Transportation & Logistics

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Rental Car Shortages Are an Effective (But Annoying) Indicator of Recovery

10 Apr, 2021

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

Hand sanitizer and toilet paper shortages are so 2020. The new hot commodity is rental cars.

“It’s getting really hard to rent a car,” notes travel blog, The Points Guy.

Unlike fall 2017 (when hurricanes in Texas and Florida brought flooding that destroyed many consumers’ cars, causing those vehicle owners to seek out rentals and contributing to regional unavailability of rentals), the current shortfall is nationwide and has multiple causes. All those factors, say industry experts, have created a perfect storm of confusion in the travel market.

“To start, many rental car companies fell on hard financial times shortly after the pandemic started,” noted TPG. “This caused these companies to quickly sell large portions of their fleet and cancel upcoming orders.”

Some problems were more serious than simple downsizing. Frommer’s notes that just prior to Memorial Day of last year, a bankruptcy filing by Advantage Rent A Car reduced its U.S. outlets from 40 to about eight. Hertz filed for bankruptcy protection as well, requiring the company to offload about 200,000 vehicles. TPG also notes that Silvercar — a rental car company owned by Audi — completely shuttered airport operations.

According to CNN Business, the industry sold off more than a half a million cars in all, about a third of their combined fleets, just to generate cash they needed to survive. Following a year of deep losses, rental car companies have been unable to rebuild their fleets, especially with auto plants being hit by a shortage of the computer chips needed to build cars. As a result, this spring's rebound in spring break travelers has led to a severe shortage of rental cars, particularly in vacation hotspots, resulting in sky-high prices for vacationers.

Other contributory factors included the fact that in the pandemic, many individuals who needed to travel for either business or family functions were wary of using any kind of mass transit (air, bus or rail), opting instead to rent cars, particularly if a larger vehicle was needed. Pickup trucks and SUVs were also in demand, with many individuals working on home improvement projects.

At the same time, vehicle owners who weren’t commuting to work, or whose jobs had been eliminated by the pandemic were putting off doing maintenance and upkeep work to their existing vehicles. As the country began to reopen, the demand increased for rental vehicles (generally kept up better than an individual would).

And all that has created a perfect storm. Now, as travelers again take to the skies and the roads, rental car companies are being caught flat-footed.

Forbes calls the problem “a car rental apocalypse” and notes that one of the upshots has been an almost stratospheric rise in rates for any cars that are available.

“Welcome to 2021, when a last-minute car rental might cost you $700 a day for a lowly SUV,” the article notes.

Beyond this problem, many travelers are showing up at airports, only to find the cars they rented, and for which they have a confirmation, are not available.

Event owners, particularly those I hot tourism markets should be ready to let participants know about potential shortages in advance, and should be ready to suggest some alternatives, if possible, including hotel, city or airport shuttles, rideshares in the area and charter bus companies for teams traveling together. The local sports commission will likely be dialed in as far as whether there are rental car shortages in that market, and can also suggest strategies.

If you as an event organizer have set up any relationship with a transportation company for the tournament, be sure to note this and to provide all contact information, meeting points and other essential data. If the transit company has specific requirements (capacity limitations, mask requirements, etc.), be sure to note this as well.

The Points Guy additionally offers some suggestions, and these can be passed along to tournament travelers – well in advance of the event:

Book rentals as far in advance as possible. This is essential for two reasons: First, it can help ensure you have a car, and second, it can establish that you don’t have to pay too much for it.

Consider making two reservations. Getting two (refundable) reservations from two different companies can be a great safeguard, particularly in a tourist destination where cars are likely to be at a premium. (Just make sure to cancel the other reservation if you decide to do this and not book a pre-paid rental).

Use a site or app dedicated to helping you find the best rental rate. There are several of these on the market.

Remind tournament attendees to use any loyalty programs they may have with car rental companies.  These can help skip the lines at the counter and move right to their car.

If there's a chance cars won't be available, be prepared. Provide all those registered with information on alternate travel, including shuttles, rideshares and other services. If you decide to rent a shuttle or bus to ferry athletes around, this article in SDM provides some excellent pointers.

The fact that business is trending up again is great news for the industry; however, with proper planning, it’s likely that attendees can be aware of – and be less affected by – shortages and exigencies that might otherwise cause problems.

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