Around noon at a business conference, dozens of people in button-up shirts and nice shoes, wearing attendee badges around their necks, will be lingering outside the convention center, staring at their phones. Many are waiting for Ubers to arrive, opting for one of the most popular forms of event transportation to take them to a nearby lunch spot.
At this point, it’s no surprise that Uber has largely displaced taxis and rental cars at events. The ridehailing app is now so popular with business travelers that for many it’s simply the default way to get around.
Uber knows this. In fact, Uber has a service specifically designed for events, which it offers as part of its Uber for Business platform. Uber Events goes far beyond the typical way attendees use the app. Through its events service, Uber partners with planners and venues months in advance, coordinates with law enforcement, and helps to design an entire event transportation strategy.
So far, though, the company sees most of its business through large sports events and music festivals. Despite the potential for its impact on the world of business conferences, not very many meeting organizers are using it or are even aware of it.
“While I’ve had numerous chats with meeting planners over the last few years about using rideshare services for moving meeting or event attendees around, I don’t believe I’ve ever encountered someone who used it to any real scale,” said Michael Pinchera, editor at Meeting Professionals International, an event industry association.
“I am a fan of rideshare services and have seen them used in conjunction with events but really only with smaller groups and usually last minute,” Pinchera added. “Like for the last group to leave a late-night networking event. But that’s really the same way taxis are used, so nothing too special there.”
How It Works
A good way to think of Uber’s event services is to think about the way transportation works in a major airport. Weary travelers, just off long flights, sit on benches in passenger pickup zones or wait in long lines for taxis. Often there is a sectioned-off area to meet Uber and Lyft drivers.
By coordinating with the airport, rideshare companies carve out some space for their drivers and try to reduce the congestion caused by so many types of vehicles carrying so many people all at once. Even then, many airports find the situation too crowded, and Los Angeles International and San Francisco International Airport, for starters, have restricted access to rideshare vehicles.
“We actually joke that airports are events that are always happening,” said Niraj Patel, group lead of central operations at Uber. “They’re very similar in terms of there being restricted space with a lot of different modes of transportation. People are really looking for the fastest way out.”
Coordinating a large event involves a wider variety of factors, however. In its four years of servicing events, the company has had to confront how wildly complex meetings and events are, Patel said.
“Actually, our experience in executing events and learning about all the different kinds of configurations and situations that events represent has helped us make experiences at airports better,” he said.
In an airport there is really only one goal: Get the traveler out of the airport, either home or to a hotel. At an event, planners usually want to make the experience as enjoyable for attendees as possible, especially if they are paying a lot of money to be there. Some events are extremely sophisticated, with high-level speakers and attendees. The venue is almost always different, and it may not be designed for lots of vehicles passing through.
Plus there is the nature of the event itself. Is it a science conference or a music festival? Many times, Patel said, servicing events means knowing how to deal with a bunch of drunk people, some of whom are in a new city and might not know exactly where they are going.
In order to juggle these factors, Uber will connect with the event planner early on, working together to figure out an event transportation strategy.
“[Planners] know that they’re getting ready to run this conference or big music festival or sports event or whatever it is,” Patel explained. “And they know the venue at which it’s taking place. And then from there, they kick off a number of different things. But one of them is figuring out their transportation plan. We try to get involved as early as possible in that conversation, somewhere in the neighborhood of eight-plus months out.”
This means making sure there is enough parking space and that shuttle services are running smoothly.
“There’s a lot of players involved in addition to us. We work with the organizer, law enforcement, traffic staff and things like that, to develop a holistic plan for all the transportation, and make sure that ridesharing is a piece of it, and that it is really smooth and effective for our customers,” he said.
So Why Isn’t It Used More?
Still, Uber Events is not very common in the world of trade shows and business conferences. Most planners, if they are coordinating transportation, stick with classic companies like Boston Coach, BLS Limo, or Music Express, especially for moving around high-level attendees.
Like corporate travel, the business events industry is one which changes slowly. When dealing with employees, liability is always an issue, and planners want to err on the side of safety.
“The concern about attendee safety and liability is perhaps the greatest potential negative I’ve heard discussed,” Pinchera said.
This is especially true since Uber has gone to great lengths to separate the company from those that do its actual labor, calling its drivers “independent contractors” rather than employees, thus taking little responsibility for the drivers’ actions or well-being. This stance is not very reassuring for planners who want to make sure their attendees are getting consistently safe and high-quality service.
The event industry’s fear of upstarts extends to other aspects of the meeting experience as well. Conference housing is one example: While Airbnb has long advertised itself to business travelers, most event planners stick to traditional hotel room blocks.
Plus it’s hard to find information on Uber’s event service. Really. A Google search of “Uber Events” turns up its party planning portal, where hosts of small events or get-togethers can purchase Uber trips for their guests in advance, paying for their rides home.
The company does not really advertise its high-level event logistics operation. Event planners, trying to organize a transportation plan, would probably not be aware of it, unless someone told them about it, or they reached out to Uber directly.
“The marketing is very confusing,” said Kevin Iwamoto, chief strategy officer for Bizly, an event booking platform. “Event planners will do a quick Google search and say, ‘That doesn’t apply to what I’m having to do,’ and move on.”
Up until now, much of Uber’s events business has come from planners reaching out to the company directly, according to Patel. Planners, knowing rideshare will inevitably be a common method of transportation for their attendees, will call Uber up and ask if there’s a way to coordinate things better.
“That’s the real crux of it,” Iwamoto added. “They have to really define what they do for maximum exposure and awareness. I think that’s really why they’re not getting the response that they want from it.”
Now, though, Patel said the company is ready to ramp up its marketing efforts. The company has spent the past few years learning how large-scale events work and building up its event-related tech and infrastructure and is now ready to start working with corporate conferences. It has even begun to test larger vehicles that can carry up to 50 attendees.
“We’re continuing to scale our operations so that we can operate at more types of events. As our technology gets better and our infrastructure gets better, our hope is that we can operate at more and more kinds of things,” he said. “We absolutely want to continue building relationships in the industry with venue owners and event organizers.”