Party van partners talk dentists, disco balls, and drunks.
When Kevin Todd became the seventh driver Uber approved in West Virginia after ride-hailing was legalized here in 2016, he was driving a Dodge Caravan—not the leanest ride.
“There was no uberXL here at first,” Todd says. “So here I am driving around in this gas-guzzling van running uberX rides, allowed to transport not more than four people at a time, barely breaking even.” He begged Uber to start uberXL in West Virginia, for up to six passengers, but the company felt the market wasn’t strong enough yet.
“I had to figure out a way to have people hand me more money.”
Figure it out he did. See for yourself when you and four or five friends head out for drinks one evening soon. Request an Uber and, since you’re a crowd, make it an XL—Uber eventually relented. If a black van pulls up and its side door glides open, a hip-grinding bass line spilling out and rainbow lights sprinkling across a white shag rug, you’re in luck: It’s Uber Kevin. Or it might be his partner in rides, Uber Marti.
A former limo driver who also drove paratransit for disabled riders, Todd has a head for marketing and a heart for customer service. “Maybe a month and a half into driving Uber, I threw some party lights in there. I saw this really cool disco ball at Walmart, and I figured out a way to hook that up, too.” He bought a tablet so riders could set the mood using his Spotify account. “I got these glittery pillows and a faux fur rug—I even had a little electric fireplace in here. Next thing you know, I was the Party Uber, and every ride was a $10 to $20 tip. I was making more in tips than I was in fares.”
It was some months later when Uber driver Marti Jones messaged Todd on Facebook to tell him how much he irritated her. But now they drive twin party vans, the best rides around.
Driving Uber is a business
Todd and Jones drive Uber and Lyft, the other popular ride-hailing service, as their full-time jobs. They used to just roam Charleston. “But we’d drive people up to Morgantown, and students started asking, ‘When’s the next time you’re coming up?’” Todd says. The pair saw the opportunity and started answering the ride-request ping in Morgantown most weekends.
When they drive in Morgantown, Todd and Jones drive only as XL—they leave the parties of four and fewer to local drivers. “We’re not taking business away from anybody. If anything, I think we’re enhancing business,” Todd says. “We’re making it more exciting. The more we’re out there, the more people say, ‘We’re going to call for an Uber.’”
He slips into a rant on the topic of marketing. “Some of the newer drivers, they sign up, they get approved, they find a spot, they park and turn on the app. ‘Ha! I’m an Uber driver!’ No—you’re not,” he snorts. “Get out of your vehicle, walk into businesses, and advertise yourself. Go into dentist offices and say, ‘I can bring your customers that cancel on you because their cousin or nephew or sister can’t make it to drive them.’ You’d be surprised what people haven’t thought of to use Uber for.”
Jones is helping nursing home staff download the app and explaining how Uber could help nurses take residents to Walmart, or even fishing, in just one example of their efforts to expand the ride-hailing market. The two of them also recently added kayak racks to their roofs and are promoting themselves as shuttles for paddlers.
If they’re better-looking than you, join ’em
He got called to a party in Charleston’s South Hills neighborhood in the fall of 2016—dozens of people out in the yard. A bunch of them wanted to go to the Copper Pint Pub downtown.
“I open the side door, lights going, sound rocking, and all the people come and say, ‘Oh man, I want to ride this one!’ ‘Six of you at a time, that’s it.’” Others had to wait for the next Uber. “We take off and they’re rocking, having a good time, I’m singing with them, handing out glow sticks. I get to the first stop sign, and I see a vehicle coming the other way. Gorgeous redhead. Me being single, I’m going to wave. She just stared at me. I continued on my way.”
Some months later, he got a message on Facebook from someone he didn’t know: “I hate you.”
Jones had gotten into driving Uber not many weeks before that party, to supplement her husband’s income. She was hooked from the beginning. “It’s a little addicting,” she says. She liked the mystery of it, not knowing where she’d go next until she picked a rider up. “That’s the thrill. I love the interaction, meeting new people, seeing where they’re going. I’ve always liked driving and traveling, and it’s just nice to be bounced around town.”
