Friday, January 02, 2009

Zingo has a simple plan: turn a profit by keeping people from getting arrested for drunken driving.

So far it's working, despite the trying economy.

"We have a little joke in Zingo nation that we have a recession-proof business because people will always find money to drink," said P.X. Head, 27, the University of Georgia graduate who founded Zingo in October 2005.

The Atlanta company is a designated-driver business chain that gives tipsy customers a drive home in their own cars. It has grown from six franchises a year ago to 20, including ones in Hills­borough, Pinellas, Pasco and Polk counties.

Zingo employees use foldup scooters to get to clients who have called a central dispatcher. The employee then drives the client's car home with the scooter in the trunk. He then hops on a scooter for the next assignment.

"Law enforcement is not playing games any more," Head said. "People are scared, and they know too many other people who have gotten DUIs."

Zingo has flourished in the Tampa Bay market, with its centers of party culture, a feeble mass transit system, and aggressive anti-drunken-driving programs by law enforcement that make a driving-under-the-influence arrest a costly mistake.

Chris Miles, a lawyer in Tampa, uses Zingo often, usually paying between $20 and $30 for the ride home. He has his credit card on file with Zingo and bought a ride for friend on Saturday night.

"After three drinks, I don't drive," he said. "My license is too important."

Zingo launched in Hillsborough County last December with 60 customers. During the past year, 800 clients have used Zingo and monthly revenue has increased 30 percent for the past half-year, said Margeaux McCorvey, who owns the Zingo franchise license for Hillsborough County.

McCorvey expects holiday parties, the Super Bowl in Tampa and Gasparilla activities to further boost business this winter.

In Hillsborough County, 30 percent of Zingo customers are first-time users, and half of those first-timers use the service again, McCorvey said. It costs $10 for the pickup fee and $3 per mile. The average fare is $23.30, she said.

In Pinellas County, manager Howard Price said the number of rides has increased to 20 to 25 a week from only three a week a year ago.

"The cost of DUIs just got to be $10,000, and cab rides are getting more expensive, too, 35 to 40 bucks," Price said. "Why not go home in your own car?"

McCorvey also gets paid as a consultant to help launch local Zingos, while working with Head to make sure Zingo's "brand integrity" is maintained. In that capacity, McCorvey is like a restaurant chain quality control chef for Zingo, hired by the local franchisees to make sure the business mission is carried out correctly.

She works with Sheila Tyler, who opened a Polk County Zingo in Winter Haven, and Corey Hilton, who owns Zingo franchises in Pinellas and Pasco counties. The Zingos in the four Tampa Bay counties share the same phone number and dispatcher because customers sometimes cross county lines, McCorvey said.

Zingo drivers, who must be licensed and able to drive manual and automatic transmission vehicles, undergo background checks and drug testing before they are hired.

Zingo also has franchises in Atlanta and Athens, Ga.; Charlotte, Raleigh, and Chapel Hill, N.C.; New Orleans; Nashville; Baton Rouge, La.; Austin, Texas; Phoenix and Scottsdale, Ariz.; and Santa Barbara, Calif. Tallahassee and Orlando have Zingos, too.

More expansion plans include a 10-city franchise deal that would include Jacksonville; Augusta and Savannah, Ga.; and Charleston, Greenville, Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head, S.C., Head said.

To open a franchise, a Zingo licensee has to pay an upfront fee of $10,000 to $50,000.

"Zingo has even become a verb," Head said. "A husband will tell his wife that he's going to get hammered, and he'll 'Zingo' his way home."

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