Friday, August 31, 2012

Organizing a Group Drive

Road Trippin’-Organizing a Club Drive
by Steve McCarthy
Author of Road Trippin’- A Guide to Absolutely the Best West Coast Road Trips, Ever!

It’s September, kiddies (if you are so blessed) are in school and you’re starting to think about which bit on the Auld Crate you’re going to dive into during the Winter Months. If you have a club or just a group of Auld Car Folks that like to Hit the Road in the spring, this is also when you need to start planning said trip.
Really? Now? What, you all were just going to meet up and drive somewhere? Well, maybe not so  right. Somebody has to do some kind of planning. Where are you headed? North? South? The other two directions? Mountains? Deserts? Where are you gonna eat? Is this an overnighter? Where ya gonna stay? How about gas? Is there anything cool to see on the way? If you’re on your own, you can just let the road lead where you feel like. If there’s others driving along, Follow the Leader just isn’t that practicable. Like I said, some kind of planning has to be done.
Now I don’t know about you, but an obsessively pre-planned, micro managed tours of the “If This is Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium” ilk are not for me. We’ll leave such compulsiveness to German car owners! It’s really just not practical to expect everyone to drive along in a caravan. Let’s face it, there’s a wide variety of comfort levels when driving challenging twisty back roads. (We are talking about back roads, right? ‘Cause if you think a Road Trip in an Auld Crate is done on the Dreaded Interstate, you are reading the wrong stuff. Stick with Westways.) It’s best to let people go at their own pace. Let the hard chargers go and the more leisurely folk do their thing. I’ve been on both kinds and believe me, the caravan is a lot less fun. There’s too much compromising that has to be done to make every one happy.

Still, back to the issue of planning. Even if you want a low key event, there are a number of other reasons why it’s a good idea to do some planning. Obviously, charting out a route in advance means that everyone knows where you’re all going. This is especially good considering that our cars have at times, shall we say, inconsistent reliability. If someone doesn’t show at a pre-planned stop, you can send out the search dogs. Also, having planned spots to eat or gas up, allows people a chance the check in with one another, stand around and stretch and generally socialize. More importantly, if you’re eating together, restaurants really appreciate a heads up if a group is invading. Every eatery I’ve used has been more than happy to accommodate your group, they want the business, but for them to serve you with anything approaching efficiency, they may need to lay on some extra staff or cook a few extra slabs of ribs. Same is true of motels. I’ll cover food and sleep stops in a bit more detail later.
So, how then do you put all this together and not feel like a tour director trying to herd cats? After all, I’m betting you want to enjoy yourself too! Here’s what I’ve found works after planning group trips over the past five years:

1) KISS! Keep It Simple Stupid! Presumably, every one going along is a reasonably sentient adult. Don’t try to lead them by the hand, and let them know you have no intention of doing so. Make everyone responsible for their own expenses. Sure, you’re happy to set up the motel and restaurants, but do so so you’re not on the hook financially!

2) Route Planing: I use Google Maps and a well detailed map book of the area we’re headed to. Google Maps is excellent, but it doesn’t always alert you to seasonally closed roads or unpaved byways. Three hundred miles in a day of backroads is a lot! Keep each day at about that distance or less, and people will be tired but happy at the end of the day. Use as little freeway/Interstate as possible. Here in the LA area, some short hop on the freeway is inevitable. Same is true of heavily populated areas. It’s just not much fun to cruise in stop and go traffic or through residential neighborhoods, now is it? Decide on a general area you want to explore. Mountain roads are great but sometimes the climbs can tax ancient “cooling” systems. Desert roads tend to be long and straight. Rolling hills are the best. What roads you pick depends on where you live. Here in SoCal, we have it all. Lucky us!
Now if you’ve never used Google Maps, here’s some tips: Pick your start point (a good breakfast place is ideal, people can get a good load of pancakes in them for the day’s fun and there’s a decent potty) and pick your lunch stop, then either your overnight stop or re-enter your start point. Google will of course send you the shortest route. This is where the map book comes in handy. Find the roads that are squiggly lines. On the Google map, when you zoom in, you’ll see them there too. Click on the blue route line and drag it to the road you want. You’ll probably have to do this in several places to get the route right. Each time, Google will reset the directions and the distances for you. Practice a bit until you understand how it works, then print out the results. Listen, if even this Neo-Luddite Scribe can do this, so can you.
Another great feature of Google Maps is that of you zoom in close enough, you can find where the gas stations are. There are even sites that will tell you current gas prices! I try to plan a route that has gas at  100-150 mile intervals. Sure, you can go further, but…

