By Jeanine Ibrahim
With five flat-screen TVs, an ostrich-textured leather interior, a premium sound system and fiber-optic lighting, the “Ground Force One” limo is equipped with better amenities than most homes. By day, the 42-passenger vehicle carts around corporate types. At night, it transforms into a party on wheels, complete with a stripper pole, laser lights, and a fully-stocked bar.
“It’s a big hit,” says Johnny Meeke, who owns the customized limo as part of his company JMI Limousines, which is based in Portland, Ore. “We gave it the nickname to play off the President’s Air Force One.”
“Ground Force One” is just one of 12 vehicles in Meeke’s fleet. Others include a Cadillac Escalade SUV Limo, a Chrysler 300 Limo -- and the most popular of the bunch, the Zebra Limo. That one comes just as it sounds: complete with an exterior wrapped in black-and-white stripes.
Meeke says having such unique vehicles is just one way he leads his competitors. His knack for remaining memorable and unique also extends online, as he recently chose to launch his company’s newest website at this domain: www.Portland.limo.
The website URL uses the new domain ending ‘dot-limo’ (.limo) instead of a ‘dot-com’ (.com). It’s one of hundreds of new “not-com” domain options now available. Other options range from ‘dot-world’ (.world) to ‘dot-life’ (.life) to ‘dot-wtf (.wtf). These extensions are a growing trend online and gaining fast traction with Millennials.
Meeke's strategy is to promote Portland.limo to a “younger, hipper” audience seeking transportation for party-themed jaunts, such as winery tours, bar hopping parties and nightclub excursions. It’s essentially a digital sub-brand under the bigger umbrella of his company, JMI Limousines.
“People get a kick out of it when I tell them the site is ‘dot-limo,’” he says. “Most don't even realize you can get that [type of domain ending]. They think a site has to be ‘dot-com’ or ‘dot-net.’”
Portland.limo generates leads through its “Book Now” feature, which allows people to submit reservation requests online. Meeke also plans to add deals and specials, including fine dining and lodging, to add further appeal to the Millennial limo rider.
Meeke loved the idea of launching his new website with ‘dot-limo.’ “We always want to be the leader and not the follower,” he says.
From yellow pages to digital pages
Meeke wasn’t always so Internet-savvy when it came to his limo business. Back in 1994 when the company first launched, he primarily advertised his limos in the yellow pages -- as in, those heavy, printed books filled with listings and telephone numbers. The budget for that advertising became so hefty that it was eating up his profits.
With the turn of the century came the growth of the World Wide Web, and Meeke took his business online hoping to reduce advertising costs. His first website was a simple page with the long-winded URL www.jmilimousine.com.
“It said, ‘Welcome to JMI Limousine,’” Meeke recalls. “We kind of fudged it and made it look like we were Vegas-themed, and we had a picture of a limousine. It’s probably in the [Internet] abyss now.”
Years later, Meeke had that site re-built when he met a developer who ended up changing the game for him online. “[He] introduced me to a whole new design of URLs,” Meeke says. “He told me that no one can ever Google "limousine" and find JMI. So we switched to portlandlimos.com.”
The site became more search-engine friendly, and so popular that Meeke says he started getting 150 calls per day. He never imagined during his yellow-page advertising days just how powerful -- and cost-effective -- the Internet would be at driving customers to his business.
Today, he’s opting to keep his older websites alive as part of his strategy to expand web traffic. The ‘dot-com’ site is geared toward executive and older clientele, while the sleeker ‘dot-limo’ site is geared toward Millennials and Portland’s nightlife crowd.
An obvious name for an accidental business
As an entrepreneur, Meeke got his start selling insurance in 1991. He fell into the limo business three years later when a distressed client came into his office. She was complaining about driving around drunk people until 3 a.m. and wanted to cancel the policy on her limo. Meeke, who was just 34 at the time, offered to buy the vehicle from her because he thought it’d be fun to own.
“I wasn't even thinking business.” he said. “I started having fun with it immediately, lent it to my friends and they would bring it back full of dirty, empty beer cans and bottles.”
He soon got fed up and started charging his friends a fee to clean their mess. Meeke then created a pricing structure to rent the limo to others and spread the word by passing out fliers. Soon enough, the limo was booked every weekend, so he bought a second one.
With a limo business now on his hands, Meeke quickly needed a name for it. His insurance company (which he still owns and operates today) was called JMI Insurance, so he picked the easiest and cheapest name he could -- JMI Limousine. The letters in the name stand for “Johnny Meeke Incorporated.”
“The only reason it became JMI Limousine is because I was a real tight-ass and didn't have a lot of money,” he says. “We had these cheap, cheap forms we used for insurance quotes. So I used those same forms to write up a limo quote, but I crossed out ‘insurance’ and wrote ‘limo’ on it.”
He even used the same logo for both businesses. Before he knew it, the limo business started growing, and the name stuck.
Since the beginning, Meeke has worked to push his business – and the industry in his area – forward. That includes putting the state’s first-ever party limo bus into service in 2001, he says. He purchased an old Hertz airport bus for $3,000, then invested an additional $10,000 to transform it into a 12-passenger limo bus. The vehicle became the talk of the town, says Meeke, who even gave an interview to the local paper about it.
“It was basically a limo that you could stand up in. And people couldn't even fathom that vehicle. And it just created a whole new mega trend, party buses,” he said. “I could not keep enough gas in that fast enough.”
More than two decades after accidentally landing in the limo business, Meeke remains an industry leader who’s having as much fun as he did when he purchased his first limo on a whim.
For Valentine’s Day 2016, he’s throwing what he calls the “first-ever speed-dating event inside a limo.” It will take place inside the “Ground Force One.” How the stripper pole may or may not be factor into the event – Meeke is leaving that creativity up to the speed dating participants.
To learn more about this business, check out www.Portland.limo.