Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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How Car Renters Can Escape the 'Econobox' Now
May 14, 2015 -- Stop me if you've heard this one: A business traveler walks up to a car-rental counter and the clerk says: Hi! We have a great choice of cars today. Would you like a gray Impala or a red Impala? And we also have black Impalas, white Impalas and blue Impalas if you'd prefer one of those!

Comedic minds may differ, so you may have heard the joke (or, worse, lived it) about a Toyota Yaris, a Hyundai Accent or any number of other generic vehicles that seem to exist mostly on rental-car lots. On top of all the other annoyances of today's rental market --high-mileage cars, high prices, ridiculous add-on fees, relentless insurance upsells and hawk-eyed rental agents charging for every ding and scratch --there's the issue of automotive atrophy. Rental-car lots are filled with dull, boring cars that you'd never drive if given a more interesting option.

This isn't a new issue for business travelers, of course. We first discussed escaping the econobox in 2007 and revisited the topic five years later. Still, the problem remains. The vast majority of vehicles available to road warriors on rental lots are automotive afterthoughts, cars and trucks the world's automakers can't sell to anyone else.

According to the most recent statistics I could find, about 70 percent of the GMC Yukon XL full-size SUVs produced make their way to rental fleets. More than half of the Chevy Impalas and Toyota Yaris cars sold in the United States end up in the rental market. And huge percentages of the Dodge Avengers, Mazda 5s, Hyundai Accents and Chrysler 200s manufactured aren't sold to consumers, but instead become the backbone of the car-rental industry's plain-vanilla fleets.

"There is definitely an appetite for something better, something more intriguing," admits Rob Connors, assistant vice president of brand marketing for National Car Rental. "Maybe not on every trip, maybe not even once every five trips. But, on occasion, you find yourself craving something more interesting to drive."

The whimsical wish for an exciting rental isn't something rental firms historically have been interested in fulfilling. Traditional rentals don't even let you choose a specific car model, only a "class" of vehicle. Even luxury-car programs such as the Hertz Prestige Collection and Avis Signature Series require advance reservation and cost substantially more than an average rental.

But Connors and National may have solved both of those vexing issues with their Premier Selection program. Piggybacked onto the extremely successful Emerald Club Aisle--business travelers reserve at the mid-size rate, bypass the counter and choose from any available car --Premier Selection ups the ante by adding Cadillacs, Audis, BMWs and even Maseratis to the mix. Best of all, no reservations are required. Travelers can choose any Premier Selection car available. The upcharge for the luxury vehicle --from $25 to $100 a day above their existing quote --is clearly marked on each car. A business traveler simply makes a choice, drives to the exit, has his or her preference noted and departs the airport.

"We've been told over and over by business travelers that they want [great cars] but don't want to slow down," Connors says. "So we worked hard to make it simple. You see what's there, you see what the price is and you grab what appeals to you. It's as simple as we make renting any vehicle using the Emerald Aisle."

Launched quietly about 18 months ago, National's Premium Selection got its first promotional boost last month in ten of the 25 airport markets where it is available. But even without publicity, business travelers have noticed the snappy cars like the Corvette convertibles or the Lexus IS250. During the first 75 days that a fleet of Maserati Ghibli S Q4 sedans were added to the Premier Selection rotation, the company claims they rang up a total of about 2,000 rental days.

Publicity --and a more interesting type of car --are some of what drives Silvercar, an Austin-based rental upstart. In fact, the eponymous vehicle is a silver Audi A4, the sole vehicle in the company's rental fleet.

"We wanted to launch with a premium car, but not something over-the-top," explains Luke Schneider, Silvercar's chief executive. Mercedes researched as too rich. No one wanted to pull up to the client in one." BMW's, he says, are "too muscular" for women renters. Audi was "the sweet spot."

But why only the Audi A4, a compact, four-door sedan, when the German carmaker also manufactures coupes, convertibles, SUVs and wagons, too? "Eighty-five percent of all airport rentals are [what the industry calls] D-class cars," Schneider says. "That's the A4's category so it makes sense to offer renters a premium version of the car type they prefer."

Since its 2013 debut, Silvercar has expanded rapidly in the otherwise-somnambulant car-rental arena. It's at three Texas airports (Dallas/Fort Worth and Dallas Love Field airports and Austin) as well the airports in Denver, Los Angles, Miami, Phoenix and San Francisco. It'll add cars at Fort Lauderdale Airport beginning Friday (May 15) and expands to Chicago/O'Hare on June 15. Prices start at $59 a day although Silvercar has been promoting itself with a raft of clever online and social-media discounts.

Schneider admits his first few waves of customers haven't been "hard-core road warriors," but he makes the same claim for Silvercar as Connors makes for National's Premier Selection. It's about the thrill of a better car --and cutting through the paperwork and drudgery of standard car rentals. In fact, virtually all Silvercar reservations and operations --up to unlocking the car when you arrive--are handled via an app.

"I like to think Silvercar is elite status for all," he says. "We're not focused on the managed traveler so much as the experiential traveler. You never have to worry about what kind of car you're going to get because you know exactly what kind of car you're going to get, a silver Audi A4 --and it's a good car."


This column is Copyright 2015 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2015 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.