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February 7, 2013 | 12:00 a.m. CST
It is an enigma Columbians face after a night on the town — how to get home after a few drinks? There’s no need to feel stranded if you can’t find a cab outside the bar now that Trevor Gibson and Matt Lauman started SmartRide, Columbia’s newest designated driving service.
SmartRide, which began at the end of August, sends drivers out in teams. One person drives a customer home in his or her own car, and a chase car follows to pick up the driver and heads to the next call.
WHEN: Phone hours:
Mon. through Wed., noon–10 p.m.;
Thurs., noon–11 p.m.;
Fri. and Sat., noon–2 a.m.;
Sun., noon-6 p.m.
COST: varies; see website
“At the end of the day, what’s the worst part of going out?” asks Gibson, who handles SmartRide’s taxes and finances. “You still have to get your car in the morning. This is a service that allows you not to take a cab to and from your car in the morning.”
The two MU Trulaske College of Business graduates modeled the business after ScooterGuy in St. Louis and Kansas City, which has 1,500 members and takes home an estimated 300 people a week, Lauman says.
He and Gibson discovered ScooterGuy in the St. Louis area. Gibson says the business model was appealing because it had a low investment cost up front. They didn’t have to buy vehicles because only driver- and customer-owned cars are used. Plus, it would be a good fit for Columbia because it is a geographically smaller area where they feel cab services have been poorly represented in the past.
SmartRide uses ScooterGuy’s dispatch center for its calls but is unaffiliated. Both companies offer memberships that decrease the rates per ride. Gibson says that during football weekends this past fall, about 50 percent of their rides were ScooterGuy members who were familiar with the service.
Lauman, who is in charge of marketing, says the hardest part has been getting the community to understand what SmartRide is trying to do and that it’s not a taxi service.
SmartRide not only picks customers up but also provides drivers for longer trips to wineries, sporting events and other occasions.
Gibson and Lauman are also focused on increasing their daytime business. SmartRide takes elderly customers to the grocery store or doctors’ appointments or brings people home from outpatient care.
Based on the more than 150 rides provided since August, Gibson and Lauman believe things are going well. Both say SmartRide receives a lot of repeat business.
One repeat customer, Jody Essner, says the convenience of leaving her car at home is fantastic and has recommended the service to her neighbors.
“Obviously, there’s the college sector that goes out and has several drinks in one evening, but even if you go out to dinner with your spouse or girlfriends and have a couple glasses of wine, legally you shouldn’t be driving home,” she says.
Lauman says their customers are often professionals who lead busy lives and prefer convenience. “We’re a very affordable driverfor- hire chauffeur service,” he says.
All SmartRide drivers have a Class E chauffeur license, indicating they get paid for transporting fewer than 15 passengers, and several formerly drove taxis. The company has 10 drivers, which is double what it started with. Gibson says one team can cover several calls because the average ride within city limits takes about 20 to 30 minutes total. However, they’ve taken customers as far as Jefferson City and Boonville.
Lauman says the next step will probably be expanding to Jefferson City and Lake of the Ozarks.
Until then, he’s trying to spread the word about SmartRide by partnering with local businesses, restaurants and bars. Bleu’s patrons receive discounted rides, for example.
Lauman also goes to parking lots where people park at night and leaves information about SmartRide. When the owners of those cars return in the morning, they have an alternative to abandoning their vehicles.