Ridesharing will look different after COVID-19, but it’s here to stay, says Ola ANZ’s Simon Smith

Ola Australia

Ola Australia managing director Simon Smith. Source: supplied.

As the COVID-19 pandemic sent Australia into lockdown, the ridesharing industry — one that’s been seemingly unstoppable for a number of years now — ground to a halt.

Now, with restrictions easing, the sector is picking up speed again. But that’s not to say it’s going back to the ‘normal’ of six months ago.

For Uber rival Ola, the coronavirus period in Australia has been “a really interesting journey”, says Simon Smith, managing director for Ola in Australia and New Zealand.

Booking volumes were already trending downwards even before the government put restrictions into place.

“Obviously, people were concerned about travelling around and being out and about, and started to change their behaviour before it was compulsory,” Smith tells SmartCompany.

As soon as the stay-at-home orders were issued, “our bookings were hit very severely, as you would expect”, he adds.

Deemed an essential service, ridesharing providers continued to operate throughout the restrictions, offering rides to doctors’ appointments or to the supermarket, and for other unavoidable trips.

“We did go back to our startup roots,” Smith says.

“We had to pivot very quickly.”

All of Ola’s drivers were trained in best hygiene practices, he claims, and cars are now regularly deep cleaned.

Ola also launched Ola Pro, allowing riders to choose a car with a screen between the driver and passenger, and like many of its competitors, Ola also moved into parcel delivery.

Just this week, it launched a tipping service, “which allows customers to show their appreciation when they receive exemplary service from drivers”, Smith explains.

“There’s been a lot going on.”

That said, for the Ola Australia team, going back to the ‘startup’ roots didn’t actually feel like going back very far. The Uber competitor has only been in this market for two years, after all.

“We’ve been there before,” Smith says.

“It was exciting and challenging, but we knew that we had the skills in the organisation to do it.”

The new normal?

While Melbourne is still grappling with the spread of COVID-19, with some suburbs going back into lockdown, other parts of the country are almost back to normal.

Smith, predictably, doesn’t disclose just how significantly Ola’s revenues dropped during the worst of the health crisis, but he does say that in some markets things have picked back up to almost pre-pandemic levels.

“Since restrictions started to ease, we’ve seen very significant growth, led in particular by Perth,” he says.

“Our bookings there are on track for quickly getting back to pre-COVID and possibly even better than that.”

Ola’s business in New Zealand, which had a much stricter country-wide lockdown but has since all but eliminated the virus, is also now seeing a “fantastic growth trajectory”, says Smith.

So while the ‘new normal’ may mean the ridesharing industry looks a little different, Smith doesn’t believe it’s under threat.

The use cases of ridesharing have changed, and will continue to, he says. Obviously ferrying travellers to and from the airport was once a large part of the business, and ehile some people still come and go, that by no means makes up the bulk of the business any more.

Rather, as businesses are starting to make the move back into their office buildings, Smith is seeing a shift towards people using Ola instead of public transport to get to and from work, he says.

“They remain cautious about getting on public transport, and feel that catching an Ola is a safer alternative,” he says.

“We’re moving towards a world in which it won’t be the default expectation that everybody comes into the office every day. When people do, they will probably be more thoughtful about how they get in.”

If they’re travelling into the city less often, people may be more willing to spend more on taking a rideshare, he suggests.

At the same time, there’s a growing “social use case”, he says — that is, people using ridesharing services to meet their friends.

More and more, drivers are delivering people to their mates’ houses, a suburb or two away, rather than to CBD bars and pubs.

“We expect that behaviour to stay in place for a while as well,” Smith says.

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