Carole Mierins of Ottawa has visited Newfoundland several times. This July, she’s bringing a friend who’s visiting the island for the first time, so she decided to fly into Deer Lake and drive across Newfoundland before leaving from St. John’s.
“Then I learned that I couldn’t drop off the car in St. John’s,” she said.
Frustrated in her attempts to do so after calling all the major operators — including Avis, National and Enterprise — Mierins finally called Budget’s central North American booking number to rent a car, finally getting the agreement she needed.
She’s not sure why every agency doesn’t offer the service — as well as unlimited mileage deals common in other provinces — and she suspects the only reason she managed to do it with Budget is because she called a central number instead of the Deer Lake office.
“How is it impacting tourists?” she asked.
Hard to find
That’s where Hospitality Newfoundland and Labrador (HNL) comes in. The tourism association knows visitors often have trouble booking rental vehicles, and is aware of the Deer Lake to St. John’s dropoff problem.
A few years ago, the organization worked with the provincial government to identify where the gaps in service are and what can be done about them.
“What that report really did identify for us is that there is no short-term magic solution that’s going to fix the issue of lack of availability of cars,” said Carol-Ann Gilliard, chief executive officer of HNL.
It’s difficult for most rental agencies to carry larger rental fleets because of the province’s relatively short tourism season, because there isn’t enough activity the rest of the year to justify more vehicles, Gilliard said.
“We work with the car rental agencies in our membership so that we can identify what those common goals are and work toward them,” she said. “And one of our common goals, really, is to expand the summer season so that there is a longer operating season so there’s much more return.”
The organization has also worked to improve communication among the companies as well as with groups such as Destination St. John’s so the rental agencies have a better idea when demand will increase due to, for example, conventions.
“We’ve seen a growth in the inventory over the past couple of years, and we’ve seen a lengthening of the season for when the inventory picks up,” Gilliard said. “I think it’s really going to come down to us working harder and longer on making the season a bit longer so we can have that inventory up where it needs to be.”
Most of the larger rental agencies operating in Newfoundland contacted by The Telegram declined to comment, directing requests to company spokespeople in head offices elsewhere in Canada or in the United States.
Stephen Hanley manages Freshwater Suzuki’s small rental fleet, used primarily for customers of the dealership’s service department, but available to take care of tourists when the larger agencies are booked solid. Part of the problem in co-ordinating dropoffs, he said, is that each location, even of national chains, can be owned by different individuals. Unlimited mileage deals are problematic in a province the size of Newfoundland and Labrador, he said. Freshwater Suzuki doesn’t offer it; their agreements allow 800 kilometres a week.
“You have to be able to write it down,” he said. “And that’s ultimately the reason why rentals here are as fierce as they are. Eventually, they have to go off your lot and be sold. We could put 5,000 cars into a rental fleet and service everyone coming into this province. But eventually, they have to go away, and people don’t want to rent the same car year after year after year until it’s five and six and 10 years old, to write down the costs on them. So you need to have a new vehicle for them every year.”
Derek Thomas, general manager of Practicar Car and Truck Rentals, said he doesn’t think the province has a car-rental problem.
“The problem is with individuals who don’t make reservations. That primarily is the issue as I see it,” he said, adding that people tend not to book rental cars as early as they buy plane tickets. “The problem in Newfoundland is people come to Newfoundland, they book their tickets far, far in advance, and they get here expecting there’s going to be somebody waiting at the bottom of the escalator with a set of car keys for them.”
Thomas said Hospitality Newfoundland and Labrador has done a good job of extending the tourist season, but there’s only so much gorgeous tourism ads can do if the weather doesn’t co-operate — like a cold, wet, foggy day in late June.
“Unfortunately, when you go out on a day like this … as a matter of fact, I just heard two folks at my front counter there say, ‘I’ll never come to Newfoundland again in June, it’s winter here.’ Anecdotally, those are the kinds of things that are happening. If they were here on Tuesday and Wednesday, they’d be singing a different story.”