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Uber's driver meeting: Behind closed doors

The ride-hailing company brought 35 drivers to San Francisco to talk about everything from earnings to Uber's app. The drivers say they're hopeful.

Petra Vallone didn't know what to expect when the ride-hailing service invited her to attend its first-ever Driver Advisory Forum in January.  

But just two weeks after getting Uber's emailed invitation, she was on a plane from Glendale, Arizona, to San Francisco, where she would join 34 other drivers. Uber paid for meals, a two nights' stay at the swanky Hotel Nikko and gave them each $500 in ride credits to get around town.

uber-driveradvisory-forum-15

Uber flew drivers to San Francisco from around the US for its inaugural Driver Advisory Forum. Here's the full group with CEO Dara Khosrowshahi (center).

Uber

The January 16 summit was part of a major push by Uber to mend relations with drivers. It's a big task for new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, who's trying to fix a mess left behind by his predecessor, Travis Kalanick, who was forced out last June. That effort includes convincing the company's more than 3 million drivers that the privately held company, which investors say is worth $72 billion, really does care about them.

Uber's existence depends it: Without drivers, there aren't customers and without customers, the company doesn't have a business. But drivers have become increasingly unhappy with steadily lower incomes and longer working hours. They've staged protests over pay, filed lawsuits for being classified as contract workers instead of employees, and switched to rival Lyft.

That's added up to abysmal driver retention over the past couple of years. Of the 75,000 drivers in the US, only 20 percent said they would stick with Uber for more than a year, according to an April report by The Information.

Uber last March pledged to "overhaul" its relationship with drivers -- well before Khosrowshahi joined the company in August. In June, it instituted a program called "180 days of change," adding 38 new features -- including tipping and 24-hour phone support -- aimed at helping drivers. And in December, the company announced it was creating the twice-yearly advisory forum and would pay to fly drivers to San Francisco to discuss pressing issues with executives.

"It's a work in progress, for sure, but I think they are trying hard," said Vallone, a school bus driver who, for the past year, has driven about 20 hours a week for Uber. "Otherwise they wouldn't think about getting their drivers together and having their feedback."

Discussions during the first day-long summit centered on drivers' pay, Uber's phone and email support, and improving the app, said Vallone and Bill Steigerwald -- the two drivers Uber let talk to CNET about the closed-door sessions.

"I got the sense that they were genuinely interested in hearing from drivers," said Steigerwald, who flew in from Pittsburgh. "It was clear that they were determined to change the culture of Uber from the headquarters down to the drivers."

#BuildingTogether

In a blog post, Uber called the conversations "insightful and constructive." The company provided no other details.

"Great convo with drivers from all over at our very first Driver Advisory Forum," Khosrowshahi tweeted the day after the gathering. "Awesome feedback that will feed into our product roadmap and business strategy going into 2018. #BuildingTogether."

Steigerwald, who has driven more than 60,000 miles for Uber over the past three years, called meeting Khosrowshahi a highlight and "sort of like the grand finale" of the event. Uber's CEO spent about 45 minutes with the drivers, assuring them at the end of the day that the company is working to do better by them. Khosrowshahi also fielded questions about Uber's profitability (he described it as "competitive" in some cities) and the timing for going public. He dodged that question.

"We've had a lot of drama. Thanks for sticking with us," Khosrowshahi told the drivers, according to Steigerwald. 

Drivers came in from across the US, including Georgia, Washington, Tennessee, Connecticut and Florida, Steigerwald said.

Besides Khosrowshahi, the drivers met with a number of product managers and executives, including Chief Operating Officer Barney Harford and Meghan Varena Joyce, regional general manager for US and Canada.

"It was packed with teams coming in and talking to us," Vallone said. "They split us up into little groups so they could get more feedback."

Steigerwald and Vallone both said they suggested improvements. Vallone said she'd like better navigation in the app to avoid any disputes with riders. Steigerwald wants more "destination filters," which let drivers pick up passengers on their route home.

"The 180 days of change were all huge improvements," Steigerwald said. But "that should've been done three years ago."

Last month, The Rideshare Guy blog for ride-hail drivers described Uber's Driver Advisory Forum as half public relations/half focus group "with the goal of opening a dialogue between Uber corporate and drivers." 

"This is actually more useful than one might think,"  wrote Christian Perea, one of the blog's authors.

"Old Uber would never have done this, so this does indeed signal that Uber is changing from a more adversarial position toward something pretty much everyone is more comfortable with: a boring corporation."

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