Hollywood's Limousine Businesses Take Huge Financial Hit as COVID-19 Renders Them Obsolete

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Companies across Los Angeles say they have seen an 80 to 85  percent drop in business in the past six months as events, production and meetings fall off: "This was not on any of our business plans."

In a typical fall, on any given day, the streets of Los Angeles would be bumper to bumper with black SUVs shuttling talent and executives to and from sets, premieres, awards shows, business meetings and airports. But as the coronavirus pandemic rages on, this is far from a typical fall, and limousine companies across the city say that their business has taken an 80 to 85 percent hit in the past six months.

“This was not on any of our business plans. Terrorist attacks, stock crashes, all that stuff, we had a backup for 90 days to 120 days for our business, but not with things like a pandemic,” says KLS Worldwide Chauffeured Services founder Alex Darbahani. On March 2, his company had booked 260 events for the year (of the roughly 500 it does annually); nearly all of those gigs have since been canceled. As a result, KLS has laid off 75 percent of its staff.

“Imagine your company making $2.5 million a month; suddenly, the next day you wake up and your company is making $340,000. That’s a huge hit,” says Darbahani. Missing just one week of Emmys transportation alone — from wardrobe fittings and hair and makeup appointments to the downtown L.A.ceremony and afterparties — is a $400,000 loss. Darbahani usually dispatches a fleet of 98 limos to chauffeur around guests on the night of; this year, only 12 Emmy rides have been booked (a couple for the skeleton crew working at Staples Center and others for people attending at-home viewing parties).

“All of the production, the award shows, all of that, has just come to a grinding halt,” says Limousine Connection director of operations Kristin Hundley. “Ninety percent of that has gone away.” To save the business, Limousine Connection has transitioned to high-end medical work, driving people to dialysis and chemotherapy appointments.

The company also has seen an uptick in riders who are choosing private car services over an Uber or Lyft out of health-safety precautions: “Uber’s telling their drivers to wear masks, but it’s inconsistent,” says Hundley. “There’s nobody that’s policing it, whereas we’re able to police it a lot better.” (Uber did not return a request for comment.) The precautionary measures include temperature checks, masks and gloves for drivers and a full-vehicle sanitization between rides.

But as productions begin to restart in Los Angeles, there is a glimmer of hope. KLS, which counts Netflix and Showtime as two of its largest clients, recently worked on a pair of TV shows and a music video, with more on the horizon. “We see movement right now, slowly,” says Darbahani, who estimates business is now 34 percent of what it was this time last year.

Adds Cheryl Berkman, president-CEO of Music Express limo service, “We have to get back to living. Then people will definitely need a car service.”

This story first appeared in the Sept. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.