BUSI­NESS

From ma­tric­u­lants to VIPs, South Africans are fork­ing out to ride in grand sedans

CityPress - - Business & Tenders - MATTHEW HAT­TINGH busi­ness@city­press.co.za

It’s a Fri­day evening. An ex­tra-long car is idling in a queue out­side a Dur­ban high school. Be­hind a panel, sep­a­rat­ing them from the driver, six teenagers are par­ty­ing like it’s, well, 2017 – loung­ing on leather seats, bathed in a light that is pure night­club. Cham­pagne glasses are to hand, but their tin­kling is drowned out by the R&B from the car’s sound sys­tem.

The young­sters are en route to a ma­tric dance, wait­ing their turn to step out of the car and onto the red car­pet, to wel­com­ing cheers and a blaze of cam­era flashes.

It is a scene that plays it­self out on most week­ends at schools across the coun­try – when hun­dreds of Grade 12s set off in hired cars for the big­gest night of their young lives.

Den­zil Maistry, owner of Mount Edge­combe Limo Ser­vices in north Dur­ban, says there is “huge de­mand” for his ve­hi­cles at this time of the year.

The young­sters are not fussed about the ac­tual jour­ney, but about ar­riv­ing in style.

“It’s a big show-off,” says Maistry, who has been op­er­at­ing limos for the past five years.

Apart from the glam­our, a big sell­ing point is the safety a li­censed and prop­erly vet­ted limo driver prom­ises.

Johnny Car­reira, of Funky Rides in Ger­mis­ton, tells how one of his driv­ers hur­ried a prom princess to hos­pi­tal and alerted her par­ents after she was given a spiked drink at an af­ter­party.

A grow­ing aware­ness of the dan­gers of driv­ing un­der the in­flu­ence is another rea­son South Africans, look­ing for a big night out, like lim­ou­sines. But they don’t come cheap. Like all the op­er­a­tors ap­proached for this ar­ti­cle, Funky Rides’ prices vary ac­cord­ing to ve­hi­cle and length of hire.

Its flag­ship, a stretched, 12-seater Jeep Grand Cherokee, costs a cool R4 000 for the first hour, with a red car­pet on de­par­ture and ar­rival thrown in.

How­ever, take the car for longer and split the costs, and Car­reira in­sists it is a good deal.

“Lots of par­ents book for the whole night – 12 kids for R12 000,” he says, ex­plain­ing that the price is for door-todoor ser­vice. It frees par­ents from hav­ing to schlep ado­les­cents from one late-night af­ter­party to the next, and even­tu­ally, home.

Maistry, whose limo busi­ness is a spin-off of his longestab­lished, ev­ery­thing-un­der-one-roof wed­ding venue op­er­a­tion, says he is par­tic­u­larly busy with ma­tric dances in March and April.

How­ever, wed­dings and bach­e­lor as well as bach­e­lorette par­ties are his main line of busi­ness.

Sig­nif­i­cant birthdays and the oc­ca­sional VIP or air­port pickup also con­trib­ute to rev­enue.

He op­er­ates two Mercedes-Benz limos – an E280 and an ML320 – and charges R2 000 to R2 500 for the first hour. But what makes a good limo? The wow or bling fac­tor is non-ne­go­tiable, and this has led to com­pe­ti­tion to of­fer the big­gest, bad­dest (a stretched Hum­mer H2, per­haps) or most novel ride.

Funky Rides, for ex­am­ple, counts a six-seater Mini Cooper, an eight-seater Bee­tle and party buses as part of its 18-ve­hi­cle fleet.

Royal Limou­sine Ser­vices, in Ot­tery in Cape Town, has what it be­lieves is the coun­try’s only Land Rover Dis­cov­ery 3 limo – a hit, ap­par­ently, with the city’s ad­ver­tis­ing ex­ec­u­tives and film­mak­ers.

Natasha Pillay, co-owner of Centurion Limou­sine limo op­er­a­tors, but it is not with­out its de­trac­tors.

One Pi­eter­mar­itzburg op­er­a­tor, for ex­am­ple, in an on­line ad­ver­tise­ment, goes as far as to state its limo is “strictly for the elite”.

Most op­er­a­tors ad­mit to lend­ing out cars to un­der­tak­ers for fer­ry­ing mourn­ers, but pre­fer to down­play the link.

On the other hand, By­ron Cle­ments, owner of Boks­burg-based Smart Lim­ou­sines, be­lieves op­er­at­ing limos in tan­dem with un­der­tak­ing makes sense.

It is all about keep­ing the cars on the road for as long as pos­si­ble.

This is a tricky bal­anc­ing act as de­mand oc­curs mainly on week­ends.

Cle­ments pre­dicts growth in trade from town­ship cus­tomers – “def­i­nitely where the money is, es­pe­cially for funerals” – but dis­counts this against poor roads that are ill suited to long, low cars and a greater risk of crime.

How­ever, he does not re­gard limos as a huge money spin­ner. De­mand has gone off the boil, he says, since the 2010 soc­cer World Cup when his team hardly slept.

Op­er­a­tors, says Cle­ments, need to be good at mar­ket­ing and have a fair-sized fleet. His es­tab­lish­ment has five ve­hi­cles to al­low for savvy timetabling.

A “mom and pop op­er­a­tion” with only one car will have a tough time mak­ing a good re­turn.

“That car has to tap-dance … Then you are talk­ing re­pairs. Brand new limos, when they break down, are even worse,” he says.

Cle­ments ques­tions whether the rel­a­tively high cost of buy­ing and con­vert­ing a mod­ern car into a limo is likely to be re­warded with an ac­cept­able re­turn on in­vest­ment.

To add to this, get­ting bank fi­nance for con­verted cars is vir­tu­ally a non­starter, he says.

On the plus side, though, this serves as a bar­rier to new com­pe­ti­tion.

Asked about the chal­lenges fac­ing the sec­tor, Centurion Limou­sine Ser­vices’ Pillay lists com­pe­ti­tion from Uber driv­ers and clients who fail to com­pare ap­ples with ap­ples, only hir­ing on price.

Shanaas Al­lie, owner of Royal Limou­sine Ser­vices, re­fuses to be daunted by tough eco­nomic times, when “the first thing peo­ple cut is lux­ury”.

Her com­pany – now in its 15th year, op­er­at­ing five limos and em­ploy­ing 10 staff – works to drum up new busi­ness through Face­book pro­mo­tions.

“We want peo­ple to use us all the time … We go any­where,” she says.

That means send­ing limos to wed­dings as far afield as Ou­tapi, just south of the Namibia-An­gola bor­der.

More im­por­tantly, it is about ser­vic­ing nearby town­ships, in­clud­ing Khayelit­sha and Langa, where some of Al­lie’s com­peti­tors are wary of go­ing.

With many town­ship chil­dren now at­tend­ing for­mer Model C schools, they too need limos for ma­tric dances, and Al­lie’s driv­ers of­ten meet them at lo­cal po­lice sta­tions for direc­tions to the pickup.

Like Al­lie, Maistry sub­scribes to “the cus­tomer is king” phi­los­o­phy. He says peo­ple should go ahead and treat them­selves while they have the chance.

He of­fers this piece of ad­vice: “Don’t wait to pass away to go on a limo ride. A hearse will take you very slowly and you won’t en­joy it.”

TALK TO US What do you think of the lo­cal limo in­dus­try? Would you hire a lux­ury sedan? If so, for what pur­pose?

SMS us on 35697 us­ing the key­word LIMO and tell us what you think. Please in­clude your name and province. SMSes cost R1.50

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