By Adam Goldstein, Business Spotlight, Photos by Timothy Seibert
Simon Chen came face-to-face with a crisis soon after he arrived in Longmont eight years ago.
Chen, the owner of the Longmont Shuttle transport company, landed in Colorado shortly before historic floods ravaged the state in 2013. Chen was in the midst of carving out a life in a new state and a new country; freshly arrived from his native Australia, he was working on setting down roots and building a business when the floods struck.
For Chen, there was no question about the best way to respond. He took a break from work and answered the call to volunteer to help rebuild Longmont’s damaged infrastructure and get his newly adopted community back on its feet.
Chen saw a similarly stark choice when a much more far-reaching crisis arrived in March of this year, when the COVID pandemic upended the status quo. Like businesses across the globe, Longmont Shuttle suddenly faced profound and existential challenges. But Chen was determined to meet those challenges head-on.
“I personally think that there are two types of people in a crisis; there are those who run toward it and those who run away from it,” Chen said. “We know we fill a need, and I know it’s critical for our company to do the right thing through this pandemic.”
For Chen and the rest of staff at Longmont Shuttle, doing the right thing meant expanding their role beyond what had been a straightforward transport service designed to get people to Denver International Airport. It meant meeting the demands of the moment, even as the demand for air travel dried up seemingly overnight and directly threatened the company’s business model.
Instead of laying off employees, cutting costs and battening the hatches, Chen looked for ways to redirect the company’s res. Namely, he searched for ways that the company’s five employees and seven-vehicle fleet that includes a Mercedes Sprinter van could meet the demands of the moment.
The utmost in safety precautions are in place so that riders and drivers are safe when using the shuttles.
“I decided that we as a family-owned Longmont-based company, we had to help as much as we could,” Chen said. “We found a large supply of toilet paper that we started delivering until it ran out. We offered free grocery deliveries or pickups for people. We picked up prescriptions, we took people to medical appointments. We just asked our customers to tip their drivers. We kept running the shuttle, and we ran it at a loss every day.
“I didn’t care. I wanted to do the right thing by the community,” Chen said.
Accommodating the needs of riders has been core part of Chen’s business philosophy since he launched Longmont Shuttle as a subset of his limousine company Eight Black Transport four years ago. The service has always been about offering riders every accommodation possible for service to Denver International Airport. Before the COVID crisis, that included in-vehicle features like high-speed phone charging cables, USB charging ports and onboard network WiFi systems. It meant offering customers access to vehicle service records, and equipping every vehicle in the company’s Mercedes fleet with Nokkian or Blizzak winter tires in the snowy months.
Chen noted that all of these steps were crucial in standing out in a unique market. When the French-owned conglomerate Super Shuttle services pulled out of the Longmont market four years ago, Longmont Shuttle was one of two airport lines to eventually fill in the vacuum. Chen’s company started to compete with Boulder-based Green Ride in a relatively modest market.
“The shuttle market is very competitive. We were much more focused on customer service. We had Mercedes vehicles, WiFi, charging links. We trained our drivers to use defibrillators and trained them in emergency medical response. That was part of my commitment to safety. We kept growing,” Chen recalled. “Longmont is a weird market – we had two shuttle companies supporting 100,000 people.”
That formula changed suddenly and dramatically with the onset of the COVID crisis. Green Ride shut down soon after the pandemic hit, and Chen and the Longmont Shuttle staff faced a new set of demands. Namely, the fleet now had to meet a new set of safety standards designed for a pandemic, and drivers had to reset their approach to interacting with passengers.
As the only operating airport shuttle service in Longmont, Chen suddenly faced a new set of challenges, but he insisted on meeting them with the same care and attention to detail he’d always brought to his business.
“We’ve taken safety critically seriously. We’ve put sneeze screens in all the vehicles; we use a commercial sanitization product; drivers wear masks; their temperatures are taken; we wipe down vehicles regularly,” Chen said. “We have an ample amount of personal protective equipment (PPE), and we rely on local Longmont companies for our supply. I’ve a big believer in using local vendors; it’s really important for us.”
All of these steps have made a difference for those passengers who still need to travel by air, Chen says. Though he doesn’t see business travel returning to its pre-COVID levels until 2021, Chen notes that people in Longmont still need to get to the airport. Residential pick-up or drop-off is $45 for any address in Longmont, and the company is still running shuttles to and from DIA from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. throughout the week. Chen notes that over the past three months, hundreds have taken advantage of the service.
Chen does everything possible to accommodate riders’ needs.
What’s more, the company’s commitment to customer service has remained intact through the worst stretches of the crisis. The company has an active social media presence, and regularly posts updates and testimonials from customers on its Facebook feed. Chen recently hosted a Zoom session with more than 40 customers that offered a straightforward chance to chat and catch up.
It’s a personalized touch that Chen says helps the company stand out in the era of ride sharing and anonymous Uber rides.
“Our customers want the guarantee of the shuttle being at their house at a specific time. Our pricing is competitive, our vehicles are safe. We have a reputation,” Chen said. “It makes for more secure experience.”
More importantly, the company prides itself on its community roots, a commitment that hasn’t dimmed in the darkest moments of the pandemic, and will persist long after its resolution.
“Our job is to continue to be there for the Longmont community, the place where I live and where my kids go to school,” he said. “Longmont has a great spirit, and this company is in it for the long haul.”