To survive the pandemic, Longboat Limousine recently stretched the meaning of the ‘customer is always right’ so far it ended up in Ohio.
As in a two-man crew from the private car and transportation service recently drove a Longboat Key resident 970 miles from the Sarasota barrier island to Cincinnati. The crew stopped only for gas, snacks and drinks — no hotel stays on the one-way, 25-hour trip. “Some people feel more comfortable in one of our cars than a crowded plane,” Longboat Limousine President Jimmy Seaton says, adding other pandemic-based trips are in the works for similar-minded passengers, one to Kansas City and one to St. Louis. “It was a first class ride.”
But those tips are rare, and Longboat Limousine, with sales down at least 20% this summer coming after days in April where “we literally had zero rides,” Seaton says, faces a heavy-duty struggle. “It’s been a bloodbath,” Seaton says. “It has been really tough.”
‘I call our passengers guests. They are the most important thing ever. They are the reason you get up in the morning.’ Jimmy Seaton, Longboat Limousine
Seaton, rather than give in to the pandemic, is taking some counterintuitive steps to survive. For example, instead of selling off his inventory of 16 vehicles to match the steep drop in demand and build back reserves, like some competitors, he’s only sold four cars. He normally sells vehicles in the summer, then upgrades with new purchases for the next season. He sold these four, including two Mercedes-Benz sedans, in March but his keeping the rest of the fleet intact.
Longboat Limousine, of course, like other businesses that serve customers in a confined space has instituted a series of stringent cleaning protocols. Crews spray down constantly, before and after rides, and everyone wears face masks. Trips with multiple people are seated socially-distanced. Seaton even took away the luxury magazines and copies of the Longboat Observer he kept in the backseat for passengers, so germs can’t pass through the pages.
In another clean-focused move, he’s using his mostly idle fleet to ensure each car is rotated at least daily and passengers don’t get a ride in a car someone else was just in. “I want to eliminate the mindset of a taxi cab,” Seaton says, “where someone was in the vehicle 10 minutes ago.”
One of the biggest challenges? Navigating the uncertainty. “I wish I had a crystal ball, just like every other business owner, to see what’s going to happen,” he says. “Right now the best I can do is a swag — a scientific wild ass guess.”
Seaton founded the company in 1994. He had been a corporate trainer for Publix — he once met and had a conversation about customer service with legendary Publix founder George Jenkins — while shuttling his grandmother around Sarasota. “When she passed away I realized Longboat was full of grandmas, but it’s not full of grandsons who can drive them everywhere,” says Seaton, of the doctors appointment and errands he took his grandmother to.
Seaton eventually quit his Publix job to start Longboat Limousine. He added extensively to the fleet, going from five vehicles to 16, when the business grew from 2015 to 2018. Most vehicles are Cadillac and Mercedes-Benz sedans and SUVs, costing $65,000 and up. The business used to have four stretch limos, costing $100,000 each, but Seaton cut back to one when demand for those waned.
The growth continued through early 2020. “I told all the drivers ‘brace yourselves, hang on tight, because March is going to be our best month ever,’” Seaton says. “Then the bottom fell out.”
The company cut back on drivers, from 15 to three or four today. In the first 10 days of March, Seaton was doing between 30 and 40 rides a day. Now he does a fraction of that.
One key lesson Seaton has learned in the pandemic is to always ask customers for feedback. “We are constantly communicating with our clients,” he says. “We want to be here for whatever they want.” (Though even Seaton has limits: a client recently asked if he would pick up a friend at Tampa International coming in from Houston. When Seaton learned the friend originally was coming from a flight from Brazil, he politely turned down the work.)
Loosely related, the pandemic reaffirmed for Seaton that when you’re in the hospitality business, doing right by customers is everything. “I call our passengers guests,” he says. “They are the most important thing ever. They are the reason you get up in the morning.”