Limousine and bus companies across Wichita are booking up, thanks to the opening of Intrust Bank Arena. Most major arena event nights are filling up, often on the day of a concert announcement. Operators wonder if the arena business will start encroaching on their corporate, wedding and prom nights.
"I had no expectations whatsoever," said Doug Watson, who started Watson Luxury Limousine in 2007. "Never did I get the arena on my radar."
But the day Brad Paisley was announced as the arena's opening concert, the calls started rolling in. Now, most operators are booked for every major event, from Taylor Swift to Elton John and Billy Joel and the Dave Matthews Band.
"I really didn't think the arena would go off as well for us as it has," said Alan Smith, owner of SS Limousine. "But people want to go from the warm to the warm this time of year, so business has been great."
It's business that belies the economic downturn, operators say. But whether the complaint is parking or bad winter weather, the limo market has been busy in the arena's first six weeks.
"People see it as a break from the stress of everyday life, the bad economy, a night to enjoy themselves without worrying," said Ted Wallender, owner of Eagle Limousine.
Some of the business is driven by that search for fun, owners said.
"Because of the drinking and driving laws, people don't want to drive afterwards. That's a lot of it," Smith said. "And folks don't want to walk all the way to remote parking."
It's a pricey luxury, at between $200 and $250 a trip. But the business is almost exclusively groups of couples, operators said.
"It just takes the guesswork out of our customers' hands, allows them to depend on someone else to get them where they want to be," said Quentin Shackelford, owner of All Class Limousine.
"If they're partaking of the libations, that's one reason. It's folks from out of town. It's not wanting to fight the parking. It's the door-to-door service."
For the first time in his three years of business, Watson is saying no to prospective business.
"I have to turn down so many people because we book usually within the first few days a concert is announced," he said.
The future is less clear, operators said. When the weather warms, many fear that the arena's new business will conflict with their old business — corporate execs, weddings, proms, anniversaries.
"I wouldn't say that it's hit our other business yet," Shackelford said. "We book stuff until we're full, and we'll turn people away if we can't take care of them.
"But if we get a prom, say, and a concert on the same night, that's a little bit more problematic."
For now, Watson's glad for the extra work in a business that usually only ran four to eight times a month.
"Admittedly, it's a wait-and-see on where this is headed," he said.
"It seems like the arena's doing a bang, bang, bang business right now, headliner after headliner. Will that keep up?"