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GBTA Day Three: Reflecting on the Roots of Ride Hailing Services

CHICAGO - GBTA - August 8th -- I’m a fairly new, but definitely enthusiastic, convert to ride-hailing on business trips to big cities (I know, what took me so long?). One thing I’m learning is to wait till you get out of the airport before you pull the trigger on your Uber or Lyft app.

For example, my Southwest Airlines flight from Tucson, via a long-haul connection through Las Vegas, landed at Midway Airport here late last Saturday night as I arrived to attend the annual Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) trade show at the McCormick Place convention center. I’d summoned Lyft while standing in the aisle of the plane in the queue of exhausted passengers hauling their bags out of the overhead bins and trudging toward the airplane door.

Bing! I’m barely out on the jetway when a text informs me that my driver is four minutes away from the airport. But it’s clear to me that the airport exit is at least 10 minutes away. I rush through the terminal dragging my rollaboard. Bing! My driver is here already as I make my way toward the exit, and he will wait for two minutes. Then, bing! he’s gone before I get there -- and the $5 cancellation charge is already charged on my credit card.

Wow, that was a quick five bucks down the expense-account drain.

Of course there is always another driver circling around out there, so no big prob. In front of the terminal at Midway’s vaguely defined area for ride-hailing pickups, the scene looks a bit like the Fall of Saigon, but with smartphones. Throngs of travelers are squinting anxiously at the driver faces in arriving ride-hail cars while checking their phones for verification.

Bing! Here’s my guy, Val! Off we hurtle into the night. About 20 minutes later, after a lively conversation (Val is fed up with the ride-hail rat-race and looking to start his own business) I’m checking into my hotel. It’s almost midnight. In this part of town, dinner is no longer an option. I buy a bag of Cheetos and a bottle of water and head to my room.

A couple of observations: One, this was all a bit too frenetic for me after a long day of travel -- but on reflection it sure does beat the expense and hassle of renting a car, or taking one of those lower-cost airport shuttles that provide an orientation tour of local hotels before finally pulling up at yours. Two, reflecting the intense and frantic competition for your ground-transportation business these days, the fare for an old-fashioned taxicab -- at least from Midway to the somewhat barren neighborhood dominated by the gargantuan McCormick Place on Lake Shore Drive – was roughly the same as what Lyft charged, around $22.

A side note: I’ve mentioned here previously that in my 20 years as a freelance business-travel columnist who has wandered the nation and the world, I’ve always traveled “unmanaged,” meaning I made all of my own travel arrangements, by choice. You might shake your head at this as folly. After all, there are some awfully good travel management solutions available to serve less-than-giant enterprises. But I operated on the principle that any miscalculations I might make on the road – and I’ve made a few – are merely grist for the mill as a reporter. Curiosity and experience, including some unanticipated crises, pave my way and provide education. This used to be referred to as the School of Hard Knocks.

Without doubt, a good travel management program certainly could have made things easier for my arrival on Saturday night. For example, there are a growing array of ride-hailing options. The industry itself has become fiercely competitive.

The big ride-hailing companies are no longer startups. Uber, Lyft, Didi and Grab now have a combined valuation of about $166 billion, according to a report this week by Lux Research. The report on “New Business Models Disrupting Mobility” asserts that as the Ubers and Lifts have saturated the worldwide ride-hail market, the ground-transportation travel world is concurrently widening into “multimodality,” a concept that also folds public transportation and other options into the model. I’ll delve more into that in a future column.

The basic ride-hail model has now been around for a while, and smart travel managers incorporate it into programs. But not all travelers are alike, and neither are all trips. There is also the “black car” option, which increasingly is integrated into travel-management technology platforms as a more flexible choice in ground transportation, with drivers who are carefully vetted with an eye toward travel managers’ increasingly crucial duty-of-care responsibilities.

One black-car company, GroundLink, was a pioneer in mobile-apps in the days before the 800-pound gorillas like Uber and Lyft ate up all of that investment cash, the company’s CEO, Liz Carisone, told me in an interview at the GBTA convention. GroundLink steadily minded and grew its own business, hiring experienced drivers – many who had driven black cars for corporate commuting, before many big companies in major cities cut back on providing black car rides home for employees who worked into the night.

GroundLink does business in about 450 cities worldwide. There’s an emphasis on drivers having extensive liability insurance and on the quality and upkeep of their automobiles, Ms. Carisone said. “We hire experienced drivers with a minimum of $1 million in insurance, and only after extensive background checks. Also, they are not driving their mothers’ cars.”

Over the last three years, there has been a steady shift toward the female market, with women now making up a little over half of GroundLink customers, said Ms. Carisone.

Uber and Lyft are Johnny-on-the-spot, as at my arrival at Midway – but sometimes you really do not need or want Johnny on the spot. “We check your flight information, and we wait for you,” she said.

Black car drivers might have five or six pickups on a shift. Uber or Lyft drivers – like the ones I had from and back to Midway airport this week -- sometimes can rack up 15 or even 30 rides if they hustle, and they all do, often sacrificing meal breaks and rest stops.

“With us, a driver is doing 5-6 jobs a day, five days a week, and making the same or better. And you have access to full driver information. If you come in early we’re going to be there early, if you come in later, we’re going to be there too.”

At the GBTA convention GroundLink announced a new dashboard designed for management of ground transportation for events and meetings, allowing event planners to coordinate and modify rides based on various fluctuations, including last-minute requirements of travelers themselves. The app is designed to for real-time coordination and manifest-sharing among groups of travelers as well as individuals, as well as ways for managers to pinpoint “spikes and atypical patterns in travel behavior,” and to track spending on the spot and make last-minute shifts.

There’s also an ability for remote planners and travelers alike to communicate with their drivers without using a mobile app.

“Believe it or not, there are still people who want to talk to us on the phone,” Ms. Carisone said.

 

How does your corporate travel policy stack up?

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Joe Sharkey
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