Bill Dunne never thought when he went into the limousine business, he'd have to be a driver and a seamstress.
But there he was sewing away in the back of a white stretch limo. He was aiding a clumsy bride who had torn the train on her wedding gown.
Dunne says that to survive successfully in the hotly competitive limousine rental business in Harford, you've got to be prepared.
"All my limousines carry a little kit with just about anything a brideor someone might need. I've got tape, scissors, needle and thread, spot remover, various shades of lipstick, breath mints, hair spray, bobby pins, just anything you can think of," he said.
Dunne, vice president of Steppin Out Limousine based in Kingsville, says that in the limousine business, you do a lot more than chauffeur.
The next two months will be busy for Dunne and the other Harford-based limousine rental companies.
With prom season arriving next month, limo companies are trying to beat each other to the business. The competitionis fierce, and just about every company makes a pitch to the prom crowd with slick offers such as "elegant and personalized service," "friendly drivers" or "a trip into luxury."
Top-of-the-line limousines offer luxuries like moon roofs, televisions (though most customers rarely watch it), videocassette recorders, telephones, stocked bars, music and the ever popular "mood lighting."
Among the Harford companies, the price for limo luxury generally runs between $40 to $70 hourly, depending on the number of passengers and the distance traveled.
Staying in business is tough, say longtime operators. Many companies fail in two to three years, they say.
First there's the high cost of insurance to worry about -- an average of $4,000 a year to insure just one limousine. Also, it's expensive to maintain the vehicles. Limousines are custom-made cars that can't survive on an occasional oil change and lube.
And if you think your car gets dirty, try cleaning up a limousine after six prom-giddy teens have rented it.
Konrad Steck, owner of Augusta Limousines in Joppa, has been in the limousine business for nine years. "People come into the business withhigh hopes," he said. "They think they can just get a limousine and start making money. It just doesn't happen that way. The business is very competitive."
For some companies, getting business can take alittle creativity.
John Spann, owner of Limos For Less in Edgewood, has been in business for over five years. Spann works with Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD) programs at high schools.
His company holds raffles at the schools, donating a portion to SADD. Winners get a free limousine for a prom or other event.
Like Limos for Less, Dunne's company works with area high schools to encourage studentsto not drink and drive. Dunne raffles a free limo service for prom night.
For prom-goers the most frequently asked questions are, "Does the limo have a bar?" and "Can we drink inside the limo?"
Most limos have bars, but they're empty -- limousines do not hold liquor licenses, and cannot serve alcohol to minors. Many teens think because someone else is doing the driving, they can do the drinking.
"I tell them up front that no liquor is allowed," said Bob Alley, manager of Alley's Limousine in Edgewood. "I even have parents ask me if it'sOK. I tell them 'No.' "
Carolyn Nelson, President of Belaire Limousine Inc. in Bel Air, says that her company "does more than just drive. We're more of a coordinator. We take care of little details."
Nelson said that her limos always carry spare supplies, such as tuxedo studs for a tuxedo, or for special requests customers have.
Nelson says that she's done everything from letting balloons fly out of alimo's moon roof during a marriage proposal to standing outside for 90 minutes with three towels (one lemon, one chiffon and one mint) onher arm waiting for R & B singer Patti LaBelle.
The most common request from customers, say limo operators, is for the limousine to goto a fast-food restaurant and order food at the drive-through window.
"These are adults who do this," Dunne said.
In the limo industry, the competition comes not only from established operators, but also what are called in the industry "pirates," called so because they'll cut corners for business, such as allowing minors to drink alcohol, operate underinsured vehicles, and allow 10 people cram into a limo made for six. Nelson said she knows of one case where the limo was so packed that it broke in two.
Spann, Nelson, Steck and Dunne belong to the Association of Limo Owners of Maryland. The association encourages professional and ethical standards for limousine companies.
Spann says he and other members of the association dislike the pirates.
"They've really wrecked the business," he said. "I've talkedto people who have rented limousines and the car that arrived was terrible. The cars were dirty, poorly maintained and just awful. Peoplepay for a luxury; the car should look good."
Spann says he tries to eliminate the illegal companies by reporting them to the state Public Service Commission, which requires all limousine companies to register. "It takes awhile to nail them," he said. "But it's one way of eliminating the competition."