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Wheeled Conference Room Keeps Meetings Moving

October 07, 1986|GREG LUCAS | Times Staff Writer

The light gray GMC motor coach pulls up to a stoplight, the distinctive "Elite Xpress" painted on its side catching the attention of a motorist in the next lane.

Inside the 26-foot coach, eight executives sit around a conference table, sipping coffee, and talking--letting the driver worry about traffic.

The motorist in the other lane is intrigued. He honks his horn, waves his arm for attention, shouts for a brochure. Judy Gilman, the nattily dressed hostess inside the motor coach, comes to the window, opens the blinds, and looks out.

Then she smiles.

Gilman is not just the hostess on what she calls the "Conference Coach"--she also owns it, and people who ask for brochures are potential customers.

Gilman, who established Elite Express in February, 1985, with funds she obtained by mortgaging her Anaheim Hills home, said the firm currently grosses between $1,000 and $2,000 a week.

While the Anaheim-based company also operates two conventional limousines--one stretched Lincoln and an older Cadillac--the success of Gilman's business depends on the Conference Coach.

The coach--a motor home that she purchased for $30,000 and customized for an additional $45,000--is laid out as a mobil conference room. And it puts Gilman's limo business in a class by itself.

"We don't really compete for the same market," said Richard Bazzy, owner of the Huntington Beach-based American Aristocrat Limousine Service. "Judy is definitely targeting on the corporate people."

Coach Holds 12

That she is--but not to the exclusion of any other customer willing to pay the $80 an hour (plus 20% gratuity) it takes to rent the Conference Coach. The $80 Gilman charges is double the cost of renting her stretch limo by the hour. But the coach holds 12 people--twice the number of people a limo can accommodate.

Rewired, refurbished and rearranged, the Conference Coach is equally suited, Gilman said, to transporting high school students to a prom, hauling a photographer and his equipment to a location shot, wheeling bachelor or bachelor girl party-goers from club to club or simply driving a dozen executives to the airport or an important luncheon.

"(Judy's motor home) is the best way I've found to look at property," said Toby Smith, a senior vice president with Pacific Savings Bank Realty Corp. in Costa Mesa.

Smith used the coach--in tandem with a rented helicopter--to conduct a group of Pennsylvania investors on a tour of PSB Realty interests in Southern California.

"Our clients found (the coach) very comfortable," Smith said, "and gave us high compliments on it."

For the holiday season, Gilman is even offering the coach for shopping trips to Los Angeles at $40 per person (lunch included) so that Orange County shoppers can enjoy "hassle-free" shopping.

Dana Velsor, the only other full-time employee in Gilman's business, said that every day Gilman thinks up new ideas like the shopping spree to expand the business.

"Judy makes life exciting," Velsor said. "She'll run down the street and catch people to ask what kind of car they're driving. Or, if they have money, she'll ask if they would like to look at the motor home."

Although Gilman, a divorced mother of three, said she has always wanted to operate her own business, she worked as a nurse for 27 years and never rode in a limousine until her 40th birthday, four years ago.

While studying at Cal State Long Beach for an advanced degree in nursing, she wrote a paper titled "Could I Make More Money as an Alpha Beta Checker?" The answer was yes and she decided she was "burned out" on nursing.

So, in 1985, she took out a $90,000 mortgage on her house, bought the 1978 GMC motor coach and gutted the interior.

After 10 months, a string of contractors, and $45,000 worth of improvements, the Conference Coach was ready. "We moved everything but the bathroom," she said.

The kitchen was moved from the center to the rear of the motor home. A central table was set up, with two plush couches--each capable of seating six people--on either side. A television, videocassette recorder and stereo system were added. Brushed chrome fixtures, recessed lighting and an electronic bar were installed.

Then it was time for a few test runs.

Doors Popped Open

On the first trip, Gilman said, "we went out with touch latches on all the cabinets so as soon as we went over a bump, all the doors would open."

But the bugs were ironed out, and gradually Gilman's business has grown. She took out a second trust deed on her home to give her company some working capital and hired three drivers who work for her as well as several other limousine companies.

Often Gilman serves as the hostess in the Conference Coach, serving the complimentary breakfast, lunch or non-alcoholic beverages included in the hourly rental fee.

One of her most expensive overhead costs is insurance--which ranges between $7,000 and $8,000 per limousine per year. She got a good deal on the Conference Coach, she said; it costs only "a couple thousand" more than her limousines to insure.

Using the two limousines--$40 an hour for the Lincoln and $30 an hour for the Cadillac--to enhance her profits, she says the Conference Coach is still the core of her business.

"I think the idea is unique," she said. "It's cost-effective. It's a way to continue business while being driven."

She said she is starting to reach the minimum of three coach rentals per week needed to meet overhead and make a modest profit and now is thinking of finding an investor to help her add another motor home to her stable.

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