German chauffeur service Blacklane will be integrated with Chinese travel site Qunar in mid January, allowing travellers to access the service in Mandarin. The partnership comes as Baidu makes a large strategic investment in US car-hailing giant Uber, as well as an investment in local Chinese car service YongChe this August.
Despite their close proximity in the market, Blacklane CEO Jens Wohltorf insists that Uber, YongChe and Blacklane have specific strengths, and will not be directly competitive.
“We have a pretty well differentiated product to Uber,” Mr. Wohltorf told Technode, “I’m not very concerned about this, we can learn a lot from Uber and I’m sure they can learn a lot from us.”
Unlike Uber’s on-demand model, Blacklane services are ordered at least an hour in advance. The prices are predetermined and are not subject to price hikes. This may make Blacklane’s market entry more fluid compared to Uber, who have received condemnation for its surge pricing as well as issues with non-professional drivers.
“We do not offer on-demand services or cabs,” say’s Mr. Wohltorf, “down to an hour [before] you can book Blacklane. But typically – like when you fly or arrange a hotel – you do it a few days in advance. This is when you can add a Blacklane to your travel schedule.”
Blacklane has been in the Asia for over a year now, but like other foreign players it has struggled to enter the Chinese market without the support of a local platform like Qunar. Last month, Blacklane also picked up a “mid-seven digit” investment from Japanese investor Recruit Holdings, securing its position in Japan.
According to Mr. Wohltorf, Blacklane’s focus is ease-of-use for business and leisure travellers, and users will “typically order a Blacklane for airport transfers or your hotel transfers.”
The Berlin-based company will also face competition in the form of other car rental services, even if they manage to avoid competing with on-demand giants Uber, Kuaidi DaChe and Didi. This time last year China travel giant Ctrip led a US$100 million funding round for local rental service eHi, following their Goldman Sachs-backed C series. eHi went public at the end of last month, with Hertz-backed player China Auto Rental (CAR) also listing this quarter in Honk Kong.
According to Mr. Wohltorf, Blacklane’s advantage will be in attracting both in-bound and outbound travellers. “We started with 30 cities in the app and they are about to launch our other 150 cities [globally]. It’s our vision to be the global provider of professional drivers and quality cars… to attract more Asian travellers but also more non-Asian travellers travelling to Asia.”
Blacklane’s largest Asian markets are currently Hong Kong and Singapore, though the service is also active in Thailand, Macau, Australia and Japan, as well as cities in Europe and the Americas. Since entering the Asia, they have recorded a preference for the company’s high-end services. They have also launched a region-specific economy option in an attempt to stay competitive the Asian market.
Car services have proved to be a popular investment for Chinese and foreign companies in 2014, with China’s three biggest tech companies, Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu, boasting new investments in local and international car service apps.