May 2017, London
Blacklane: the branded driver service coming to a shelf near you
As one of the new disruptors in ground transportation, Blacklane is finding that the best way forward is to join forces
From an idea that sprang from one of its co-founders being stranded once too often on a street corner waiting to hail a cab, professional driver service Blacklane now wants “to be on every shelf” for the traveller.
Quite simply, says Sascha Meskendahl, the company’s chief revenue officer, we want to make it easy for the customer to book their travel in a ‘seamless’ and ‘integrated’ fashion. But what do these two buzzwords actually mean in the car transfer space, which travellers typically start thinking about three days prior to travel? In essence, if the customer has already handed over all relevant details to an airline or hotel company, then it should be easy-peasy to add a car transfer that results in a driver waiting in the right place, at the right time, and in just one click of a button.
Meskendahl stresses that the traveller simply doesn’t need to be transferred to yet another website to enter all that information again – home address, flight number, hotel destination and so in – which is already readily available.
While Blacklane wants to see its own brand on the shelf, it is open to working with any firm selling travel products. One recent example of this is the extension of its 2013 partnership with global car hire firm Hertz. The launch of Hertz Driver Services by Blacklane will roll out first in the European countries of Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Spain and the UK, giving travellers access to a driver in over 250 cities and 500 airports worldwide.
“There are sometimes cases where you just want to be driven, when it’s a nightmare to take a rental car,” says Meskendahl, citing getting from JFK into the centre of New York, where traffic can be appalling and parking extortionate, as an example.
For the moment, Hertz is the only rental car company that Blacklane is working with but the company sees partnerships like this as the way forward. One important example of Blacklane’s global ambitions, was its decision to integrate with the airline booking solution of global distribution system Amadeus, which powers over 260 websites for over 100 airlines in more than 110 countries.
“Around 40% of all flights are booked through the Amadeus platform,” says Meskendahl. “They have flights in there, they have hotels in there and they have rental cars. Adding Blacklane was a natural progression and addition to the PNR”.
Though Blacklane wants to be on the shelf for both frequent leisure and business travellers, it sees the latter as the biggest growth opportunity. So, the integration with a major GDS was a step in this direction; for corporate travel managers using, for example, Amadeus e-Travel management for their employees, the service is fully compliant with company travel policy. Blacklane is also looking to integrate into business travel tools like TripCase.
It’s now widely accepted that finding a niche in the travel space and keeping it simple is one way to succeed and as Meskendahl puts it: “Our sweet spot is that we offer high quality cars that always comply with commercial regulations. We also offer a generous driver waiting time, so no waiting for the customer.”
With the average Blacklane ride being 25-30 miles, this is no a solution for inner city mobility.
Our sweet spot is that we offer high quality cars that always comply with commercial regulations.
Aside from integrating GDSs like Amadeus, Sabre and Travelport, and car hire firms like Hertz, Blacklane is also building partnerships in other channels. So far it has a commission-based partnership with Expedia in the US, but is looking at other ways to expand its reach with the OTA in other markets.
Airlines, ancillaries and competitive edge
The Blacklane service is also available for travellers flying Lufthansa in the US, and it is in talks with other airlines, though “there is nothing to announce yet”.
In the airline market, however, the firm sees numerous opportunities. Some Middle Eastern airlines, Emirates for example, offer a complimentary chauffeur service for first and business class passengers, and Blacklane believes it could be a good fit for those that want to provide travellers with consistent quality around the world.
Meskendahl also points to the growing importance that airlines attach to driving fresh ancillary revenue streams, which an add-on pro driver service could deliver. Driving loyalty is another airline headache, and by tying up with Miles & More, Blacklane users and members of the frequent flier programme can earn miles to spend as and when they want.
Let’s be clear though, right now this is a tough market to play in. Late last year, a forecast for 2017 by American Express Global Business Travel warned that: “Ground transportation has undoubtedly felt the impact of new industry players and rates should remain flat as capacity continues to exceed demand”.
As one of those ‘new industry players’ Blacklane knows only too well how competitive a market it is, which could explain why its pricing can be as much as a third lower than legacy players.
So, against this backdrop, where is the revenue growth going to come from?
According to Meskendahl, over 50% of first-time users today are business travellers, and once they have used the service it once, 80% will use the network again in a different location. “There is a huge network effect, and our aim is to provide the widest possible coverage. It’s about being where travellers need us,” he says.
At the end of last year, Blacklane was available in over 500 airports, and had added 64 new cities in Asia Pacific.
What Blacklane does stipulate, however, is that its distinct brand is seen on the shelf. “That’s a pre-condition, we want to build a global brand and we have put a lot of groundwork into that by working with tens of thousands of local limousine providers,” says Meskendahl, who says the data shows that this leads to higher conversions. “Relevant customers prefer the Blacklane brand,” he says.
Sascha Meskendahl, Blacklane chief revenue officer, will be joining a panel at EyeforTravel’s European Summit (May 3-4) along with Rero Valkiala, Head of Digital, at Finnair to discuss how brands can join forces to win