A little over a decade ago, if you wanted to experience what a Mercedes Benz felt like on the road (and you obviously couldn’t afford one), you’d either wear your best suit and go to the exclusive showroom for a test drive. Or you’d make exceptionally rich friends who owned one of the German beauties. If you have that craving any time now (and still can’t afford it), you really won’t need either – all it will cost you is five grand to rent the luxury car and it’s yours; for about four hours anyway.
The last few years have not only seen a massive surge in the cab rental business alone, but also an extremely busy and thriving market for luxury car rentals. “Initially we were a little reluctant to enter the market because of the massive investment involved, but now that we have been doing it for over a year, the returns have been excellent,” says Jai Ganesh, who works with NTL Cars Ltd, the car rental giant that handles almost all the major corporate clients in the city. “From a stage where our Mercedes cars (C and E Class) went out only once a week, they are now booked almost every day this month,” he adds exultantly. In fact, getting a luxury car may entail a prior notice period of 24 hours at least, “otherwise you’ll have to settle for the Chevrolets or Toyotas.”
While it is a given that these special order cars are only rented for special occasions, it comes as no surprise that the major business comes from corporate houses. “Corporate clients are our major source of revenue, besides the odd wedding,” explains Hilton Ronald Albert, the managing partner of Opulenze Cars, an exclusive luxury car rental service that operates out of Kolathur. “Weddings have off seasons, but corporate clients always have bosses from overseas, consultants from America or just events where VIPs are called on as guests,” chips in Ganesh, to explain why they stay away from weddings and prefer corporate houses. “They take the cars for weeks at a stretch and the credit line is never abused. Cars may get damaged or dirty after weddings,” he explains.
What this service has effectively done is that most corporate giants have done away with the practice of having their own luxury cars as part of their fleet for the occasional visit of a politician, VVIP or the company’s top brass. “We used to maintain a Contessa and then graduated to a Honda Civic, which would be on standby for visiting VIPs, till last year. But now we have found that it is economically viable to just use a luxury car from the car rental company we use for the few days that we need it,” says Balaji Danasekar, who works in the transport department of a construction company near Porur. Saving on maintenance costs and not having a driver on standby are reasons enough to afford a 10-grand-a-day car, quite easily.
So what happens when there a whole lot of luxury cars are needed for a particular event? “We can provide as many cars as you require,” says Ganesh, “This is because there are only six other rental services that operate luxury cars in Chennai and we all work together to an extent,” he adds. Apparently, when there is an order for a Mercedes C-Class on a day when all their cars are already booked, they still take the booking and lease the same car out from another rental service. For large-scale events, all of them pool their cars together and solicit a single large order to make maximum benefit.
The only reason why more rental operators haven’t plunged into the luxury car rental segment is because of the massive investment involved. “For the first few months it was very difficult to make the EMI payments for the cars,” admits Ronald, for whom this was an entrepreneurial venture, but eventually things evened out. Even for large-scale operators like Parveen Travels, who launched a luxury vehicle hire service called Elite Charters some time back, the first year has been tough. “It has been difficult, but we know that it is a market with solid potential and we are working towards increasing our customer base in this segment,” says Guna Sekar, who heads the division.
So, if you ever get the urge to travel in style or wake up with the desire to brave Chennai’s roads with a Beamer (BMW), all you have to do is call a car rental service - the only hang up is that none of them will let you get behind the wheel, as they are to be driven only by the company’s designated chauffeurs.