She pulled up at the South Hills party just after Todd left. “I passed that guy on the road, all the lights and everything going, and I thought, ‘Daggone it—I’m going to roll up in a plain old van.’” Those riders turned out to be fine with it, but after that day it seemed like she heard about nothing else. “Every rider I picked up would say, ‘There’s this guy, he has this really cool van, and lights, all kinds of entertainment. We had so much fun! We were so glad we got him!’ It made me feel like I was not going the extra mile. I was a little miffed.” Todd wasn’t hard to find on Facebook, so she finally messaged him in early 2017—angrily, in jest, but then to see if he’d help her fix her ride up like his. He agreed.
“Yep, it’s this pretty redhead,” Todd recalls of meeting Jones in person in early 2017. “I’m going, ‘I’m in so much trouble—this person is going to steal every one of my customers. I gotta think fast.’”
As it happened, Jones drove a Dodge Caravan like his. She’d bought lights and a rug to set herself up like him. As they worked, they brainstormed ways to make people more aware of Uber and make it more fun. One idea was a “blind dating game”: One of them would pick up a willing person at a bar downtown, and the other would pick up three of the opposite gender. It’s not quite clear what was supposed to happen next, and they never pursued it. “But that’s the kind of thing we talked about when we first met,” Jones says.
They just clicked. Todd said to Jones, “Hey, I’m always getting calls for bachelor and bachelorette parties, groups going up to Morgantown, but I can only seat six. How about if we go in as partners and we can seat 12?”
Uber Marti and Uber Kevin have worked together ever since. Her irritation has turned to admiration: “He can roll up on anybody in the worst mood, and by the end of the trip they’re having a blast—they’ll even thank him.” He enjoys the partnership. “Me and her husband get along really well. He didn’t sleep at night until I came out of the woodwork. Now he takes care of Marti at home, and I take care of her when she’s on the road.”
They’ve upgraded their party vans with high speed Wi-Fi and 19-inch flat screen TVs. Passengers can munch on Twizzlers and mints and drink bottled water while they play video games or surf DIRECTV. When WVU sporting events are televised, riders can watch them live.
Driving in Morgantown
“That place really does have its own culture. It’s nothing like the rest of West Virginia,” Todd says of Morgantown. He likes the enthusiasm students bring to Uber rides. “We’ll pull up in our vans with the lights all going and the music pounding out the door, and they come running at us like we’re the ice cream man.” He likes playing tour guide for international visitors, too. “Helping them out and letting them know about places to go see in West Virginia—we’re like ambassadors. You have to let them know that they’re welcome here, that this is a great place to be.”
Driving in Morgantown also has its downsides. Overserved riders have puked in both vans a time or two. Also, this city hasn’t quite figured out how to work ridesharing into the downtown nightlife mix yet.
“Stopping on High Street isn’t really a safe option,” Jones says. It also gets drivers ticketed. She tries to educate passengers she drives to High Street. “From 7 to 10 at night, I tell them, ‘When you’re ready to leave, go to one of the side streets or to the parking lot.’ I do that because at midnight, 1 in the morning, when I pull up, if I have to call the rider and say, ‘You have to walk around,’ they might be too drunk to understand.” She wishes the city would designate a lot or some other safe drop-off and pick-up point for ride-hailing the way taxis have cab stands.
Todd has been ticketed in Morgantown a couple times—not for stopping on High Street, but for his light show. And maybe also for a tendency to wisecrack when things get tense. In his telling of it, the officer who pulled him over the first time said the disco ball was obstructing Todd’s view out the back. “No, it’s not,” he says he retorted, “because the person in the back seat with the big head is obstructing my view of the disco ball. Should I have him take it off?” He may have been lucky, at his court appearance, to get off with a $100 fine—his usual Morgantown getup of a bling jacket and gold shoes provoked the judge to ask him, “What are you, John Travolta or something?”
