​Summer is here and NASCAR drivers are racing around oval tracks in brightly colored cars, smothered in advertising. And there is another less advertised but no less colorful race underway as well – ground transportation providers vying for the corporate traveler’s business.

Traditional ground transportation providers with their black town cars and limousines – iconic trademarks of chauffeured services – are in a heated competition for your traveler’s rides, pitted against upstart ride-hailing disrupters who offer their own luxury sedans and SUVs.

Luxury black car service has been around since 1921, when J.P. Carey opened his office in the heart of Grand Central Station in New York City. Carey founded the world’s first limousine company based on the belief that chauffeured transportation was a safe and reliable alternative to ordinary, ride-hailing taxi service. Today, Carey International is a major global player in chauffeured ground transportation, serving more than 1,000 cities worldwide.

No longer just a comfort and prestige decision, travel managers are rethinking the entire process of how ride services are booked, how they are billed and what kind of reporting to expect from their ground transportation providers. Uber and Lyft initially had a jack-rabbit start over legacy car services who had been comfortable doing business as they always had, via telephone, fax and computer age stuff like e-mail and a website.  But the tortoise is catching up.

“Ground transportation providers fall into two categories,” says CEO Jens Wohltorf of Blacklane, a portal that connects riders to professional chauffeurs via mobile app, website and hotline.  “The first is the high-quality service provider, which has the DNA of the legacy chauffeur world. Its advantages are attention to detail, driver discretion and duty of care. However, it lacks convenience, ease of booking and reasonable prices.”

On the other side of the black car industry, Wohltorf says, is the second category:  “The easily-booked ride service, which has the DNA of innovation. It excels in finding rides quickly and cheaply. But it lacks a personal touch, duty of care and professionalism.”

Wohltorf believes Blacklane, a company he co-founded in 2011 that serves more than 250 cities worldwide, is “the best of both worlds.” Corporate travel managers and traveling employees, he says, “should be able to book a confirmed ride in seconds, receive a fair rate, know the full cost, and then receive an excellent experience on the ground.”

United We Stand
However that tide is already turning, as major legacy carriers adapt to the new reality to offer their business clients innovative technologies and mobile apps for booking and real-time expense reporting as well.  For example, legacy pioneer Carey International brands itself today as “the leading provider of innovative chauffeured service solutions,
customer-centric travel technology, and ground transportation logistics management.”

Other black car providers and software creators have teamed up to meet the competition head on, pooling their resources either through acquisitions or partnership agreements. Case in point:  In early 2017 Marcou Transportation Group, the parent company of Dav El | BostonCoach, acquired black car service GroundLink as well as software provider Limo Anywhere.

According to GroundLink CEO Liz Carisone, “The acquisition of our brands by the Marcou Transportation Group was a pivotal moment for our industry. By taking advantage of the best each of these companies brings to the table, we plan to maintain our brands’ dominant position in the market while giving our customers exactly what they want.”

Another recently created amalgam of technology and wheels on the ground is The Addison Lee Group, formed in 2016.  It consists of three international ground transportation providers: Addison Lee, Tristar Worldwide and Flyte Tyme. “We’ve responded to our changing market by investing behind operations, technology and services,” CEO Andy Boland of London-based Addison Lee says. “We’ve now expanded our business to become the world’s largest executive car service with over $500 million in annual revenues and plan to grow further via our new global traveler product that offers car services in over 100 cities booked via digital channels. Increased competition in ground transportation has been positive for travel buyers and passengers and the whole industry has had to up its game.”

But is all this maneuvering “too little, too late” to stop the newcomers from coming to dominate the space? Uber alone boasts 100 million downloads of its Android mobile app compared to tens of thousands of legacy apps, making it difficult to see how traditional carriers will be able hold onto their market share.

“Ride-hailing doesn't compete against Blacklane,” Wohltorf says. “In fact, we have many of the same customers. Blacklane journeys average over 20 miles, when travelers will be in the vehicle long enough to enjoy the comfort, quality and service that defines the Blacklane experience.” Ride-hailing trips, he says, average less than five miles and, like taxis, are short-distance, inner-city trips.

Wohltorf says their guests book Blacklane because of their “premium global consistency, reliability and cost certainty. Blacklane guarantees fares and confirms rides at the moment of booking, giving their business travelers and corporate travel managers peace of mind,” he adds.

High Tech Meets High Touch
For travel managers, peace of mind is the golden currency of ground transportation.  No one wants to learn that human error or a computer glitch fouled their scheduled pick up to the airport or left business clients in limbo at the curb.

“A major advantage traditional black car service providers have over ride-hailing app companies is a deep knowledge of our corporate travelers and travel manager needs,” Carisone says. “It is one thing to cater to general consumers; it is quite another to provide high touch service to the business travelers and travel bookers of the world.”

On the other hand, more and more ride-sharing services like Uber for Business are tailoring their offerings for the business travelers. “When we talk to our customers, we hear three clear benefits that using Uber for Business brings compared to other alternatives,” says Matt Kallman, director of corporate communications.

“First is the increased visibility into the specifics of every work trip,” Kallman explains, “which means less back and forth when reviewing expense reports. Second, travel managers can set the parameters of how employees can ride before they even take a trip, meaning there is less onus on travelers to remember policies on the go. And thirdly, our unmatched global coverage network, currently more than 600-plus cities and over 60 countries, drastically reduces the number of transport relationships and billing arrangements companies need to maintain.”

