- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 11, 2007

ATLANTA — Beverly Glovers owns two luxury cars. But when it comes time to hit the road, she would much rather be behind the wheel of a rental.

Besides giving her vehicles a rest, she gets the chance to drive something that she wouldn’t buy or that fits a particular trip, such as the convertible Mustang she drove to Florida on vacation. Or the classy Chrysler 300 she took to Mobile, Ala., for a family reunion.

For the past two years, Mrs. Glover, 53, has gotten a rental from the same agency near her home in Lawrenceville, Ga., about every other week, for both her property-management job and for leisure.

She’s just the kind of casual customer that car-rental agencies are courting as they look to create new markets in neighborhoods while holding onto their traditional strongholds at airports.

It’s a strategy that’s paying off, with a growing number of drivers leaving the family car at home.

According to a recent national survey, a third of drivers over 25 years old — 62 million Americans — say they need an additional or different vehicle from their primary car and are likely to rent in their neighborhood for personal use.

The reasons for the trend are as varied as rental-car customers themselves. Some want a more reliable vehicle for a long trip. Some are trying to avoid repair costs or the wear and tear on the family’s primary vehicle. Some want a more fuel-efficient car. Some consider it a way to take a potential new purchase out for an extended test drive, without the hassle of a salesman. Others are renting to impress — think class reunion.

The growth in rentals has built slowly as air travel has become more complicated and more expensive, especially for a family, said Rudy Maxa, a contributing editor at National Geographic Traveler magazine.

“The only place you can see an empty middle seat is at the Smithsonian on display,” he said. “That has made driving more attractive for more people. Airfares and airline news get so much publicity, we forget that 80 percent of family summer vacations are made by car.”

Though Mr. Maxa didn’t have figures of his own, he said those in the survey conducted by Auto Rental News, a pro-industry trade publication, sound reasonable.

Janet Stevens, manager of travel agency services for AAA, said the agency noticed the trend some five years ago.

“This is really about convenience, giving people what they want,” she said.

Auto Rental News contends that the bulk of the rental growth over the past decade can be traced directly to the neighborhood market, which has gone from $2.5 billion in 1995 to $9.5 billion today. In that time, rentals at airports remained relatively flat.

Folks such as Melvin Kendall, 48, of Lilburn, Ga., and his wife, Carolyn, have done their part to contribute to the neighborhood-market growth. They own a 2003 Hyundai Sonata and a 1998 Pontiac Sunfire, but he rents a car at least once a month for long-distance driving, and he’s been doing so for more than a year.

Some of it is for convenience, he said, but mostly for peace of mind. His 10-year-old Pontiac has logged more than 185,000 miles.

“I drive a car until it falls apart,” he said.

A casual drive through the suburbs shows how rental agencies are making inroads.

For instance, Hertz had 70 suburban locations in 1997; today it has about 1,500 with plans to add more, company spokeswoman Paula Rivera said.

“We noticed an untapped market, people whose cars either were in the shop or people who needed a replacement car or those who were restricted on the number of miles they could put on a lease,” Ms. Rivera said.

Likewise with Enterprise.

“In 1997, we had 3,000 local branches. Today we have over 6,000,” Enterprise Vice President Pat Farrell said. “We’re within 15 miles of 90 percent of the United States population.”

For years, the company’s outlets were near car repair shops. This year, Mr. Farrell said, “we have now just eclipsed $2 billion in annual revenue from leisure business in the neighborhood.”

Enterprise even has a vice president for leisure business development: Steve Short.

“It really comes down to the convenience factor,” Mr. Short said. “Customers want locations close to their home and business.”

Particularly for those special occasions, when people want to give just the right impression.

“In the minds of many Americans, we are what we drive,” said Michael Marsden, a nationally recognized automobile culture specialist.

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