But as he does everything, Todd turns encounters with the law into opportunities to serve the community and, at the same time, generate new business. “Hand the police officers your card so they have a go-to person. If they pull up on an accident scene, or a drunk driving scene where this guy is getting hauled to jail and his family members or friends are stranded, they can call you.” Drive the stranded people home for free and hand all of them your card, he says. “I promise you it will come back to you tenfold.”
They talk about the less obvious costs of Ubering. “The hills in Morgantown make us money, because a lot of the students will call for an Uber to go two blocks because it’s uphill,” Todd says. “But I have to pay for my brakes to get replaced every month and a half whenever I drive in Morgantown.” He gets an oil change with synthetic oil every two months, and goes through tires by the truckload. “And it’s essential that you actually purchase a monthly pass with the local car wash instead of paying for each car wash individually, because you could easily go over $100 a month.”
What about Uber versus Lyft? Todd likes Lyft for the GPS-located cartoon character the driver can see of the customer requesting a ride. “We can pull up to the front of a bar and look down at our app and see this stick figure standing there in the bar,” he says. “Or it might be two blocks away—but at least you know where the person is.” With Uber, a driver just has to hope. On the other hand, he likes that Uber pays for the drive to long-distance pick-ups. “Say it’s 15 minutes away, we’re also getting paid for time of travel—not that much, pennies, but at least they’re aware that they should pay us something for traveling that far out.”
They answer the inevitable questions about sketchy situations. “I’m pretty comfortable with myself as far as feeling safe,” Jones says. “I did have one guy that became a little inappropriate. I reported it to Uber, and I actually got a phone call back. They said that they would look into restricting this rider’s access to the app.” Todd hasn’t felt unsafe, but he has twice kicked people out mid-trip. “A guy slapped his girlfriend. Or wife,” he says of one of the instances. “They were back there having a hard time, and he just backhanded her. I said, ‘Sir, you’re going to have to get out. Ma’am, you can get out if you want to, or I’ll take you on. I’ll cancel the trip—nobody’s being charged.’ The guy started cursing at me, and I said, ‘Or I can call the law.’’’ Driving as partners helps with safety. “I’ll call Kevin and go, ‘Hey, hang on the phone with me for a few minutes while I’m on this ride,’ because sometimes you get a feeling,” Jones says. “He’ll do the same thing if he gets a girl that’s out of it. We keep track of each other that way.”
At Los Agaves, Jones and Todd tell new drivers their surprisingly few stories about pukers, if they’re asked. They’ll also share an unexpected observation: People don’t puke in a party van. “They have that adrenaline going at the club,” is how Jones explains their theory about it. “If you keep them on a little bit of a high, just keep that pumping for the five to 10 minutes it takes to drive them home, that keeps them from getting sick.”
They also clue drivers in to the side benefits of driving Uber and Lyft. Jones, for example, makes productive use of her downtime. “You can just have the app turned on—I can do laundry at home while I wait for a ride request.” And you can’t beat the free-ish vacations. “Drive down to North Carolina or Florida,” Todd says. “Ping, ping, ping, ping—your hotel’s paid for. Two more, your meals are paid for. One more, your fuel’s paid for, too.”
Be a good guest
With all of the marketing and mentoring, Todd—and Jones, too, with a little less flash—are spreading a strong customer service ethic into Uber all over West Virginia.
So when you’re lucky enough to get one of the party vans, enjoy the ride. Pick your music, groove on the light show, play Pac-Man, twizzle a Twizzler.
When you get where you’re going, you’ll have a chance to tip and rate your driver. Think about this other rant of Todd’s: “People say, ‘I had a customer the other day.’ No.” He’s thought a lot about this. “They’re a guest. Treat them the same as you would in your house, and everything will work out.”
written by Pam Kasey
photographed by Carla Witt Ford and Zack Harold