Association Meetings interviewed Elaine Curl, president of The Convention Store, to uncover ways to cut ground transportation costs. Curl, whose company designs and runs shuttle systems throughout the United States for conventions and special events, handled the shuttle transportation for the last two presidential inaugurals.

AM:What information do planners need before doing a transportation request for proposal (RFP)?

Curl: Know the list of hotels where your attendees will be staying, and the single-double spread. The average occupancy rate is 1.5 people per room, but it's higher for some groups. Examine your convention's schedule to determine when you want people to be at the convention center, and how much leeway you'll have in getting them there. Consider any events that require people to get to the center before the regular sessions begin.

AM: How can knowing the "personality profile" of your group contribute to cost savings?

Curl: If you know your group has many young, active members, you can take the hotels near to the convention center, say within a five-block radius, make them "walking hotels," and save the expense of shuttle service to those hotels altogether. If you publish the fact that there will be both shuttle-service hotels and walking hotels before attendees send in their registration, this won't cause any backlash afterward when people realize there is no shuttle service at a particular hotel.

Conversely, if you know that your group includes many people who have physical disabilities, you can group them at one hotel or in several hotels in close proximity to each other. That way, you can save money by not needing ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act]-equipped vehicles for every hotel you're using.

It's also important to know the percentage of attendees who will come to an event such as the opening session. If the shuttle service has been told that it has from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. to transport the attendees, when in fact 100 percent of them will be going to the opening session at 9 a.m., you could be wasting money.

AM: Can associations reduce their shuttle costs by contracting directly with a local bus company rather than using a management company?

Curl: If you can find a local bus company with all of the buses to do the convention, the staff to monitor your system, and the experience of handling shuttles, that's a pretty good combination. However, bus companies are not set up to be transportation management companies. They don't usually design and print brochures, signage, route instructions and maps, or set up the load lines at the convention center, among other tasks.

A management company like The Convention Store, which has been in business for 14 years, often has developed relationships with bus companies in many cities and we get a preferred rate.

AM:What criteria should you use when looking to select a contractor?

Curl: One thing to look for is experience with a group similar to your own in terms of size and group identity. They also should know what the impact of the transportation system will be on the rest of the city, and what's going on in the city and in the convention center. They have to be able to establish liaison with the police to determine the streets that may be restricted from bus traffic, and where the buses can be staged at the end of the day.

A face-to-face encounter can help you develop trust in the management company, and it can help them better assess your needs and how you communicate. If you work with somebody year after year, you develop an ever-improving sense of the ridership.

AM:How can you determine how many buses you will need?

Curl: There is a simple formula you can use: Say you have a route that stops at three hotels, and there are 250 rooms [for your group] at each hotel. If each of these rooms has a 1.5 occupancy rate, the total number of people on the route would be 1,125. Divide that number by the number of seats on the bus, which usually averages about 47. This equals a need for 24 bus trips for that route.

If you have three hours to get people to the site, and you know that the flow will be even during those hours, all you need to know is how long it takes one bus to make a round trip. Let's say that it takes the bus 30 minutes to do one round trip, including loading and unloading. Divide 180 minutes by 30 minutes and you'll see that each bus can make six round trips during the designated hours. Divide the 24 trips needed by the six each bus can do, and that tells you that you need four buses on that route.

AM:Any other tips?

Curl: Always ask to be included as "additionally insured" on all carriers' insurance policies. All you have to do is ask for it, and you will be put on the carriers' policies. And make sure that the bus company is insured properly.

Also, bring up transportation issues when you're negotiating with the convention center. You may be able to get concessions on staging areas and curb space. You may be able to negotiate who pays for police at the staging area as part of the booking package if the convention center requires police to be present at the shuttle areas. They usually don't offer to pay for this police presence, which can cost thousands of dollars, but it's worth asking.

One final tip: Look at the potential for advertising packages with exhibitors to help defray the cost of the shuttle system. Exhibitor advertising can be displayed at the shuttle schedule postings at the hotels, the shuttle bus signs at the convention centers, and signs on the buses themselves.