Scooter Wars
Roatan scooter businesses multiply from two to 10 in two years

July 1st, 2005
by Thomas Tomczyk

[private] “Imitation is the ultimate form of flattery,” or so they say. Feeling most flattered on the island should be Captain Van (AKA Nathan Zane Van Meter) who in 1997 had an idea to open the first moped and scooter rental shop in West End. He started his business with 10 used beach cruiser bicycles, a couple of Chinese bicycles and seven mopeds.

He survived Hurricane Mitch, occasional competition and, until a year-an-a-half ago, had a monopoly on scooter rentals on Roatan. Then the “flattery” began. And now there are at least 14 businesses and individuals renting anywhere between two and 32 scooters to anyone with a couple dozen bucks… for 24 hours at least.

Four Four Norwegian Sea Cruise passengers get ready for a scooter ride around Roatan.

Four Four Norwegian Sea Cruise passengers get ready for a scooter ride around Roatan.

Heather and Steven Scott, both 26, from Pennsylvania, came to Roatan on the Norwegian Sea cruise ship on June 14. On their eight hour stopover that began at noon they decided to visit French Harbour and then drive back to do some snorkeling in West Bay. They got as far as Dixon Cove where Steven Scott swerved off the road to avoid an oncoming taxi and crashed the scooter. He stood with a bleeding foot on the side of a road deciding what to do next.

The couple didn’t remember from whom they rented their 125cc Yumbo scooter and didn’t have any paperwork. The one thing they remember was the rental price – $60. “The price is a little steep. In Italy we paid $25 and on Canary Island $40,” said Heather Scotch.

Riding a scooter can be a dangerous affair. Most tourists are dressed for the beach, sporting flip flops and bikinis, rather then protective clothes for a long drive on a busy road. Honduran law requires a scooter driver to wear a helmet, but doesn’t specify what type of helmet. Some helmets given to scooter renters are not motorcycle quality and, especially at the cruise ship dock, most visitors decline to take helmets with them. This and the condition of quickly aging, sometime badly maintained scooter rental fleets provides the potential for a scooter disaster. It’s an accident waiting to happen. The only question is when.

One…

Captain Van, AKA Nathan Zane Van Meter, was the original inventor of the scooter rental idea on Roatan. In 1997 he began renting scooters, mopeds and motorcycles under a mango tree in West End and had to fend off competition with skill and tack for years. “I’ve always felt that to make a success of any business venture…..find what everyone else is doing, and then don’t do it. There were plenty of restaurants, bars, dive shops, churches, but no one was doing the obvious…renting two wheels,” said Van Meter, original owner of Captain Van’s.

He eventually decided to go back to the US and in August 2004 sold “Captain Van’s” to Murray Russ, a sales manager for major Canadian firm.
Looking for the island life and to run a business involving customer relations Russ, 42, left his lucrative management job at and moved from the Canada prairie to sunny Roatan.

With a one year of college and numerous management courses, Russ began managing a chain of 16 stores at the age of 19. Now it’s back to the basics for him: three employees, 15 scooters, 5 motorcycles and 10 mountain bikes. Still, Russ is planning on adding another location before the end of the year.

“I didn’t want to be a part of that chaos,” said Russ about his decision to stay out of the cruise ship dock. He decided to focus of image, customer service and marketing instead. He built a sophisticated, catchy website, developed a recognizable logo and built an air-conditioned office. No more relying on the shade of the mango tree.

Even though several newcomers to the scooter business are talking about forming an association, not everyone sees its advantage. “I don’t believe it is in my best interest to be a part of an association. I don’t believe in controlling prices,” said Russ.

On April 28, Russ launched a “one dollar an hour scooter rental” special, based on a 24 hour rental. “I only reacted to competition prices.” Russ’ promotion reverberated throughout the scooter rental community with several of them lowering their prices to $24, or less.

Russ keeps a close watch over community boards, CruiseCritic.com in particular, discussing cruise ship experiences. “They comment all the time about high pressure sales tactics of scooter rentals at the [Roatan] dock,” said Russ. . “Most of them will just say ‘Here’s the bike, here are the keys. See you.'”

Looking at the example of Cozumel and Cayman Islands, Russ sees scooter participation in Roatan traffic changing dramatically. “In a year-and-a-half, cars will dominate the road,” says Russ. “Only strong, confident riders will decide to rent scooters.”

