Peter and Wendy run an amazing car hire service in Orlando called Car on the Drive. In the customer service industry, we talk a lot about “going the extra mile” but Peter and Wendy really do – literally.
But what makes their service so special?
Like me, Peter and Wendy fell in love with Florida after spending their vacations here. Peter explains: “In 1999 we bought a home in Florida. Initially we saw it as an investment property, but with three young children we found the home had magnetic powers.”
I wonder if the family felt the pull of Disney magic? Peter says: “In the first five years, we came out to Orlando every school holiday we could – that’s three visits each year. By the time you’ve spent that much time in airport lounges you do begin to ask questions; and we were asking ourselves ‘if we like it so much why don’t we emigrate?’.”
When the family came back from that fifteenth trip, they contacted an immigration lawyer and began to put the wheels in motion.
At that stage, the inspiration for Car on the Drive had not yet taken shape.
Peter owned a successful construction business here in the UK so the family were well placed to travel to the USA under an L1 visa. This visa required Peter to operate his construction business on both sides of the Atlantic. However, when the bottom dropped out of the US property market in 2008 the construction industry was badly hit.
The old adage that necessity is the mother of invention certainly seemed to hold true for the family.
Peter says: “We were already working with a lot of villa owners and we knew what it was like to be a tourist. We knew what it was like to take a nine- or ten-hour flight, be faced with US immigration, and then have to queue at the car rental desk for an hour before being heavily sold to by people working on commission, trying to upgrade your car or sell you toll passes or extra insurance. It can be overwhelming, especially for first-time travellers. We felt there had to be a better way to start your holiday.”
Peter’s vision was of a service where guests could avoid the queues at the airport and get to their vacation home as soon as possible without worrying about negotiating an unfamiliar road network or finding money for tolls. The service would pick guests up from the airport in their own private transportation vehicle and take them straight to their vacation home, where their rental car would be waiting for them on the drive.
Peter and Wendy tried out their ideas on some of the villa owners with whom they already worked and were encouraged by their response. In 2009 Peter bought three cars and Car on the Drive was born.
“The villa owners we knew thought our service was great, so they passed our info on to their guests. The guests thought it was great. Car on the Drive just took off. We soon had our own large fleet of vehicles and now work alongside one of the large rental car companies to offer guests an even greater choice of more unusual or special vehicles,” says Peter.
On the way to the vacation home, the Car on the Drive driver pays all tolls and helps to make first-time drivers feel more comfortable by talking guests through the main driving laws that apply to driving in the USA, particularly where there is a major difference compared to UK driving law. On arrival, the driver will unload the luggage and then talk guests through how the car works – something particularly useful for guests who aren’t familiar with driving an automatic.
Peter says: “We thought our service was going to be particularly useful to people who were vacationing for the first time in Orlando. Especially for those travelling with kids, because the last thing you want to do when you get off the plane is to stand in line and be sold to. But, actually, we’re finding our service has much wider appeal. It is great for people who simply don’t want to drive after a ten-hour flight; that tiredness factor can be dangerous.”
Peter and Wendy have successfully created a business model that keeps people coming back again and again. “Today, about 40- 50% of our business is returning guests,” says Peter. “We have villa owners and holidaymakers who just want to be whisked out of the airport as soon as they can be. They tell us they love to emerge from the arrivals hall and see a welcome sign with their name on it and know they are going to be transported back to their vacation home.”
So what is the secret of Peter and Wendy’s success? I think it is their novel idea, which they have executed brilliantly with lots of charm and hard work. Peter says the British angle is also a key feature of the service Car on the Drive provides: “It’s nice to hear a familiar voice in a strange country. We share the same cultural references as our guests and that helps to create an automatic rapport – we can talk about what’s happening on Corrie, or the latest news. It helps people to quickly feel at ease.”
It’s a far cry from the construction industry, which Peter says only started to recover in 2013 – by which time Car on the Drive had already grown into a profitable business. The family have been surprised but delighted by the success of Car on the Drive and Peter now has no plans to return to construction. So what’s next for the couple?
Their daughters have graduated from high school and are enjoying life stateside. Peter says he hopes to retire at sixty-five, which is now just three years away. He says he hopes to sell Car on the Drive as a growing concern at that time, but I wonder if it will be so easy to give up…