New Norfolk Airport Shuttle Operator Bets on Customer Service

Sarah McCarthey stepped from a booth outside Norfolk International Airport and asked a newly arrived passenger where he was going.

"To a strip bar," he said, naming a night spot. "You know where that is?"

McCarthey smiled pleasantly and offered to try to find the address. The man was too rushed, though, and hurried on toward a taxi.

"That's a first," McCarthey said afterward. "I would have looked it up."

Such attention to detail is one mark of good service and helps define the new ground transportation service at Norfolk International Airport, said Stephen Story, president of Richmond-based James River Bus Lines, which won the contract late last year.

"We're conditioning our employees to know that we're not a transportation company - that it's all about customer service," he said recently.

"It's the experience they have with us. It's not going from point A to point B to point C."

Using a small fleet of spacious 2007 Crown Victoria sedans, James River Bus' new enterprise has gotten a good reception in Norfolk, said airport Executive Director Kenneth Scott.

"Steve had the background and expertise we needed to put this service on track," Scott said.

The move to Norfolk is part of James River's long-term strategy to enter new markets and new lines of personalized transportation.

James River, Richmond's largest motorcoach company, has been expanding into other lines of business, including its 2001 acquisition of Carey VIP Chauffeured Services in Williamsburg.

The Norfolk airport division is called Carey VIP Airport Connection.

Story won the contract to provide what is called "shared ride transportation" at Norfolk airport after the prior operator encountered business troubles, Scott said.

"It's been night and day," the airport chief said. "The best measure is that I have not gotten one single complaint."

James River signed a five-year contract that guarantees payment of 6 percent of his annual revenue to the airport, with a yearly minimum of $45,000. The goal is to make at least $750,000 this year and move toward the $1 million revenue mark.

When he started in November, he assumed passengers would fill up the Crown Victorias in order to share a ride to save money. That's how it works at Richmond's airport with Groome Transportation, Story said.

But the Norfolk area has proved to be more challenging geographically and economically than Story expected. His drivers sometimes take customers as far as North Carolina. Some arriving passengers weren't willing to pay his going rate.

When he saw people choosing cabs instead, he went back to the drawing board.

"People were traveling by themselves," Story said. "We were losing the three people going together to make it worthwhile."

After not making a profit in November and December, Story worked out a fare structure that began to attract riders, mostly by providing fare incentives to share rides. Now it costs $30 for the first passenger to ride downtown, but only $5 for the next two riders.

"It's still a competitive rate, or below, compared with taxicabs," he said.

His Norfolk staff of more than 30 is working on promoting the advantages of riding in the Crown Victorias with extra legroom and added service.

"I'm [6 feet 2 inches tall], and I can cross my legs," he said.

Each car has satellite tracking, text messaging and tiny cameras - "drive cams" - providing video surveillance in case of an accident.

The clean, white sedan recently attracted a couple arriving from Baltimore. "I thought it was cheaper," said Dr. Melvin Bulmash, traveling with his wife, Shirley, to Suffolk.

He said his total fare of $55 to Suffolk was $10 below a taxi-cab rate.

"It's more convenient," Bulmash said.

James River's new Norfolk airport service makes prearranged pickups for travelers at their homes. But its best customers are those arriving in Norfolk and looking for a classy, convenient ride, Story said.

The company still has a ways to go in attracting customers. It currently transports an average of 70 people a day.

"It's very difficult to differentiate ourselves" from taxis, Story said.

He doesn't' expect to lure many leisure travelers flying into Norfolk on low-fare carrier Southwest Airlines. "A discount carrier is attracting the bargain shopper. Usually they're going to get a friend or a relative to drop them off."

The company's core clientele is the corporate traveler with an expense account.

When James River made its Norfolk arrival, "we were typically looked at as a taxi-cab service," Story said. "We don't want that."

His staff conducts informal promotions, such as bringing doughnuts to skycaps, and letting airport employees watch a flat-screen TV in front of the terminal.

Story said he might someday compete against his friends at Groome Transportation when the contract comes up at Richmond International.

For now, though, he said he's just trying to do a good job - even if it means knowing where the local strip joints are.

James River Bus Lines

Founded in 1928, Richmond-based James River Bus Lines is the area's largest motor coach company. In recent years it has branched out into chauffeured services, airport transportation and other business lines. Here are some company highlights from 2006:

Passengers: 450,000

Miles traveled: 2 million

Employees: 160

Revenue: $9 million projected for 2007

Reach: Provides a variety of transportation services within a 50-mile radius of Richmond, Williamsburg, and Norfolk.

Business lines: Motor coach charter services; contract transportation; tours and sightseeing; Carey VIP Chauffeured Services; and executive sedans, vans, mini-coaches.

News stories provided by third parties are not edited by "Site Publication" staff. For suggestions and comments, please click the Contact link at the bottom of this page.