At the recent Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) Convention in Denver in July, the company announced that it is expanding its service of providing cars within 20 minutes or less—already available in New York and Chicago—in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, Washington, D.C., and London by the end of this year, along an additional 15 markets in 2017. They are calling the service “near demand.”
We had the opportunity to speak with Carisone just after the announcement about what’s happening at GroundLink and what she thinks is in store for the future of corporate travel.
Chauffeur Driven: Can you explain what GroundLink is for those unfamiliar with the company?
Liz Carisone: GroundLink is a tech-enabled ground transportation provider focused on the corporate traveler. We are essentially a hybrid model in that we’re a global car service and also a sophisticated technology platform connecting pre-screened and licensed black car drivers to our customers who are looking for rides. We offer a multichannel approach with our booking, tracking, and expense profile.
CD: How much of your reservations are via the app versus the call center?
LC: Given that we have three different booking channels, our phone reservations have reduced substantially. Our website is our largest booking channel with about 40 percent, phone is about 35 percent, and mobile is the remainder.
CD: What is the minimum lead time for a ride?
LC: Currently in New York and Chicago, it’s under 20 minutes; elsewhere it is within the one-to-two hour timeframe.
CD: In what cities do you operate?
LC: We can offer and have provided service in more than 100 countries, so we truly are a global company. With our independent operator and affiliate model, we can service customers anywhere in the world. In New York and Chicago, we operate under an independent operator model and can provide what we have termed “near demand” or “Ride Now” through our mobile app. In New York, we are a fully authorized TLC-base holder and we operate under all of their guidelines.
CD: Obviously NYC is a unique market. In other cities where you operate, is the burden on the transportation company that you affiliate with?
LC: Yes, those companies that we partner with agree to screen their drivers and do full background checks as well. We believe that having that extra security allows us to fulfill our duty of care obligations to our customers.
CD: Can you tell us about your background?
LC: I’ve been in the industry for about five years. I started with GroundLink as CFO and have more than 10 years of CFO experience. My most relevant experience was with a company called Travelport where I was CFO of its GTA division, a hotel aggregator based in London that’s part of their travel portfolio.
CD: You’ve been CEO for a little over a year. What changes have you made and what are looking to do next?
LC: When I came into the role, my main goal was to concentrate on scaling the company’s infrastructure and driving our focus on service excellence. We have made significant strides toward that. We’ve also released several different products, mostly catering to the corporate space: groups, privacy, and controls as well as building out a new revenue management structure to make it much more transparent. We started moving away from the industry zone-based pricing to a mileage-based pricing, which we have introduced in two cities: D.C. and Chicago. We will be rolling that out across all markets in the near future. This will create more competitive pricing for the shorter trips and fairer pricing for the longer ones, which will benefit both the consumer and the driver.
We can offer and have provided service in more than 100 countries, so we truly are a global company. With our independent operator and affiliate model, we can service customers anywhere in the world."
LC: No, we don’t surge the way the TNCs do. They have earned a reputation for charging in excess of seven times the cost of a regular fare. We do employ peak and off-peak pricing, but customers know in advance. There are no surprises. It’s a way of incenting drivers as well as to measure our demand to ensure serviceability.
CD: A big issue for corporate travelers is duty of care. How does that factor into what your customers are demanding?
LC: Data privacy is a huge concern for our clients, and we are fully PCI compliant. We do not share customers’ data. For a customer, being able to track the vehicle and know who’s coming with the driver’s name, picture, and the car via GPS is very important and we provide that. We offer insurance over and above what the driver’s insurance is, for an added benefit of approximately $6 million in coverage.
CD: How does LimoAnywhere, which was purchased by GroundLink, exist within the organization?
LC: LimoAnywhere operates as a separate entity. GroundLink partners with them and we offer our services to our customers through an affiliated network within the LimoAnywhere system. Additionally, LimoAnywhere customers are able to book rides through our DriverAnywhere product offering, which then runs across our affiliated network, providing a duty-of-care package that we put our name behind.
CD: Smaller operators often feel like they get overlooked within the larger networks. How do you leverage the power of affiliate work for smaller operators?
LC: We absolutely have built our business globally by utilizing the affiliate model with operators of all sizes, including many small operators. We have more than 500 affiliates and they have been servicing our rides with the type of excellence that we have come to expect and our customers expect from us.
CD: It seems like GroundLink could have been the solution to what our industry was looking for—licensed chauffeurs on a technology platform that offers near-demand service. Why do you think TNCs captured that market before legitimate, regulated companies?
LC: That’s the $68 billion question, right? In many ways, when TNCs entered the market they were able to sell their model as something brand new and attract substantial investment. They have spent significantly. If you read the papers, they are losing millions of dollars on a monthly basis, which is not a sensible business model for GroundLink. We have measured our investment; I believe we have delivered a very good technology product to the marketplace and as a result, we are continuing to grow even in the face of global competition. I am incredibly proud of our team and what they have been able to accomplish. We’ve been able to grow our company and we have been able to improve our results—that is extraordinary in light of the TNCs and the amount of money that they are burning. For us to be able to do it in a profitable way is critical.
CD: Have you experienced an erosion of your customer base as a result of the lower prices offered by TNCs?
LC: No, in fact, we are up year on year and we continue to grow in both the B2C and B2B arenas. I think we do that by offering an easy-to-use product with a lot of service offerings, including our partnership with Concur for e-receipts. Both the customer and the driver are benefiting from that.
CD: What were some of your takeaways from the recent GBTA convention?
LC: I think it’s an incredible organization that provides the opportunity for open dialogue on a variety of relevant travel-related topics. They provide an educational forum that benefits travel managers and enables suppliers to understand the needs and desires of travelers and travel managers alike.
CD: From your perspective how do you see corporate travel changing over the next five years?
LC: The corporate traveler has been and always will be extremely savvy and they will be looking for ease-of-use options. When the TNCs entered the market, they made on-demand much more appealing, It will be up to companies like ours to deliver the service that we provide on a near-demand model. That’s what we’re striving to do and have done successfully in New York and Chicago, and in another five cities by the end of the year. I also believe that corporate customers will be looking for value. They understand and accept surge pricing, but I don’t know that the days of in excess of four times surge pricing are going to be tolerated—we shall see. I do think that corporate travelers will want to be able to make their choices and book their rides based on their preferences. Our strategy is to focus on what is working with our customer base and continuing to expand our market coverage. This is a dynamic industry and I think we have to be prepared for a lot of changes, including consolidation at some point. [CD0916]