Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

I got a good sense about the diverse ways that even one corporation could look at car services when I was invited to appear on NBC's "Today" show.



It was arranged that a car would pick me up at a specified time from my apartment. Sure enough, a Carey limousine was waiting for me. The driver offered complimentary bottled water and said I should feel free to use the car phone.

When my broadcast segment ended, I was directed to find "No. 215" among a line of the cars parked across the street from Rockefeller Center.

It was a wonder that car 215 hadn't yet been sold to a monster truck rally for crushing. I couldn't imagine how it had passed an emissions test; it appeared to have originated in an era when cars drank gas laced with lead.

When I first saw 215, I thought perhaps I had insulted my host during our segment but, given the long line of 215ish-looking cars, I concluded that, our purpose served, NBC simply wanted to get me and other guests home in as economical a manner as possible.

It is on this very hope -- the hope that there are diverse car service needs, even perhaps within one corporation -- that GroundLink, a relatively young car service company, presses forward in the age of Uber.

GroundLink CEO Dean Sivley was an early leader of Orbitz for Business, an online travel agency (OTA) designed to disrupt traditional travel management company (TMC) models. The irony is not lost on him that he has recently come to believe that TMCs and traditional travel agents may play an important role in his uphill battle against disrupter Uber.

Actually, ironies abound. Well before Uber emerged, GroundLink believed that the car service segment was ripe for technological disruption. It was put together by private equity firm Convest from a black car service company and the software and tech assets from two other companies.

The problem it set out to solve was similar to a challenge Sivley had faced at Orbitz. When Sivley was pitching Orbitz to corporations, potential clients liked the technology, but they also liked the services their TMCs provided. Their preference would have been to keep the customer service of their TMC, improved by Orbitz technology, but given a choice, TMCs weren't keen to swap service for technology.

(This deadlock was broken only last May when IBM persuaded Orbitz and American Express, its TMC, to work together.)

GroundLink hoped to get around the either/or dilemma by acquiring Limo Anywhere, a provider of car service reservation software. Once it owned a commonly used technology, the company franchised GroundLink into a ready-made global network of car services that already used Limo Anywhere.

Its early booking app pioneered features now associated with Uber, such as the ability to monitor a car's progress as it makes its way to a waiting customer.

But the model didn't foresee the meteoric rise of the sharing economy, which fueled Uber's growth.

GroundLink isn't on the ropes, according to Sivley. It has franchisees in 81 countries and saw year-over-year growth of 30%.

"The market is more segmented than Uber Black and Uber X," he said. "There's diversity within corporate and consumer travel. Uber is driven by technology, but we think duty-of-care standards are important, and our franchisees adhere to them."

I told Sivley I'd read an essay positing that companies like Uber and Airbnb are, in essence, the new model for franchising because it's more efficient for customer reviews to enforce standards than for franchisers to monitor franchisees. When Uber contractors get bad reviews, they're simply booted.

Sivley responded that Uber is "the antithesis of a franchise. You don't want to leave screening to customers. Even one rape is not an acceptable outcome [a reference to an Uber driver accused of assaulting a female passenger in India]. A company has a responsibility to screen."

Acknowledging that, overall, Uber has brought car service pricing down, Sivley asserted that when it comes to price, Uber does not necessarily hold an advantage.

"We saw volume taper from a banking customer," he recalled. "When I spoke to them, they said some employees were using Uber. I took a bet and suggested that they do an audit on overall Uber costs, which often include 'surge pricing' at a multiple of base pricing, and which can exceed estimates when traffic is bad. They compared that to what they'd been paying us. Our volume with them is now back up."

Although individual consumers might not go to the trouble to do the math, Sivley is betting that TMCs will. He points to preferred-supplier status with TMCs and Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. He has partnered with Leading Hotels of the World, and GroundLink has preferred status with many airlines, some InterContinental Hotels Group brands and can be booked through the expense management tool Concur.

Four months ago, he released a tool called Book on Behalf for travel agencies to book clients and receive commissions.

Personally, I've been soured on Uber by its dirty tricks against competitors; an executive's comments suggesting witch hunts be conducted against critical journalists; contracting a driver with a history of sexual misconduct accusations; and imposing surge pricing in the midst of a terror attack. Yes, they have apologized for all of the above, but I'm not sure they understand the concept of standards well enough to be credible enforcers of them.

OTAs were incredibly successful disrupters of travel distributions. Still, there's a thriving, though diminished, community of successful travel agencies. Uber and its peers have changed car service models forever but, similar to retail travel distribution, there will always be a place for competitors who evolve and sharpen focus on service and standards.

In other words, GroundLink to get me to Rockefeller Center. Uber X to bring me home.
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