Ground transportation is often the weakest link in a travel program, but if suppliers ramp up their safety protocols in a similar way to the airline and hotel sectors, they'll play a pivotal role for those travel managers eager to rev their businesses back up.
“Where’s my bodyguard going to sit?”
It’s not something Mo Garkani, CEO of chauffeur company COTS Group, said he’s usually asked by clients. But it’s a question he’s getting used to as social distancing and other safety protocols come into play.
Travel managers will also face similar conundrums. Many corporations overlook the ground transportation sector as it’s often seen as a weaker compared to airline and hotel programs.
But that could soon change as cars, taxis, limousines and even buses surge in demand as companies search for the safest mode of transport in the early recovery phases.
And that high demand is already here, according to global chauffeur service Blacklane.
“Our average distance is increasing during this crisis — more than doubling,” Sascha Meskendahl, chief revenue officer, told Skift. “We’re already seeing shifts to other modes of transportation as people try to avoid the train.”
“Although we are only in the early stages of recovery, we are starting to see a rise in corporate demand for taxi services,” added John McCallion, CEO of booking platform GroundScope.
“Feedback from clients is that when they need to travel they see higher risk in using bus, train and air which have a higher volume of travelers forced together in a crowded environment.”
Ridesharing is also under pressure, despite the popularity of schemes such as Uber for Business. With multiple passengers, there’s less of a guarantee around hygiene standards. Skift contacted Uber for comment.
But along with Lyft, large numbers of layoffs were announced in early May, as well as minor pivots. While both firms have been kept busy on the deliveries front, Uber is investing $170 million in scooter rental firm Lime, into which it will fold its Jump bike rental division.
Lyft, meanwhile, has made masks mandatory for drivers and passengers, and switched off its shared journey feature. On Tuesday it also launched a “Wait and Save” scheme, allowing users to choose a longer wait time in return for a lower fare.
The shift to more private forms of travel is inevitable for businesses, while it’s also on the agenda for buyers at the UK’s Institute of Travel Management, travel managers told Skift.
“Buyers are now proposing travelers consider ground transportation for longer trips,” said Neil Hammond, partner at GoldSpring Consulting.
“Generally we find that for a 200-mile trip, people would rather fly than drive, but now people may realize driving is more efficient, and some of this change could be here to stay. They are equally as worried about disruption and delay as catching the virus. With roads less congested, driving offers a better option.”
In some cases, travelers are trusting their own vehicles over other transport, according to Justin MacKenzie, manager of Surgeons Quarter Travel.
The Edinburgh-based corporate travel agency, part of Scotland’s Royal College of Surgeons, has 28,000 members. Its doctor and surgeon clients usually travel the world to facilitate exams, but during the crisis are working across different UK hospitals. “And the Edinburgh to London train is empty,” MacKenzie said.
A similar shift to the road is emerging in the U.S. “People will be looking for the safest possible transportation options as travel resumes,” noted Robert Alexander, president of the National Limousine Association.
Defining “safest” remains a work in progress though.
“Hygiene measures are important. Buyers and travelers should be fully aware of the protocols put in place by taxis, ride-shares, limos and car rental companies,” said GoldSpring’s Hammond.
Numerous schemes have already been launched in the hospitality industry, including the American Hotel & Lodging Association’s “Stay Safe” protocol.
Airlines are making ground too, and the level of detail is going beyond masks and gloves. Air France, for example, has installed hospital operating theatre-grade filters to recycle air on its planes.
The ground transportation sector has its work cut out.
GroundScope’s McCallion says the operators it uses on its platform, which connects to corporates and travel agencies, must have passengers in the rear of the vehicle; need to regularly clean their vehicle surfaces; and drivers will also be regularly tested for the virus as kits become more readily available.
The National Limousine Association’s safety and prevention steps include cleaning vehicle interior surfaces with Clorox or bleach-based disinfectant wipes after each ride, and it encourages staff to see a doctor immediately if they feel unwell. It also doesn’t allow sick employees to report for work.
“We expect this will give riders peace of mind that other modes of travel may not provide, making chauffeured transportation the clear choice over other options like public transit or ride-sharing,” Alexander added.
Plastic barriers are being installed in vehicles too. One company, Driver Bubble, recently launched to cater for the sudden demand. It has designed a protective screen that is placed behind the driver and front passenger’s seat.
“We strongly believe the Driver Bubble product will help drivers get back onto the road, knowing they and their passengers are protected throughout the day,” the company said.
A “touchless” service trend is also emerging, according to Blacklane’s Meskendahl: “The chauffeur won’t offer a handshake — now they’ll be a slight bow or a nod to welcome you.”
However, he’s not convinced by the use of plexiglass. “We know from safety studies that when you have this separating wall, most severe injuries when there is an accident come from this wall,” Meskendahl said. “You need a trade-off.”
The biggest bump in the road ahead is social distancing, and suppliers are scratching their heads as the range of measures required could pressure margins.
The COTS Group’s Garkani isn’t sure where the bodyguard will sit in the future. Pre-crisis, they’d simply sit next to the driver.
“What can we do?” he said. “We can’t have them sit next to the passenger. We can’t put the driver in a box, as that’s not approved by any government agency. I’ve told high-end customers that we’ll have to use multiple vehicles.”
Meanwhile, efforts will be made to minimize the amount of people compared to the space in the vehicle. Garkani is converting his 54-passenger buses to seat 12 passengers, for example.
“But at the end of the day, you’ve got to see if you’re going to make any money. We’re going back and forth. We’re doing whatever we can to keep going, but we’ve got to figure out a happy medium where we can actually make a profit,” he said.
Reconfiguring vehicles, or using multiple vehicles, for customers will dent supply, but Garkani warns it will be reduced further as many taxi firms across the U.S. will have had their licenses suspended.
While planes can be temporarily parked, it’s a different story for taxis. Operators have taken their cars off the road and canceled insurance to save money. Once the insurance stops, they automatically have their state license suspended.
“One of the biggest challenges we’re going to have is that a lot of the smaller companies have gone out of business,” said Garkani, who is also president of the Greater California Livery Association.
“If you get a huge jump in demand, you don’t know what you’re going to do with it. We’re a 150-car operation, so when we talk to our clients, we tell them we’re going to need a little bit more time. If we had 800 cars there’d be no problem.
“I talked to the California Public Utilities Commission, and they said just 116 out of 7,700 taxi firms are still active in California. They’ve suspended their licenses — that’s black cars, shuttles, anything to do with transportation.”
To get back to business, he added, those companies are effectively starting from scratch, needing a deposit to renew their insurance and licensing.
As the crisis continues, the impacts are spreading wider over the travel industry. The ground transportation sector is clearly no exception, but it does find itself in an unusual position.
As Blacklane’s Meskendahl said: “You don’t want to position yourself as benefiting from a crisis like this. It’s awful for everyone.”
CORRECTION: The original article stated plexiglass barriers are being installed in vehicles, which Driver Bubble is not.
Photo credit: Driver Bubble has designed a plexiglass screen that helps shield passengers and drivers. Driver Bubble