Company bicycles used by employees to travel to work or during service trips are growing in popularity in Belgium. However, many employers still don’t know how to go about introducing such schemes into their businesses.
In December 2015 the Flanders Institute for Mobility (VIM) launched an online platform, based on an analysis of the needs of employees, employers and the bicycle industry. Called BikeForm, the platform connects bicycle dealers with businesses that want to promote cycling within their organisations, and has helped speed-up the implementation of company bikes in Belgium.
In early 2014 VIM project manager Sven Vlassenroot noticed that there was a growing interest in company bikes among employees and companies. In Belgium there are already incentives aimed at stimulating bike use among employees, such as tax reductions for employers. However, the introduction of company bikes seemed to be hampered by their lack of knowledge from employers. Companies took long to make decisions on the purchase of company bikes because of little information, and uncertainty surrounding the consequences regarding maintenance and cost.
The bicycle industry was focused on selling bikes to individuals, not at providing an attractive package for companies with good customer service and maintenance. In addition, retailers sometimes found it difficult to provide and maintain the large numbers of bikes the companies required. This triggered the creation of BikeForm, a project focused at supporting suppliers with knowledge on how they can meet the demand for companies, and helping employers to create a quality service for their employees.
Once he had received an indication that there was a gap between the needs of employers and the offers of bicycle suppliers, Vlassenroot created an online survey for companies with over 100 employees, retailers and bike manufacturers. Retailers were asked about their expectations of the corporate bicycle market and whether they wanted to participate. To get the most up-to-date information available, VIM utilised the Belgian federal government’s Diagnostic Mobilité (Mobility Diagnosis) – a mandatory questionnaire that employers with over 100 employees had to fill out regarding their employees’ travel behavior; it included over 200 questionnaires filled out by Human Resource teams, fleet managers and purchase departments.
Based on this data, the BikeForm website was launched in 2015. On BikeForm, retailers have a platform to present themselves and their offers, while employers can find out appropriate information on how to introduce corporate bicycle schemes. Retailers pay a fee for their membership, which is used to pay for hosting and the web maintenance. Before they become a member they sign an agreement stating that they are a trustworthy seller and provide a certain amount of quality, which VIM sample-checks.
Other content on the website, such as information on bicycle policy and tax-reduction rules and regulations, were provided by Fietsersbond, a Belgian cycling association, and VIM. The portal also contains a tool to calculate the cost and CO2 savings if employers introduce corporate bicycle schemes. ‘Together with the information provided online, this helps companies to make the best decision in less time,’ said Vlassenroot. Following the creation of the platform the focus shifted to maintaining the ‘offline’ community, which included hosting match-making events and organising meetings to explain to retailers what big companies need when it comes to corporate bicycle schemes.
The main investment for this project was time. VIM also decided to hire a professional web developer to build the website to ensure that it functioned well, as it was an acquisition tool for the associated bicycle seller, and to create an attractive portal to entice large organisations interested in purchasing bikes. Second, VIM indentified early in the process to create complex software to calculate how much corporate bicycle schemes could save in costs and CO2. The total project budget was approximately €400 000, which included all aspects of the project, such as the feasibility study and web development.
Due to privacy and commercial reasons, however, concrete results are hard to come by, said Vlassenroot ‘It is not straightforward to indicate the reduction in decision-making time for purchase or to indicate which part of a decision to introduce corporate bicycles is due to the BikeForm platform,’ he said. However, VIM can confirm that BikeForm currently has 23 high-quality corporate bicycle providers, and that 80 companies already used the platform to get in contact with them. Data also shows that 100 companies used the online calculator, and that 1 500 website visitors stayed on the website for long periods (over 10 minutes).
The process from the idea through to the development of BikeForm was not easy, and VIM encountered a number of difficulties. It found that the market for corporate bikes is very different to selling to individuals. Corporate bike fleet owners want to be unburdened and to receive a high level of quality and service. When the BikeForm project started retailers were unaware of the needs of the companies and focused on selling a lot of similar bikes to individuals.
VIM also found that it was a challenge to get several bike retailers at the table. They were used to being competitors and not working together and openly discussing business. ‘You must be aware of the interests of each of the participants and find out how you can tailor to their needs,’ Vlassenroot said. ‘The devil is often in the details. Providers are on the BikeForm to generate business and want to be listed first. But we found a solution: each time the webpage is refreshed or started-up again the order of retailers changes.’
Another delicate issue, Vlassenroot added, was whether or not to allow supermarkets that sell bikes on BikeForm. With low prices and large quantities, is that fair competition to the local retailers? VIM decided to focus first on local sellers, and later discuss the regional and national sellers. VIM found that the effect of an online platform was also over-estimated, and that to really transform both the demand and the supply side of the sector there needs to be an ‘offline’ element. This included match-making events, meetings and sometimes even coaching retailers. Retailers are often individual entrepreneurs used to talking to costumers in their local bike shop, not used to giving a presentation for large fleet owners, or used to offering service contracts for large numbers of bikes. ‘Unless more attention is paid to this, an online platform is not likely to be a success,’ said Vlassenroot.
The major challenge for the future is to make the platform self-sustainable. ‘This needs to be done before current funding ends in 18 months; currently the fees paid by retailers are not enough to keep the platform going in the long-run,’ he said. VIM is currently working on several alternative options for the BikeForm business model.