Early this week in Boston at the annual Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) conference, corporate travel buyers and other convention-goers may have seen a 20-foot-by-50-foot booth touting iCars and its sister brand Limos.com.
The San Francisco-based company aims to help corporate travel agencies arrange ground transportation with licensed chauffeurs, unlike the list of amateur drivers offered by transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft.
Nothing seemed amiss at the booth. But not everything about the company was on display.
Last month, iCars let go of its president, Ed Silver, who had been appointed a year earlier, replacing interim president and serial startup founder Mark Fielder, who helped get the brand off the ground in early 2016.
The timing of the decision before the conference is eyebrow-raising because Silver had held executive-level roles at GBTA for several years.
Events like GBTA are important for vendors like iCars because it can be a cost-efficient way to reach corporate professionals.
In fact, iCars chose to have its first big marketing push as a new company at GBTA, a year ago.
Since then, iCars acquired Limos.com, a distressed asset.
The iCars merger with Limos.com looked good on paper. The iCars brand, founded in early 2016, aimed to develop an advanced technology tool set for corporate risk management and duty of care. Limos.com, after turnaround artist Dan Tamkin of the Stage Fund came in and streamlined operations, brought an affiliate network and a marketing engine.
On Tuesday, iCars/Limos.com CEO Gary Bauer spoke with Skift.
Bauer says in the past year the company has gone from having limo operators on call in four locations to having 20,000 vehicles now on call in about 550 locations.
Bauer says he has been trying to raise a Series A investment round, which he expects will close later this year, “maybe a few months from now.”
One of the bits of feedback he says he has received from investors is that they want him, with his experience as a serial entrepreneur, at the helm if they are going to feel confident enough to invest.
He has not been able to do this because he has also been running the day-to-day operations of the biggest of a few companies that he has founded, Bauer Intelligent Transportation, a private-hire coach and shuttle service vendor in California that he says grosses $60 million a year.
Bauer says it has taken a year to train a new president to handle Intelligent Transportation. The training is now over, and his hand is now free to run the day-to-day of iCars, which is why it was time for Silver to go. (Silver declined to speak to Skift.)
Earlier this month, the owner of a car service in Texas, Abiding Limousine, that supplied services to iCars/Limos.com, wrote in a LinkedIn posting that, as of early July, it had been attempting to reach iCars/Limos.com operator support for more than 45 days without a response regarding outstanding payments for services rendered between May and June, meaning daily voice mails and email.
When Skift contacted the limo operator to ask more, an employee declined to speak to the media. The posting has been removed.
We asked Bauer about this.
He says: “Everyone is up to date on payments.”
He says there had been a transition period that required some operators to adjust expectations temporarily. The old Limos.com platform was driving 95 percent leisure business with customers paying by credit cards, which deposit money quickly. The shift to 100 percent corporate business brings with it a different timetable of revenue that comes in over longer cycles, typically every 30 to 45 days. That transition period is over now, he says.
“No operator is behind on payments,” Bauer says. “Operators get paid every Wednesday.”
While each company has unique offerings, they are similar in that they are all affiliated with limousine providers. Their core business model is sending referrals to run trips for corporate travelers whenever the drivers aren’t otherwise booked with local, direct reservations.
Meanwhile, a few consumers posted complaints about the quality of Limos.com service (cars not showing up, no response from the dispatch desk, wrong charges) on Twitter. Skift contacted the posters but received only one response and couldn’t confirm any of their validity.
When we asked Bauer about this, he says that he also can’t confirm the validity of the comments and says that his customer teams have been on top of addressing service issues.
A conversation with a former employee of Limos.com suggests that Limos.com has not been updated in any substantial way in 18 months.
Bauer says the company has focused on developing its mobile apps for Apple and Android devices and its (now completed) integrations with the corporate booking tools run by corporate travel Titans like Concur and Sabre.
The CEO says he is committed to investing in technology. He has 18 developers as employees and two as contractors. He says the company has 32 full-time employees altogether. (Skift was unable to confirm that via LinkedIn, which has inadequate data on the company.)
He says the apps already are closer to the Uber/Lyft standard of user experience than any other tool offered by iCars’s/Limos.com’s competitors. “Just try the apps and see for yourself.”
Bauer adds: “We’re rebuilding the whole tech stack. There was a delay because Limos.com had a deal with another call center; we had to switch that out, and we had to make related technical changes.”
As we’ve noted in our earlier coverage, iCars is going up against Blacklane (which has raised $42 million), GroundLink (which has raised $20 million and was acquired earlier this year by Marcou Transportation Group), and Deem (which has raised hundreds of millions for its various incarnations).
Bauer says he’s put about $10 million into iCars/Limos.com.
The competitors and legacy players declined to talk about their erstwhile rival.
Two industry professionals who are often involved in contract negotiations for corporate travel say anonymously that the names of Limos.com and iCars have “never” come up this year during discussions.
Bauer says that his company has signed several deals with travel management companies, but that it can’t reveal the names because of non-disclosure agreements.
Unlike its rivals, iCars has been quiet on all of the social networks since May 4. It has not put out a press release since January.
We asked Bauer why the company hasn’t been using these marketing channels, especially in the run-up to its biggest trade conference of the year.
Bauer says that the company let go of the PR firm it had been working with, and hiring a new one has been a low priority. (The PR company tells Skift its contract ended in December.)
On its own, an observer can’t infer much from any of the individual points listed above. But the overall picture may puzzle some.
Bauer insists that momentum is already here, as of GBTA: “I admit we could be doing a better job of promoting ourselves. But we’ve had a lot going on.”