Premium Car Rentals Complement Luxury Getaways

So you just booked your clients on a first-class flight to northern California and into a signature suite for a week at the swank Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa. You've arranged wine tours and meals at some of the most desirable restaurants wine country has to offer. Congratulations on your hearty commission. But one thing you or any agent can do to sweeten the return is to pair the experience with a vehicle befitting the tone of the trip. In this instance, why not sell up your clients' car rental?

The 2006 Shelby Mustang GT-H Hertz Racer

"Who wants to pull up to a five-star hotel in a Kia?" asks Amanda Klimak, vice president of Largay Travel, noting that many clients may feel embarrassed to arrive at a posh hotel in an inferior vehicle. So how does a travel agent impress upon a client the importance of renting a premium vehicle, without pressing the issue too hard or making the client feel obligated? It's not that difficult, says Klimak. "We sell the benefits and functionality of the upgraded car, not just that's it's nicer or better looking," she says, while pointing out that clients on average want the added space a premium car provides for items such as golf clubs or cumbersome luggage. "Nine times out of 10 the client will take the recommendation. They want the whole experience when on a vacation and the car is part of that."

Calls for a luxury experience have pricked the ears of car rental agencies, which have quickly initiated programs to tap into the luxury travel market. "We recognized the growing trend for luxury travel," says Frank Camacho, staff vice president of marketing for Hertz, who also asks why someone vacationing in a chic destination would want to drive anything less than a premium automobile. While the luxury travel market was stymied after 9/11, Camacho says it came back strong soon thereafter. "There are luxury travelers back into the market and they want these types of products."

Hertz President and CEO Craig Koch noted this growing attention given to luxury travel, prompting Hertz to launch the Prestige Collection, an assortment of luxury cars matched with premium service. The collection includes such makes as the Mercedes 230C, Infiniti M35, Volvo XC90, as well as two newer vehicles: the Audi Q7 and Lincoln MK7. Drivers wanting that rugged-yet-refined edge can also rent the Hummer H2. The program's success hinges on its ability to promise customers that the make they reserve will be available upon pickup. "People who want luxury are specific about their wants," says Camacho. "We let them reserve makes and models." Specific codes are available to agents to book these models via the GDS. The incentive to book a Prestige Collection vehicle rests mainly in price, as these cars often cost two times as much as a standard.

The success of the Prestige Collection begot Hertz's Fun Collection in 2005, which comprises vehicles one level down from Prestige, but upscale nonetheless (PT Cruisers, Chrysler Sebrings, assorted SUVs, etc.). Avis Rent A Car countered with its own version of upscale driving with its Cool Car collection, which it launched in May 2006. The purpose of the collection is to heighten guests' driving experience and make it as memorable as the vacation itself. Customers opting to rent from this collection can choose from such makes as the Cadillac CTS, the Volvo S60 and the Hummer H3.

The addition of these types of vehicles shows how cognizant car rental companies are of the expanding luxury market. However, they aren't the only ones getting into the game. The affluent traveler's hankering for special cars and services has spawned an assortment of specialty car rental companies, which deal in high-end, head-spinning vehicles. Steve Bandovich is the owner of Chicago-based Cloud 9 Specialty Car Rentals, where you can drive out in a Lamborghini Gallardo for $2,380 per day. He says that demand for premium cars has risen 10 to 15 percent from year to year.

Shadowing Cloud 9 is California-based Specialty Rentals, a licensee of National Car Rental, which rents out everything from the nimble Lotus Elise convertible to the sleek Porsche Cayenne SUV. Their web site enables shoppers to select any make and model, and there is a section devoted to discounts and specials.

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