Stretch Limos No Longer A Mainstream Reach

Time was when limousines were the almost exclusive purview of the affluent, the powerful and the celebrated – with allowances for the ritualistic: brides, grooms, prom queens and deceased.

“Years ago, limos were mainly for the rich,” says Julie Herring, owner of Clearwater-based Julie’s Limousines and Coachworks Inc. “Now, it’s much more mainstream. They’re affordable.” For the record, that means an industry range of $60-$160 an hour depending on vehicle, amenities and fuel surcharge.

“There is a decided trend toward a younger clientele,” notes Herring, who has owned Julie’s for 19 years. “Those in their 30’s who have landed the right job, are now making real money and going up the ladder. They rent a lot of limousines.”

Bachelor-bachelorette parties and bar-hopping accounts for a lot of that business, adds Herring (with discounts if a wedding booking results). “They’ll go from the Blue Martini (International Plaza) to SoHo and Ybor,” says Herring. “It’s a familiar route.”

The perspective is no different at Tampa’s Premier Limousine. “We’re seeing more and more young professionals, the up-and-comers,” says sales manager Victor Chambers. “Renting a limo is part of doing business. But when it’s for nights out on the town – they like Hummers. And they like being safe. As one customer told me, ‘$400 is a lot cheaper than a $7,000 D.U.I.'”

And they like the cachet.

“For some people, the luxury limo represents a chance to play a role or indulge in a fantasy,” says Tampa psychologist Alan Lewis. “You get a chance to look like you normally don’t. It’s fun.”

Which helps explain the popularity of Hummers, the latest in “exotics.” It’s not just Cadillacs and Lincolns that are being stretched these days, points out Chambers. If you cut it down the middle, add paneling, reinforce the frame and modify the engine, you can also have a Stretch Porsche or a Stretch Lexus.

On the inside, there’s a lot more than a bar and NBA-style leg room. Premier has the largest H2 Hummer in central Florida. It seats 18-20 and has five flat-screen TVs, a DVD/CD surround sound system, sub-woofers galore, mirrored roofing, granite counters, leather upholstery with snakeskin motif, laser strobe and fiber optic mood lighting, private VIP bar and entertainment system, a lighted disco style floor, lava lamps and 5-passenger VIP seating in the rear.

Not to be overlooked, however, is the chauffeur.

“You know, a great stereo is still important, and the vehicle has got to be pretty and clean,” says Mickey Velilla, the owner of St. Petersburg’s Patriot Limousine. “But the most important factor is the chauffeur. They can make the difference. They have to think like a concierge, be flexible and understand etiquette – and act like a host.”

And, chances are, they are driving to a party near you this holiday season.

“The holidays mean real busy, real fast,” says Herring of Julie’s. “We’re talking company parties, and everybody has Christmas parties. And they get earlier each year.”

For Patriot, which is top-heavy in corporate clientele, the holiday season is a reverse of the normal pattern. “Things change drastically,” explains Velilla. “Probably 70% of the business is parties. It took a while after 9/11, but I think people feel good about spending money again.”

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