Operations

Why You Don't Have To Beat Uber

Posted on October 22, 2015 by John M. Greene

We have all at one time or another been forced to make difficult decisions that go against the grain of our nature but are necessary. Occasionally, as a pleasant surprise, the choice turns out better than predicted.

Such was the case with this magazine’s respected publisher, Sara Eastwood, who admitted in the August issue that circumstances and a tight schedule forced her to use Uber to get from Point A to Point B in a short time, a task that local car services could not conquer on that morning. Sara admitted, with no knowledge by us that she was being coerced or that loved ones were being held hostage, that her Uber experience was “good.”

True, this is hardly a glowing review, and to many it may seem like damning with faint praise. But coming from the publisher of a leading magazine in our industry, it also may seem like a shout from the mountaintop. Blasphemy? Treason? Hardly.

I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Sara for many years, and although it may seem like she has wandered over to the dark side, truth be told she only did what millions of people, including my own children, have always done when they need to get somewhere in a hurry. They use an on-demand service. That’s what taxis and transportation network companies (TNCs) are, but we are not.

At the end of her column, Sara mentions that Uber is trying to mimic us, which is true. Everyone wants to become the best at what they do and emulate those on a higher pedestal. And that is the key — “they want to mimic us.” Any baseball pitcher in the minor leagues will tell you he wants to be able to pitch like Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez. But did you ever hear Pedro say he wanted to be just like a pitcher for the Pawtucket Red Sox or the Toledo Mud Hens?

The point is this; just because Uber is trying to be like us doesn’t mean we should be having sleepless nights and restructuring our business plans to be like them, or to be an “on-demand” industry. If what makes us not an on-demand taxi service — having well-maintained vehicles, professional vetted drivers, adequate insurance to protect our clients, and the trust of Fortune 500 CEOs throughout the U.S. that we will be on time coming and going — then so be it.

In most instances, on-demand car services do an excellent job with their core function, which often is getting a couple from their hotel to a restaurant a mile away, for a minimal charge. Like most operators, we charge a two-hour minimum, or around $120. So it’s doubtful that the young couple will pay more for a ride than what their dinner will probably cost. But that’s a piece of the profit pie we are willing to concede, as long as we can retain Corporate America as the remaining 75% of the pie.

In some ways, the perception that our industry and Uber are battling it out like two gladiators sizing each other up in the Coliseum is somewhat misguided. It’s actually taxi companies (and to a lesser extent airport shuttle companies) that really have more skin in this game than we do. Taxi companies always have used as its bread-and-butter the convenience of being hailed from the street or being able to station themselves outside a hotel or airport terminal, a privilege regulators deny to limousine companies. But now Uber has entered the on-demand world and picked at the taxi business like so much carrion. Uber has blurred the lines between taxis and limousines. In doing so, it has inflicted painful wounds on both parties but none that should be perceived as fatal.

The onslaught of on-demand car companies shouldn’t be a rallying cry for us to be the best we can be. That’s a high bar that should have been set even if Uber never existed. We are not an on-demand service and I believe that is a plus, not a negative. It was always that very trait that elevated us above a taxi service, allowing us to charge more for our services because we offer better service. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go to the wall to take care of our client’s last-minute needs.

If a good client calls me at 5 p.m. on a Friday night and needs to get to the airport in under an hour, I will do everything in my power to accommodate him. And that’s the best I can do. In the past, when I was unable to service his last minute needs, my client would simply jump in a taxi. I knew this and it didn’t bother me. Are there any of those among us who would deny jumping in a taxi to avoid missing a flight?

Today, that same client might summon an Uber vehicle instead, but it affects me at no greater level. I know this because of the outstanding service I have provided him over the years. That same client will have me on his speed-dial when he needs to have six important executives from Japan picked up at Logan International Airport and whisked at 5 p.m. through notorious Boston rush-hour traffic for a safe deposit at the Four Seasons.

The point to drive home here is that we can’t be all things to all people. Mercedes-Benz makes one of the finest cars in the world, but there will always be people out there who want, and need, a Kia. All we can do as an industry is continue to be the best at what we do, to keep upgrading our service and, as new technology evolves, to keep looking forward. But this can be very hard to do if we are always looking over our shoulders.

John M. Greene is a 25-year veteran of the limousine business, and President & CEO of ETS International in Randolph, MA. ETS International has an affiliate network of more than 350 limousine companies nationwide. The company won LCT Operator of the Year Awards in 2010 and 2014. Greene can be contacted at (617) 804-4801 and [email protected]

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