Sunday, May 17, 2009

Life In The Slow Lane at ASUG09 with Bike Taxi Drivers

(1) The Past

A little history of me and the bike taxi drivers. In 2008, ASUG had our annual conference in Orlando Florida at the Orange County Convention Center. I wasn't there very long when I noticed the bicycle taxis go by, with Oracle database advertising on the seats, and on the drivers clothes. "Pretty neat" I remember thinking, "I wonder who set that up?"

While my hotel was close enough to walk to the conference in about 15 minutes, I saw the bicycle taxis go by often. Noticing the group of bikes gathered on a sidewalk beneath shade trees, I struck up a conversation with them one day, learning that they had been banned from the convention center grounds by SAP security or transportation personnel. Unlike the diesel and gasoline powered buses and taxis circling, idling and polluting the area, bicycles with a few words on them were considered too threatening to approach the vulnerable and gullible ASUG and Sapphire attendees. I blogged about this ban on the SAP Community Network web site that week:

  • On the way into registration I stopped and spoke to the human-powered bicycle taxi squad pedaling up and down International Drive. Good environmentally friendly transport. I promised to give them a plug, so visit or call them at 321-251-4608. I will probably walk over to the convention center, but it's great to have alternate transport.
  • Too bad they were told they couldn't be near the diesel powered buses. Wonder why?
I had one of the drivers take a shot of me and another driver.


Video clip 1:

Video clip 2:

(both from my prior camera, which had no microphone)

Afterward, I brought up the bicycle taxi transportation option during conversations about conference planning. During the winter, I found that RediPediCab Company had a page on FaceBook. I communicated with the owner, Catherine Ojeda [Figueroa], learning about their attempts to find a sponsor for the 2009 ASUG and Sapphire conferences.

The group went to Washington in January 2009 for Obama's Inauguration:
(a few details below).

As the ASUG 2009 conference data approached, I had more email from Ms. Ojeda asking about possible sponsorship. Despite my forwarding the request to SAP contacts, no one stepped forward until the week prior to the conference, when I learned:

  • ... pedicabs have been banned from the Orange County Convention Center during SAP. I guess they are not thinking green.
  • Pretty disappointing. I am trying to find out why.
Then, they were given permission, until the SAP authorities found out RediPediCab was being sponsored by IBM, so the ban was back on.

(2) The Present

"The Present" in the sense that this blog is mainly about my experiences at the ASUG 2009 Annual Conference, held between May 11th and 14th, though I'm writing about it after the fact.

On conference day one, I flew into Orlando, going straight to the convention center with my bags; my flight was early in the morning so I figured I'd check in later in the day. On my way to the hotel I spotted several bicycle taxis, including the owner driving an ASUG board member. At the corner of International Drive and the first hotel, I had one driver (Chris) take my picture being driven by another (Billy). I'm hamming it up here, as you might notice Billy isn't pushing hard, nor are the spokes on the wheel at all blurry.


Later, on the evening of day #2, I spotted Catherine wheeling by with 2 passengers and took this shot:


The image shows a couple safety features, such as the reflecting tape on the seat, and a reflector on the bike down tube. No helmet? I'd want one if I were riding around some of the bad auto drivers I saw while walking around the area.

Wednesday night, Don Henley was in concert for Sapphire/ASUG, though he was brainwashed into saying "Sapphire" instead of "ASUG", like a lot of attendees who seemed to have no idea that the majority of the event was planned and executed by volunteers who happen to be SAP customers, not by paid SAP hacks. Henley sang "Life In The Fast Lane" but I think I prefer life in the slow lane.

Thursday, the conference ended around 1PM. I knew Jon Reed was going to hang around after the end, I wanted to see my former colleague Leon Johnson, and I wanted to catch up with the RediPediCab Company folks. A small burst of rain cut short a fascinating conversation Jon and I had at the Denny's restaurant, so I moved up International Drive to meet the bicycle drivers. In a long rambling conversation, punctuated by gusty winds, doses of rain, and a few surreal moments, I bonded with the RediPediCab team.

You can have one level of conversation with a "service person" such as a cab driver or repairman - "how's the weather, how's the traffic, what do you think of [pick: sports team, news item, random fact]"; spend a little extra time and effort and you get to another level. The bicycle taxi company owner told me how their advertising campaigns were working (or not) - they have ads in the local restaurants, they place ads in Craigslist, and they accept advertising as sponsors. The latter sets them apart from the other bicycle taxis I saw, who seemed less corporate, and more random. I learned a little of the ropes of recruiting, training and keeping drivers, and the tricks to working in traffic (have places to store your bikes, places to get food, places to use the facilities, places to pick up fares).