3) Restaurants: For the love of all that is good, please stay away from the usual fast food joints. Yeah, they are convenient, but it’s a whole lot more fun to eat at some family run joint. The food is better, the people are always happy to see you, and you get to support real people. It’s a good idea to get some kind of local knowledge about a place. The obvious best bet is to eat there yourself well before the trip. If that’s not possible, there are several websites that rate places. Read the reviews. Remember, there is always someone with an axe to grind. If there is only one super negative comment and a hoard of good reviews, you can probably discount the bad one. About a month before your drive, call the place and talk to the owner/manager. Explain what you’re planning. In all probability, you will not be arriving en masse, so make it clear that you don’t necessarily need to sit together and that everyone is responsible for their own bills. What I’ve found is that in a group of, say, twenty cars, people will arrive in maybe three waves, more or less. They will overlap. Let the manager know this, and let them plan as they see fit. This is important: Make sure everyone in the group understands that they pay their own bills! You might want to remind people to tip heavily as a thank you.

4) Motels: This one can be tricky. The groups I plan for tend to prefer the slightly funky kind of place, not the luxury five star. It kind of depends on the resources of your particular bunch. Group drives like the California Mille charge entrants some $5000 and set up luxury meals and hotels. The rest of us would rather spend that money on a new set of Webers or a sway bar. Again, either use a place you’ve stayed in, or rely on reviews. Please understand that negative reviews that say the place wasn’t the Ritz don’t count. OK, maybe the towels are a bit thin, maybe finding extra pillows was hard to do, or the ice machine is noisy. Big Deal! Look, if the place is clean, rodent and roach free, has a working AC/Heater and basic cable, you’ll survive. Besides, what are you doing in your room? Why aren’t you outside bench racing with the group?

Now setting up the hotel is obviously an important step. At least two months in advance, call them and set things up. Explain that your group will be making their own financial arrangements, but that you’d like to set up a group rate. Ask them to set aside maybe ten rooms (this is usually the minimum to get any kind of a deal) under the group name. If more register, the motel will normally accommodate them at the same rate. Make sure of this before hand!  Ask what kind of rate you can get. They probably have a website so you can check what their normal rates are. Typically, the +/- $60/night is the ball park you’re looking for. If possible, do your drive on at least one week night and you’ll get a better deal, and the motel is more willing to work with you. Peak tourist season is not going to get you much of a deal.
When you make the deal, reserve your room right away. That shows good faith on your part.  Do not, ever reserve all the rooms on your credit card! If the motel insists, find another place! Let everyone in the group know what the arrangements are and what group name you’re using. Make sure they understand that they are paying for their own digs, and that they need to reserve as soon as possible. Once the  block of rooms is taken, the motel is under no obligation to hold more, so some may have to stay elsewhere. That’s their problem (remember our odd assumption is that we’re dealing with adults?).
It’s a good idea to check in with the motel on a regular basis to monitor how many rooms are reserved and then prod the group to get going. There are always those who wait for the last minute, but again, that’s their problem.

5) Liability: This is an ugly term, and not always understood. We like to think that our friends would never sue us. We’d like to think that people will step up and take responsibility for their own actions. We also know that this isn’t always the way of things. Can you, as the organizer protect yourself? That’s debatable. You can get sued for anything. Doesn’t mean you’ll lose, but it can cost you. Can you mitigate this? Does a liability waiver really mean anything? We’ve all heard both sides of that one. To that end I talked with:
Mo Khanzada, J.D.
Follow him on twitter @mokhanzada
Read my blog

