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Monday, March 3, 2014

Boost by Mercedes-Benz - a New After-School Transportation Service

--This post is brought to you by Boost by Mercedes-Benz—

When I saw Boost by Mercedes-Benz in the subject line of an email to me, I got excited. Mercedes wants to give me a car! Alas, that was not the case. They wanted to tell me about their new after-school transportation service being tested in parts of the Bay Area. My next thought was, “they’re rolling out Mercedes car service so school kids can get to soccer practice and piano lessons?”

This piqued my interest, and I read on further, eventually talking with the people behind it. After some initial skepticism, I realized that this is a great service for families who need help with after school transportation. It’s not quite an on-call car service (they might get there at some point, but currently require booking 48 hours in advance). Commitment can be as low as one ride, or you can schedule them on a regular basis. Customers can call with less than 48 hours notice, and Boost by Mercedes-Benz will try to accommodate them if possible.

And in spite of my vision of a uniformed chauffeur driving a black Mercedes, they drive kids in Mercedes vans seating a maximum of 7 kids, plus a driver and “concierge.”

One of the Boost by Mercedes-Benz vans
What makes it different?
The Boost by Mercedes-Benz service always has two employees on board. The driver focuses on driving. The concierge (their fancy word French for what might be referred to as a van counselor) is the door-to-door person, meeting the child at the pick-up place (the van might be parked further away), checking them in on the iPad and making sure they arrive at their destination and get checked off as well.

The service is “tech-enabled” meaning that parents will get a text message at pick-up and drop-off, and concerned (helicopter) parents can also follow the van’s progress on their iPhone app or online.
When you register, you’ll post a picture of your kid, used by their concierge to with identification at pick-up. Scheduling is done online, so you don’t have to spend time calling or filling out paperwork and sending it in.

With two staff members per van, children are never left alone. The driver is always with the van, while the concierge makes sure the child is picked up at the proper location and dropped off as well.

A Boost by Mercedes-Benz concierge and rider
Everyone associated with Boost by Mercedes-Benz is Trustline certified, gets background checks (including not only the drivers and concierges, but the management and dispatcher). They get regular drug tests and the drivers’ DMV records are checked.

“Our main goal is to provide safe and top-notch service,” said Regan Long, Boost by Mercedes-Benz’s program lead. That means the drivers are focused on driving, and have many years experience driving shuttles or school buses. The concierges have child development backgrounds, like being school teachers, nannies or working with kids in other ways.

And yes, they have car seats. Let them know what you need, and it will be installed and ready at pick-up.

How it works
To sign up for service, you register at their site. By the way, if signing up with the Internet Explorer browser, it only works with 9 and above, not older editions. You’ll create a profile and you’ll make one each child as well. You’ll upload a picture of your child, so their staff can more easily identify your child at pick-up.

To schedule your ride, go online at least 48 hours in advance. When you plug in your requested date and time, you’ll get a screen that looks kind of like a flight search system, with different options. You’ll narrow down what you want, and will initially get a 30 minute pick-up window. Then 24 hours in advance, their staff manually goes through the routes to make sure the ideal times are met. They’ll approve the route, and email the parents giving the pick-up time within 5 minutes on either side (i.e. a 10 minute window). They will do everything possible to accommodate special requests.

“We have a 95% effective rate because we don’t overbook,” said Regan. The earlier you book, the better likelihood of getting your ideal time you want. If vans are full, the computer system will tell you.  If you really need a ride and the system says it’s booked, call. “For regular clients, we’ll figure out a way. Several loyal clients rely on us daily,” she said. Currently they have three vehicles, with one back-up,

The concierge meets the child wherever the appropriate pick-up place is – like the school’s front office. The concierge will bring the child to the van, buckle the child in, and check them in on the iPad. For initial rides, they’ll also check the child’s photo on the iPad (they can enlarge it), to further confirm they go the right kid. At this point, the parent will get a text message that pick-up is complete, and if using the Boost app, confirmation will be there too. When they arrive at the drop-off location, the concierge walks the child to the appropriate drop-off point and makes sure they are where they are supposed to be. They will then sign the child out on the iPad, and text notification will be sent.

They can’t guarantee the same driver/concierge team because of the way the booking is done. However if the kids ride frequently enough, they’ll get to know all the teams, and vice versa. They have a full time dispatcher on call as well.

What it costs
Individual one-way rides start at $22. You get a volume discount by buying ride bundles. A 5 ride credit is equals $21/ride.  A 50 bundle ride equals $17.60/ride, and these can be shared between siblings.

The Boost by Mercedes-Benz people say the cost is comparable to other transportation services. I haven’t checked pricing so I can’t verify that.

Where/when it’s available
Currently they operate in these Palo Alto zip codes: 94301, 94302, 94303, 94304, 94305 and 94306, plus the following zip codes:  Menlo Park 94025; Mountain View 94043 and Los Altos 94022. They open up new zip codes based on demand. The newer zip codes may not currently be on the Boost website. Also, both pick-up and drop-off must be in the included zip codes. They may extend the zip codes available for camp routes this summer.

The first pick-up available is at noon, and the last is 7:15 p.m. The busiest times of day are 2:30-4.
The Boost by Mercedes-Benz program is in pilot testing. They’re currently scheduled to continue through May 2015, including this summer. Hopefully they will continue after that. They’ve been fine tuning the system since its initial April 2013 launch.

Why are they doing this?
Admittedly, this was one of the first questions I had. Daimler (the parent company) has business innovation units around the world to look at concepts tangential to actual car development and sales. The U.S. one is in Sunnyvale.

Their research in the U.S. market showed that one of the pain points for parents is that they’re working or want more work/life balance, and transporting their kids to a growing number of activities is difficult. “This was a good opportunity to step in and try to help out,” Regan said.
And for now that’s what they’re doing.

If you’re in one of the covered area codes, try out the service and let us know what you think. We’ll be posting a review soon from a reviewer we found to test it out and report back. Stay tuned.

--While this post was sponsored by Boost by Mercedes-Benz, all writing and opinions are my own.--

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