I learned about the image RediPedi projects, with drivers required to have valid U.S. drivers licenses, and undergo a training program. The training is income, or more of an offset to the lost income when veteran drivers show rookies the right "pedicab operations, customer service, and hospitality skills." My experience is that the drivers are extremely articulate, often highly educated, and are great fun to hang out with. I probably would not say that about the auto taxi and limo drivers I have met. The company has been around for several years, and seems destined to survive.

We talked about how Twitter (@pedicab) and FaceBook could work for a small business like this. It was a fascinating contrast from the huge Customer Relationship Management systems possible from an enterprise software vendor such as SAP to the one-on-one customer contacts managed by an essentially sole enterprise vendor. Catherine started with Craigslist, and has expanded to other social media. The best advice I could give on using twitter is to "be interesting"; no one wants to read boring press releases or monotonous "we're great" boasts.

The employer/employee dynamic was also evident in the stress of a highly physical, public-facing trade. Maintaining a positive public relations face, avoiding injuries, and surviving the weather in a hurricane-zone state were job factors I had not considered until the drivers shared what their daily tasks involve. I would imagine gas-powered taxi drivers resent the competition, and that high-end hotel doormen don't consider this alternate transportation channel in the same league as cars, limos and trucks.

I won't repeat some of the sad stories I heard about ignorant passengers and pedestrians, not to mention competitors, but suffice it to say that the PediCab drivers earn every cent of their voluntary fares. The funny side of this was Chris' boast that he liked riding the biggest passengers, both for the personal challenge of moving large masses, and the bet-winning aspect of "no you can't/yes I can".

The most inspiring story was from the Inauguration in D.C., where a long downhill and uphill threatened to slow the bike taxi to a stop, forcing passengers to walk the remaining distance. Bystanders, chanting "yes we can," pushed the pedicab, drivers and riders, up the rest of the way. Spirit finds us at times.

Drivers take a food and liquid break during a brief Orlando shower. I enjoyed the communal Chicken Nachos, as well as sharing the ice cream served in honor of Billy's birthday, which coincides with Jon Reed, and with Anne Katherine Petteroe, 2 of my SAP Mentor friends.


[videos begin]

Chris catching up with Billy

Jon Reed

Birdman - an International Drive attraction:

[videos end]

(3) The Future

Next year, the ASUG 2010 conference (co-located with SAP's Sapphire) returns to the Orlando area, once again at the Orange County Convention Center. I would hope that the "Sustainability" folks at SAP and at ASUG get their act together a lot better than this year, and invite the pedicabs not just onto the grounds, but into the convention center building. After all, they allow the staff to use Segues, why not PediCabs?

I expect to see news from the bicycle taxi drivers, as well as photos and videos. My plan to drive the bicycle myself didn't pan out on this trip. Maybe next time I'll go a few days early or stay a few days later and pick up a few extra dollars. You never know when you might need a second career!


Marilyn Pratt said...

For what it's worth, I'm totally with you on this one Jim. By the way, my daughter and I got around a part of Panama city this way but under our own pedaling. It's a great idea for sightseeing and fun and reduced carborn.

jonwreed said...

PediCab rocks....these folks are rain or shine too....if SAP wants to follow through on sustainability in Orlando, a little more outreach to the cabby bikers is in order, eh?

- Jon

t_franz said...

These cabs are extremely cool - thank you for giving us the inside scoop (from the spork).
Thinking of TechEd 09 Vienna, I just verified that there is a pedicab ("Fahrradtaxi" in German) company in the city, which we will hopefully see in masses at the congress center. I'll certainly summon one and give them a try.

Gretchen said...

I missed the last bus back to my hotel after the Don Henley concert, so I started hiking. I had walked a lot already that day, going to and fro between the north and south concourses of the OCCC,so after being on my feet most of the concert I was pretty wiped out and really dragging. I was so grateful when a pedicab driver came up behind me and with a quiet and polite "Miss? Hop in", invted me aboard. I rode the rest of the way and will look forward to patronizing them again next year. I agree completely that with two conferences touting their sustainability efforts, the lack of official support for this green alternative was disappointing, and I hope to see a change next year..

Mark said...

I enjoyed using the pedi-cabs, especially when it was >90 degrees F, about 99% humidity, and I was in a suit/tie. A 15-minute walk turned into a 5-minute pleasure, and I got to help some enterprising young guys earn some $$ for working hard.

- M.