Murray Russ, owner of Captain Vans, in front of his West End scooter shop.

Murray Russ, owner of Captain Vans, in front of his West End scooter shop.

Two…

Blake Cooper, 20, is the youngest scooter entrepreneur and owner of “Roatan Scooter Rental.” With financial help and an idea from his father, a dentist living in the US, Cooper was the first one to go directly to the cruise ship docks to offer scooter rentals.

Cooper begun with seven 70cc scooters and now has 20 125cc Yumbas at his two locations in West End and at the Cruise Ship dock. “Work at the cruise ship dock is almost like hustling,” said Cooper who adjusts his fees depending on location: from $30 to $45.

“A guy with a Harley Davidson tee-shirt, or a tattoo is our perfect customer,” said Cooper. “They can drive anything and always pay full price,” said Blake who often manages the sales at the cruise ship dock. “As long the cruise ships will be coming there will be business to be made.”

And then there were three…

“At $24 you’re breaking even… especially if you have Japanese scooters,” said Paul Jeffries, 35, from Oak Ridge, owner of “Jeffries Scooter Rental.” He rents his scooters for $40, a price tag that includes 16% tourist tax, 4% credit card charge and around $5 in free gasoline.

Jeffries, energetic and jovial, started his Coxen Hole rental business with cars and but then noticed an opportunity to rent scooters as well. “Not many people have much vision, but they follow what someone else will do. I didn’t feel fair if I went Captain Van’s his market” said Jeffries. In April 2004 he bought five, then another five scooters and went into business. “[Initially] I was planning going big, buying 20 scooters, but if I did I wouldn’t be here telling happy stories,” said Jeffries.

14 months later, four of the scooter rental businesses are allowed within the gates of Roatan Cruise ship dock. There are no monthly fees and according to Jeffries the decision on who can be inside the gate was made on first come-first serve basis.

After purchasing the 100cc Yamahas for around $1,900 and running them for two years, Jeffries plans to sells them at half price. Jeffries estimates that while Japanese scooters depreciate at 20% year, the number is as high as 75% for Chinese scooters. He was only the third business on the island.

Four…

Carlton Woods, 53, a veteran business person, ran a souvenir business for many years before going “scooter.” It was his position as assistant superintendent at Roatan’s cruise ship dock that allowed him to see the opportunity for a lucrative scooter business. “The West End [scooter] market is flooded,” said Woods. “I saw a guy from Tegus who wanted to do a scooter business and when he didn’t start it I decided to do it.”

Woods thinks that the scooter business has reached a saturation point. “A year from now companies that are here now, will be here still,” said Woods.

Five, Six, Seven, Eight…

One of the newer additions to the scooter community is Adam Santos, 25, was also looking for an opportunity to come back to the island of his ancestors. He originally was going to manage bungalow rentals, but ended-up buying five Yamaha scooters and in December 2004 launched “Santos Scooter” in West End. “In a year’s time only the three medium-size scooter businesses will survive,” said Santos who rents his scooters for $35.

Alberto Allert, 48, owns the most scooters on the Bay Islands…. 104 to be exact. The founder of Tropical Rentals has three locations thought Roatan and imports his scooters directly from manufacturer, ZYMotor of Hong Kong. He is , for now, the most recent arrival to the scooter rental community.

With a broad smile and shoulder-long grayish hair, Allert moved to Roatan in September 2004 to build a five star West Bay “Colonial Hotel.” Finding out that the permit and building process will take longer then he expected he found himself at a loss. “I thought to myself, ‘What am I going to do with all that time? Well, I’ll just open a scooter rental,'” said Allert. He opened his business in March 2005 and almost overnight became the biggest scooter proprietor the islands have ever seen.

After transforming himself from a General Manager of an industrial company in Milan, Italy, Allert went to Antigua, Guatemala where he worked for eight months running a scooter rental; he has two years of similar experience on Ibiza, Spain.

Allert plans to sell his scooters locally once they hit 1,000 kilometers on the odometer. There are already a couple available, priced at $950, standing in front of his Mango Center bureau. “It’s possible that in a year there will be more scooters than taxis here,” said Allert.

With several people moving scooters to the side of the road as a cruise ship comes in, there are as many scooter rental places in West End as there are dive shops: nine. West End has become a scooter alley and the scooter virus just keeps on spreading.