I’ll paraphrase what he told me. First, It must make it plain the neither he not I, in anyway are  private injury lawyers. Mo is currently studying for the California Bar but neither of us is licensed to practice law in California, or anywhere else. This should not be taken as legal advice. Having said that as a disclaimer, I’ll have to say his ideas make sense. If you are truly concerned, you should get definitive advice from an attorney in your area who specializes in personal injury cases. There are also a number of websites that can give you a prefab waiver. I'd make sure to modify it specifically to fit your particular activity.
As I understand it (and please remember the above disclaimers), In order for someone to be liable for in a lawsuit, they must be either be directly or indirectly (vicariously) liable. This is because liability can be imposed, even though another person (the organizer), has not done anything to aid or encourage and even done everything possible to prevent the act. Vicarious liability is based on a special relationship between the person committing the act and the person to whom the activity is ultimately associated with, here the organizer. Vicarious liability can be imposed in the employer/employee relationship, independent contractor relationship, partnerships (for profit) and joint ventures, automobile owners for drivers situations, bailor/bailee relationships, parent child relationships and on tavernkeepers. In short, if you have any kind of business relationship with the participants of your drive, you could be on the hook. This is a major reason I do not charge money to participate in the drives I organize. They are not “joint ventures” and as such, liability is far more limited.
The next area is liability waivers. We all hate to burden ourselves with such legal mumbo jumbo, BUT that same LMJ can save you as the organizer a lot of grief. I haven’t used them in the past, but I will from now one. It’s sad, but we all need the CYA!
Generally, waivers, in order to to be legally effective, need to include assumption of the risk language. Assumption of the risk is a legal principle in tort law that provides a defense to negligence based torts such as auto collisions. The legal concept behind Assumption of the Risk holds that a plaintiff may be denied any recovery if she/he assumed the risk of any damage caused by plaintiffs act as long as 1) the plaintiff knew of the risk and and 2) voluntarily proceeded in the face of the risk. This may be accomplished through an express agreement such as a liability waiver. On of the key phrases that I learned as a teacher taking kids on filed trips is to start the waiver with the phrase “I request that join…” This simple phrase puts far more burden on the participant, because they are ASKING to join in the fun. It therefore becomes a conscious decision on their part to go on the drive and assume the associated risks.
If the waiver is drafted correctly, it: 1) describes the activity, 2) states that signer has full understanding of the nature of the document, 3) signer knows of the specified risks, 4) signer voluntarily chooses to assume the risk and 5) agrees not to hold the organizer liable for the consequences of his or her participation in the described activity, among other things) an event participant will unsuccessfully maintain an action against the organizer of the event if they are even able to overcome the bar of vicarious liability. (discussed above) In the organizer's case, it would be advisable to obtain liability waivers that include assumption of the risk elements noted above to shield from possible liability. It is essential that passengers as well as drivers sign the waiver.
This should take care of participants pursuing action against you, but what if a participant hits (or is hit by) a “civilian”, a non-participant? This is an area where much more care must be taken. The best course with regards to 3rd parties is to avoid money, keep it tight with regards to procedure of the trip so as not to engage liability and to have clear rules disclaiming liability in the waiver agreement (discussed above) and require the event participants to have insurance. It would be a good idea to make them present their driver’s license and proof of insurance when they sign the waiver. It would be even better to ask for a copy of the insurance card in advance.
If liability does occur, the court will probably first look to see if there was a special relationship between the organizer and the participant (described above) that might otherwise invoke vicarious liability. If a special relationship is found, the court will look for negligent behavior   - Did  that organizer have a duty? Was that duty was breached? Was there causation that led to overall damages?
What it comes down to is at least making sure that the drivers in the group understand their responsibilities. If they have a crash, they take care of it. Have a driver’s meeting before hand and remind them of their responsibility to keep it safe, to drive within their abilities and the road conditions. To obey the law. For more on this, I cover the Rules of Engagement  in my book, Road Trippin’. You can get a copy from Autobooks. Again, huge thanks to Mo for his thoughts on this issue.
Again, Mo and I must stress that neither of us in a PI attorney and that this is a mere review of the law that Mo has learned in the last 4 years of law school and studying for the California bar exam and specifically researching this issue. As a result, this should not be taken as legal advice. WHEW! What a lot of heavy duty verbiage. Still, it's important stuff.
This is also why I don’t have any interest in organizing a drive for more than about twenty cars. At that number, you’re going to know everyone. You have a chance to meet and greet everyone. So does everyone else. The last run of the Late Lamented Iron Bottom had over 100 cars. What happens is people break into cliques. There is less interaction, less fun and more stress and more of a possibility of idiocy. It’s what ended the Iron Bottom. A clique of wanna be open road racers invaded and created nothing but problems, driving at speeds of 130 mph+, passing over the double yellow line on mountain roads, and even taking out some fencing and not stopping. One resident found out who we were and where we were staying and came after the disorganizers. It wasn’t pretty. Theye shut it down after that, a victim of their own success.

Now I don’t want to scare anyone away from putting on a Drive with that last bit.  It really is a lot of fun. Really! I mean what’s not to love? Exploring twisty back roads and great scenery in an Auld Crate, wind in the face, smell of wild flowers and leaking oil in your nose, unknown eateries, funky motels, and most of all, like minded good friends to share it with. How can you go wrong?