Several weeks before Christmas, two of the city's light-rail trains were transformed into rolling billboards for a toy fundraiser for homeless families. The exterior wraps made the electric Tide cars look like a holiday-themed steam engine train.
It's a sign of the times for Hampton Roads Transit, which has been rebuilding its advertising revenue as the economy sputters back from a recession. And unlike some other transit agencies, HRT has done so without the help of an outside firm.
Hampton Roads Transit expects to take in nearly $900,000 this fiscal year from leasing space for ads inside and outside of its buses and light-rail trains. After salaries and benefits for its in-house advertising staff, that would equate to about $410,000 of profit, which is more than what HRT was getting through a contractor several years ago, before it took over the operation.
"It gave us more control of what we were doing, more control of who our clients were going to be," said Alonzo Crittenden, the agency's regional sales manager.
Hampton Roads Transit parted ways with its advertising firm in 2011 amid friction. Gateway Outdoor Advertising, which had handled the operation for five years, accused the agency of not following its own procedure in seeking competitive offers for a new contract.
Craig Heard, president of the New Jersey-based company, said last week in an interview and by email that Hampton Roads Transit chose a less lucrative path by handling advertising itself and is trying to "snooker" the public into thinking its current efforts are a success.
Crittenden and Ron Hodges, HRT's director of business development, said Gateway lacked aggressiveness in landing clients and produced a net return of only $276,000 for the transit agency in the last year of its contract.
Heard said his company generated more before the recession, and he projected it would be doing more than HRT's staff is now if it were still on board. According to his figures, Gateway billed more than $910,000 in advertising for HRT in 2007.
Under the terms of the contract, the transit agency received a guaranteed amount every year, or a percentage of the take, depending on how well Gateway did. The net return to HRT peaked at $401,000 in 2008, according to Heard.
Crittenden, who came to HRT in 2009, said he has 30 years of marketing and sales experience, but when he took over ad sales for the agency, "it was a lot of by-the-seats-of-the-pants learning."
HRT's advertising staff now totals five people, according to Tom Holden, a spokesman. Crittenden said he's exploring other ways to increase revenue, such as the potential to sell space on the Elizabeth River ferries.
"We're not as good as we're going to be," he said.
Advertising revenue covers a fraction of HRT's $97 million operating budget. The agency gets 80 percent of its funding from local, state and federal governments and is considering a plan to raise passenger fares next year to help meet operating and capital needs.
Hodges said he wants his advertising team focused on national clients. Some are off-limits, however.
HRT prohibits advertising for alcohol, tobacco, firearms or ammunition. Other no-nos include political advertisements, ads for adult products or services, ads that encourage people not to use public transit and ads that depict the American flag in a disrespectful or inappropriate manner.
In Charlotte, the transit agency's policy board decided in 2012 to allow alcohol ads. That has boosted revenue by $342,000, according to a spokeswoman.
The Charlotte Area Transit System, which has a slightly larger bus fleet than HRT, has a contract with an advertising company that guarantees increasing payments over the life of the deal. It is scheduled to make more than $1.1 million in the current fiscal year.
Richmond's public transit system also uses a company for the service. The agency, which has a bus fleet about half the size of HRT's, reported net revenue of about $370,000 from advertising in the fiscal year that ended June 30.