“Moonlight Scooter Rental,” owned by Julisa and Dina Rodriguez from San Pedro Sula is ready to start business in July. Five 140cc Chinese Yiben scooters are just waiting for a business license under a giant mango tree next to Monkey Bar in West End.

The question is who will say quits first. The investment of buying a couple Chinese scooters isn’t very big. According to Jeffries it is possible to purchase a Chinese scooter directly from Chine for little over $400.

With a fleet of 15 125cc Motolansa Chinese scooters, another San Pedrino, Migual Fernadez, launched “Xtreme Scoote rentals” in February. The owner of a San Pedro computer store leaves the business operation to a three-person staff and comes down to Roatan once a month.

According Danieli Callejas, a 26 year-old sales agent, the price includes damage insurance to the rented scooter. For an extra $4 Xtreme Rentals offers third party insurance and another $2 personal insurance. Only few Xtreme customers take advantage of the extra insurance: “Most people are happy spending as little as possible,” said Callejas. Renting at a “low season price” of $24 a day, some customers bargain the price down to $20. After one attempt Xtreme tried, but gave-up renting scooters by the cruise ship dock. “It was just too chaotic,” said Callejas.

On June 21, Norwegian Sea pulled into Roatan port, bringing 1,500 passengers. With a 1,800 passenger capacity it is one of the smaller ships that visit Bay Islands.

“You want to rent a scooter?” asks James Allan, 45, probably the most hyper, most energetic of all the scooter business owners inside the cruise ship gates. In 2004 Allan started with one scooter, nine months later he has seven.

Allan is used to pressure sales. Just two years ago he was supporting his family by selling corn, melons and fruits. Now he has become the power seller of scooter rentals at the cruise ship dock. “I’m the best. You can say: I’m the best,” said Allan, who can’t complain of a lack of confidence.

In fact Allan is good enough that every day at the cruise ship begins with a bike rented by him, then its Woods Motor Rental’s turn, then Roatan Scooter Rental, then Jeffries’. Then the companies just keep rotating until they run out of bikes.

All the “in the dock” scooter companies rent for the same price, they start at an off-season $40 and go down from there. “$25 is as low as I can go,” said Allan who has a keen eye for spotting good and potentially troublesome customers. “The spring break guys. You got to worry about them,” said Allen.

By the end of the day seven scooters were rented, a low number compared to about 40 the inside the gates companies have rented just a week before during Valor cruise ship visit. “The competition off-season isn’t as intense,” explained Allen.

Things at and around the cruise ship dock have changed dramatically. “People were afraid to get off the cruise ship,” said Allan about the melee that used to take place in front of the cruise ship dock. Things all changed when, in October 2004, Roatan Municipality passed and enforced a “no street vendor law” and establish a dispatcher booth for taxis.

Norwegian Sea Cruise passengers get ready for a scooter ride around Roatan.

Norwegian Sea Cruise passengers get ready for a scooter ride around Roatan.

Now the “illegal” scooter rentals operate out of homes around the cruise ship dock. “These guys give a bad name to us,” said Allan about individual scooter rentals that display their scooters on the street within the 300 meter “no street vendors” from within the cruise ship dock. “It starts at $50 at the dock and the further you go its $40, $30, $20 and finally you can get a scooter for $25,” said Walter Forest of Captain Van’s.

Choosing a type of scooter for rentals is a serious decision. The Chinese scooters are cheaper, but have a lower resale value and break-down quicker.

The four stroke Yamaha scooters on Roatan have another advantage over the two stroke Chinese machines: they are faster and more economical. “If you forget to mix-in the oil [into the four-stroke engine] it will get broken,” said Carlos Segura, 40, an independent mechanic working with several scooter rental places and private scooter owners in Coxen Hole. Segura stated that the 125cc Chinese Yumbo scooter is almost as good as the Yamaha scooter. “The worst ones are the ZYMotor scoters,” said Segura who noticed that the most frequent problem is breaking of the bike’s carburetor due to poor design and parts quality.

The times are tough and competition is just getting tougher. May, June and September are the worst months for the scooter business. They coincide with the lowest number of visitors coming to the Bay Islands. Scooter companies have to fight for every customer, lowering prices, and in few cases at least, raising standard of service. [/private]

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