For limousine companies, the normal course of business is pretty straightforward: weddings on Saturdays, the occasional weekend jaunt to Atlantic City, plus a few runs to the airport during the week. And then there’s prom season, the limo-business equivalent of the Christmas retail blitz.

But limo operators in the Washington area get another profit-padding high season—one that comes, leap-year-like, once every four years: Inauguration Week.

“With prom, it’s kind of a long-term thing. The same amount of business we have with that is pushed into three days,” says Chris Chavez of Above and Beyond Limo Scene in Upper Marlboro, Md.

Tens of thousands of guests arrived in Washington this week for President Bush’s second inauguration. Most will navigate Metro or rely on the city’s taxicabs. But VIPs paying thousands of dollars to attend the handful of official inauguration events—such as the three “candlelight dinners” with the president Wednesday or the nine official inaugural balls Thursday night—aren’t going to risk their designer gowns on public transportation or suffer through the plexiglass-and-vinyl ambience of a late-model Ford Crown Victoria. For their transportation needs, they demand discretion, luxury, and elegance.

Some limo owners, such as Ellen Schoengold, co-owner of Celebrity Limousine in Rockville, detect a more restrained mood this year than for inaugurations past—never mind the unrestrained scale of the festivities. “People are downsizing,” she says. “It’s a second term for Bush; security is an issue; there’s a war going on….This year, there’s just not so much excitement.”

That said, she expects this week will be “pretty frantic” all the same.

To meet demand, some companies are beefing up their fleets for the week. Chavez, for example, says he’s held on to older cars he might have replaced earlier if the inauguration hadn’t been approaching. American Eagle Limousine in Springfield, Va., which specializes in superstretch versions of exotic autos, is nearly doubling its 30-plus-car fleet by bringing in limos, along with professional drivers, from as far away as New York and Detroit.

Outfits that choose not to bring in extra cars still have to find licensed drivers for the cars they have. Joe Sab, owner of America Limousine and Bus Service in McLean, Va., says he’s scouring his list of drivers to man his 40-vehicle fleet this week. “A lot of the drivers take off from regular jobs,” he says.

There may be enough cars and chauffeurs to go around this week, but that doesn’t mean inaugural customers are seeking the sort of luxury wheels the limo companies might have envisioned. As several owners report, the GOP big shots they’re dealing with aren’t looking to stand out as much as fit in. While the average 18-year-old prom queen wants the favored ride of Allen Iverson or Missy Elliott, the average Bush Pioneer does not—even if a superstretch Hummer H2 features the sort of gallons-per-mile gas mileage he favors. “They don’t want a bus; they don’t want the SUVs,” says Chavez. “They just want low-key.”

But while many inaugural attendees might be seeking tasteful, refined transportation, the companies offer only so many modestly stretched Lincoln Town Cars before the question becomes whether you want the 28-passenger bling, or just the 24-passenger bling. It’s the desires of newlyweds and promgoers, not big-time GOP donors, that drive limo companies’ acquisitions. So if you want to downsize, you might not be able to.

All of Above and Beyond’s 14 limousines—which include not only Town Cars of various lengths, but also a 23-passenger Ford Excursion and a Cadillac Escalade stretch with a dance floor in the back—are fully reserved for the week. One group, Chavez reports, reserved both the Escalade and a Hummer H2 stretch for one Thursday ball. On the whole, demand has been so great, Chavez says, that he had to refer about 40 potential customers for airport pickups to other companies.

Tony Ahmadi, American Eagle’s CEO, says that even with the extra cars, he can’t keep up with demand. “Everything is out the whole week,” he says, including the 10-passenger Porsche Cayenne, 20-passenger Infiniti QX56, and 28-person Lincoln Navigator, and two 20-passenger H2s appointed with disco balls and fireplaces. (One vehicle that will be kept in the garage is a stretch Ferrari 360 Modena; that’s only available, Ahmadi says, to high rollers headed to Atlantic City.)

In the limo business, inauguration season has something else in common with prom season: The prices go up. American Eagle’s and Above and Beyond’s customers will pay 10 percent more than standard hourly rates; Alexandria’s AAA Limousine Service Inc. is charging 50 percent more for its pair of stretch limos, edging rates to $150 per hour.

For the Republican bigwig unable to stomach hiphop-star glitz, there’s another option toward the other end of the luxury-transport spectrum: executive sedans, the almost always black, unstretched Lincoln Town Cars manned by personal chauffeurs, favored by the city’s legal and business elite. Arlington’s Red Top Executive Sedan, the area’s largest sedan service, is devoting about 50 cars to specific customers full-time for the duration of the inaugural festivities.

In Red Top’s case, the problem isn’t that their rides are too gaudy; it’s that they may not be distinctive enough. Emerging from an inaugural ball at Union Station with a thousand other people dressed in black-tie garb to be faced with a line of several dozen identical Town Cars with drivers in dark suits and white shirts promises mass confusion in the chilly weather.

To remedy this problem, says Von Pelot, Red Top’s marketing director, each customer will essentially be assigned his own personal driver for the week. (Several other limo companies surveyed are also adopting this strategy.) “The idea is that drivers will be able to recognize their customers, and customers will be able to recognize their drivers,” he says. The chauffeurs are equipped with cell phones to ensure they’ll always be at their passengers’ beck and call.

Also, to keep the VIPs happy, Pelot reports, Red Top is turning its operations over from its usual dispatchers to “senior customer-service specialists.”

For all that customer service and more, Red Top customers can expect to pay 15 percent more than the company’s typical rates of $40 per hour. (The only event in recent history, other than inaugurations, that commanded such a premium was the New Year’s Eve 2000 celebration, Pelot says.)

One concern echoed by every one of a half-dozen limo companies surveyed is the effect of security measures for the inauguration, the first since Sept. 11, such as widespread street closings and random vehicle inspections. Perhaps the only certainty is that inaugural muck-a-mucks will be spending a lot more time en route to events—so luxury wheels will be all the more crucial.

American Eagle’s CEO reinforces that assessment. “You know how D.C. is,” says Ahmadi, purveyor of a 24-passenger Ford Excursion that features a zebra-stripe interior, fiber-optic mirrors, four flat-screen TVs, and a wet bar. “Straight up. Elegance is everything.” CP