Esteban Yepez was planning a late summer road trip when he found himself frustrated by the number of people he would have to interact with in order to get away.
Yepez doesn’t own a car, and during the pandemic he’s become far more hesitant about renting one. The idea of hopping on a train or calling a ride-hailing service to get to Logan airport, and then waiting in line at the rental desk just seemed risky, he thought, with too many ways of being exposed to COVID-19.
“We’re already doing our best to stay away from people," he said of himself and his husband, who were planning a trip to Lincoln, N.H.
So when he stumbled across a new car rental service that offered to drop off the vehicle at his door, he jumped. “I don’t have to go anywhere?” he recalled thinking. “That makes my trip even better.”
The service is called Kyte, an app which allows users to book a rental car and have it dropped off at their homes. The drivers — called Kyte surfers — often stow motorized scooters in the cars' trunks, and simply dash away after handing over the keys. It’s a mobility concept born out of subverting the unique hassles of booking a rental car, but also one particularly well-suited for this moment, as many people are itching to travel safely while limiting their exposure to others.
And it’s arriving in Boston at an opportune time. The first few months of the pandemic upended the nation’s tourism economy, with airlines, hotels, and travel destinations reeling as they saw cataclysmic drop-offs in bookings.
Despite the public being largely restricted to ground travel, rental car companies were also hit hard. Hertz laid off 10,000 workers and filed for bankruptcy in May, and many other rental companies suffered as Americans canceled flight plans and rental cars to match. “Safety concerns are the number one priority of our travelers right now,” said Chuck Nardozza, the managing director of travel sales for AAA Northeast. “Car rental companies are trying to adapt and putting in a lot of safety protocols in place.”
And after travel restrictions began loosening around the country, Boston-based Zipcar was caught flat-footed when the public began clamoring to road-trip again. The short-term rental company, which is a subsidiary of Avis Budget Group, had trimmed its fleet and cut back on its staff only to see interest in the service rapidly reemerge, leaving frustrated customers unable to find cars or connect with customer service agents. The company has since retrenched, but that’s also provided a window for alternatives like Kyte to step in.
The San Francisco-based startup launched in 2019, and is currently operating there and in Los Angeles. But it’s been testing its service in Greater Boston since the end of July and officially launches Oct. 1. The company has raised $3.5 million and has board members with Kayak and Uber on their resumes.
Unlike most competitors in the ride-hailing game, the company is poised to help bolster the rental car industry, said Francesco Wiedemann, an MIT graduate and one of the company’s three co-founders.
That’s because Kyte doesn’t own a fleet of cars, but partners with established rental car companies and shares revenue with them. “Economically it makes sense, the [rental companies] don’t need counter staff to do all the upselling that people frankly don’t enjoy,” he said, “We actually have a waitlist of companies in different cities who want to partner with us.”
Kyte currently has 50 cars in Boston and employs about 15 “surfers” who clean and sanitize each car as it’s booked. The surfers are contractors -- like Uber or Lyft drivers -- who can choose how many pickups and drop-offs they want to do each day. The company doesn’t provide each surfer with a scooter but many purchase them shortly after starting, Wiedemann said, as it helps them quickly maneuver between jobs.
The daily rates for rentals are competitive with other rental companies, but customers pay an additional $19 booking fee to have the vehicles delivered to their door. For drop-offs, the drivers meet customers at their homes. There’s also no need to refuel, as the company will fill the tank at a market-rate gas station instead of upcharging you on gas, Wiedemann said.
And unlike Enterprise Rent-A-Car, where a driver “comes to your door and picks you up and then you go with them to the rental location and go through the regular booking process,” Wiedemann says, “we bring it to your door and you just start your trip there.”
AAA’s Nardozza said that Kyte’s launch is coming at a fortunate time: TSA reported that Labor Day weekend saw the highest rate of travelers flying since the pandemic started, and he said trends indicate people are willing to begin venturing further afield. And New Englanders are showing signs that they’re ready to hit the roads again as fall leaf-peeping season begins, he added.
Yepez said his experience getting his Kia Forte with Kyte was “seamless,” and while the company is well positioned in this era of being overly cautious, its convenience will keep him as a customer even after there’s a vaccine.
The ease of use “immediately reminded me of when I started to use Uber and Lyft,” he said. “Even after the pandemic, this is how I would want to rent a car.”