Rental car rubber hits the road

Tourism Perennial car shortage occurs in two event-crammed weeks

James McLeod jmcleod@thetelegram.com
Published on July 17, 2010
Empty rental car spaces are seen at St. Johns International Airport Thursday afternoon. Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

The city is quickly closing in on crunch time for rental cars, but it likely won't be as bad as last year.

While the peak summer season may be a pain for some tourists, however, it's a boon for others.

The city is quickly closing in on crunch time for rental cars, but it likely won't be as bad as last year.

While the peak summer season may be a pain for some tourists, however, it's a boon for others.

"There's two weeks in the car rental business in St. John's - the last week in July and the first week in August - where even if everyone had 1,000 cars each, there wouldn't be enough," said Carol Ricketts, manager of National Car Rental in St. John's.

The provincial government has identified car rental as one of the weak links in the tourism industry.

In a report published in June, the government recommends more collaboration between rental car companies and working together to make things better for tourists.

But a lot of the biggest complaints - lack of unlimited mileage plans, expensive rates to drop off a car in Deer Lake - are just facts of life.

Because of the province's vast geography, some of those services are just untenable, Ricketts said.

"One of the things that we get hit on, is that we don't have unlimited mileage. Well, if this province was the size of P.E.I., I'd give it all day long," she said. "But someone can rent a car in St. John's and in a week, drive from here to St. Anthony, back down to Port Aux Basques and then back to St. John's. It's not realistic to give unlimited mileage."

Similarly, a lot of people complain they can't fly into St. John's, rent a car, travel across the island and drop it off in Deer Lake.

Ricketts said because of the distance, rental car companies have to treat the two locations as distinct, separate fleets of cars.

Ricketts said a lot of the crunch time could be alleviated if convention organizers would avoid the peak of tourist season.

"The challenge also is to the rest of the tourist industry, is not to pack everything into July and August," she said. "They've pushed the NOIA conference ahead a week for 2011, and I was like, 'This conference you can have in April.' It doesn't rely on good weather and you're sitting in a conference hall all day."

One group who benefits from a lack of rental cars is taxi drivers, said Gary Gushue, airport manager for City Wide Taxi.

He said last summer he had a steady stream of people taking cabs to rental car lots on Topsail Road and Kenmount Road, because there were no vehicles left at the airport.

"A friend of mine had a car lot, and I suppose I put a couple hundred jobs his way last summer," Gushue said. "Within a half-hour span here, I'd send 10 or 15 people to Topsail Road, out to my buddy."

Last summer was a lot worse, Gushue said, because Hertz was out of the picture after owner Tom Woodford Ltd. went bankrupt. Hertz is back in business this year.

It might get worse, but for right now, Gushue said everything seems to be OK.

"There's nobody looking for rental cars - they must have enough at the airport," he said. "This summer, I mean, (my friend) was phoning me yesterday saying 'Are you still at the airport b'y? I need some jobs on the go this summer.'"

jmcleod@thetelegram.com