are moving away from chauffeur-drive on grounds of cost, but we can still provide a consistent, well-branded, clean vehicle with a professional driver.
"Black cabs might be very good at picking up quickly, but we can match that with 2,000 vehicles. We are consistently 30-35 per cent cheaper than black cabs on account, when you include gratuities and running-in mileage from the point the black cab gets your call."
Addison Lee shares others' concerns about hybrid vehicles, pointing out that disposal of their batteries is a major environmental issue: "We have made major environmental savings by reducing `dead' mileage between jobs by 24 per cent," says Griffin. "Our allocation system manipulates the fleet in an intelligent way, and we also recycle all our waste, including tyres."
Business Transport Resources (BTR) encourages passengers to demonstrate their green credentials by sharing vehicles when possible. Its booking system often identifies that it gets several calls from the same company in one afternoon requesting transport to the airport, when often it is possible to group the bookings together and send fewer vehicles.
"This makes a lot of sense financially and for the environment," says BTR managing director, Simon Pugh. "We can save companies an average of 28-36 per cent through sharing, and we charge only £3 per booking. We put out the journey to tender with a company's preferred suppliers invited to bid, and the lowest bidder gets the job."
The growing number of taxi booking services includes Taxibank, Computer Cab, CabFind and FairFare, while Business Taxis provides an international service in 48 countries. All offer online booking and have a strong focus on the corporate sector.
FairFare, a relatively new operation set up in 2007, is particularly targeting "empty legs" by airport taxis. Taxi drivers can advertise their empty journeys on the website often at a bargain price, and FairFare claims everyone is a winner - the passenger, the driver and the environment.
The whole concept of sharing transport has gained a new lease of life because of environmental concerns, and we are likely to see many more initiatives such as National Express Dot2Dot, which was launched in November. Described as an executive shuttle service using luxury minibuses, Dot2Dot links Central London and Canary Wharf with Heathrow and Gatwick at prices starting from £25 each way. It is a door-to-door service to hotels, business and residential addresses, using sophisticated technology for maximum operating efficiency.
Without doubt, businesses now have a greater choice of ground transport options. The day when your company chairman forsakes his limo for a greener, more cost-effective option may not be far away.