Furthermore, Kallman adds, “most importantly – and we hear this often – is that travelers are happier. They’re filing fewer expense reports; they’re in control via their smartphones if plans change and they need to alter arrangements on the go; and travelers get a consistent experience wherever they need to go.”

Ride-hailing competitor Lyft offers a similar response. According to Amit Patel, director of business development at Lyft Business, “Our partners are able to gain visibility into their team’s business travel habits through our platform that provides a clear view of who is riding, how much they’re spending, and where they’re going,” Patel explains. “We also provide flexible expensing and billing, and real time reporting. Team members can easily set-up auto expense and avoid receipts altogether through partnerships with eight expense organizations, including Expensify, Certify and Concur. Or businesses can enable Auto Pay so employees can ride on the company card.”

It’s clear that the introduction of innovative technology and mobile capabilities has reinvented the black car industry, making both business travelers and travel managers the winners. Business travelers love the ease of booking their own rides if they choose, as well as the automated tracking of their expenses. Data hungry travel managers enjoy having desktop dashboard software to track their travelers and expense reporting in real-time.

However other factors also play into the decision of which ground transportation providers to choose. “The big difference between companies like GroundLink and the ride-hailing app companies out there are duty of care and customer service,” Carisone of Groundlink says. “We put the safety and privacy of our customers along with the well-being of our drivers first. This year, Dav EL | BostonCoach and GroundLink have been investing heavily in improving user experience while preserving the highest level of duty of care for their customers. This is evident in the launch of a new Dav El | BostonCoach website and mobile app along with GroundLink new iOS and Android apps.”

Boland of Addison Lee Group agrees. “It remains critically important for business travel buyers to have the assurance that their preferred partner meets their duty of care, information and data security requirements as well as their broader social responsibilities. The ability to offer seamless access to premium car services across the globe is now becoming an entry level requirement in meeting the needs of our global customers.”

Safety First
Even in the age of ride sharing and contract drivers who furnish their own cars, legacy black car providers offer a stable of professional chauffeurs/employees to drive their fleet of cars which the company maintains. Of course, careful background checks for these drivers are de rigueur.

Providers tout their driver and vehicle safety standards on their websites. Carey International states that its chauffeurs undergo comprehensive background checks, take random drug and alcohol screening, are evaluated regularly based on customer feedback, take certified defensive driver training annually, and are properly licensed and insured in compliance with all governing laws and requirements. Empire CLS and Blacklane pride themselves on safety as well, beginning with carefully vetted, professional chauffeurs.

Part of Marcou Transportation Group’s commitment to duty of care includes “background checks, drug testing, license checks, insurance, training, and more.” At Addison Lee Group, chauffeurs are “thoroughly vetted” and undergo a “rigorous” background check. When it comes to car safety the website states, “Our fleet is maintained to manufacturers’ standards and always immaculate.”

On the other side of the black car equation, Lyft CEO and co-founder Logan Green says safety is their top priority. “It is our goal to make every ride safe, comfortable, and reliable. Since the beginning, we have worked hard to design policies and features that protect our community. People say they use Lyft because they feel safe with our drivers, which is a product of this commitment."

Lyft Lux is the company’s premium black car service and is “limited to only the most luxurious makes and models,” according to the website. “Every driver is screened before they’re permitted to drive on our platform, starting with professional third-party background and DMV checks. Lyft disqualifies driver applicants for violent crime, felony, sexual offense, or drug-related convictions that appear on a background check.”

Further, the company maintains a “zero-tolerance” drug and alcohol policy. They encourage customers to report “suspicions of intoxicant use” by a Lyft driver, and encourage contact through e-mail or “Critical Response Line” through their call tool. As far as vehicle safety standards, Patel says Lyft has “high safety standards for all vehicles on the Lyft platform, which include meeting any city or state requirement.”

Contrary to popular belief, Uber actually started out as a ridesharing car service for black luxury sedans. Of course today it is more widely known as a peer-to-peer car service which includes everything from standard 4-passenger cars to UberBLACK (not to mention services like Uber Bike and Uber Eats). According to Uber’s website, prospective drivers must possess a social security number and not have any criminal offenses in the past seven years.

Additionally, drivers must have a valid driver’s license, vehicle registration, commercial car insurance, Transportation Charter Permit and airport permit. A driver’s vehicle must be newer than 2012 and be “in great condition.” Qualifying UberBlack vehicles include Audi A6 or A7, BMW 7 Series, Jaguar XF, Lexus LS460 or GS, Infiniti Q70, Mercedes-Benz E-Class or S-Class, and Cadillac XTS.

It has never been easier and, ironically, more complicated for corporate travel managers and business travelers to schedule a black car pick up. While technology has pretty much leveled the track for all the major contenders, there are still differences in the public’s mind about the quality, safety and reliability of each.

Choosing a luxury black car comes down to risks, rewards and personal preference. For travel managers, this is their moment to shine as consultants. With their knowledge and experience, they may be the best ones to steer the ride in the right direction. It all depends on “Who, What, When, Where, Why and How” your travelers want to go.