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Lyft Bets on Not Being an Asshole to Battle Uber in Las Vegas

A former hotel exec runs Lyft's operations during its first-ever CES.

Lyft

Getting to the Lyft headquarters in Las Vegas in an actual Lyft was surprisingly difficult.

I opened up the app on Tuesday morning, outside a CES convention center, and requested a car — to no avail. The app demanded I go to the front of the hotel, through the swarms of sleepy attendees, past the soulless slot machines. Only there could Lyft drivers pick me up; so decreed the deal struck after a lengthy brawl between the ride-hailing startups and the taxi industry.

I hailed a taxi instead.

This is the first time Lyft and its far larger sibling, Uber, are available at the annual tech confab, held four months after the tech companies won state approval to operate in Sin City. For Lyft, the week ahead is a test of whether it can toe the city’s line and manage the unknown demand for rides when 170,000 techies descend upon the town. It also has to compete with Uber, a ruthless foe.

Lyft’s strategy is to play the charm offensive. It can retain drivers, many driving professionally for the first time, with more hands-on training and better payout, explained Las Vegas general manager Yacob Girma.

Yacob Girma, Lyft’s general manager in Las Vegas and an all-around nice guy
Yacob Girma, Lyft’s general manager in Las Vegas and an all-around nice guy

“We are different in terms of the experience,” he said inside Lyft’s HQ, a shared office space in the city’s downtrodden downtown. Before Lyft, Girma, who started last month, worked as director of strategy for the Sands Casino. “I thought I could bring something unique — some hospitality experience,” he said.

Lyft claims that Las Vegas is among its fastest growing markets, although the company does not divulge ridership numbers by market. Nor would Girma.

They are happy to talk about tips, though. Lyft allows riders to give extra cash to drivers in the app; Uber doesn’t. Overall, Lyft has doled out just short of $60 million — a high price to keep drivers happy. As it takes on the juggernaut of Uber, Lyft has leaned more on this strategy of plying drivers.

It’s a tactic that could hold more water in Las Vegas. “This is a tip town,” Girma said.

Las Vegas is a critical city for Lyft because the distant-second ride-hailing app has pivoted to rely on partnerships internationally, focusing on taking on incumbent taxis and Uber at home. Lyft has taken some bold steps lately, inking strategic deals with three Asian cohorts and, at the onset of CES, with General Motors. Neither has taken effect yet, however.

In Las Vegas, Girma and his small team (he wouldn’t say how big) are focused squarely on converting drivers and, more critically, Vegas revelers into users. They’ve deployed about ten “brand ambassadors” across CES. And they’re dishing out discounts for first-time riders and rewards for drivers, particularly when demand spikes. Like during CES.

Sometimes its foe helps out unintentionally.

Girma and I caught a Lyft ride away from the Strip further downtown, where, he claimed, ridership has grown steadily since launch. Our driver, Nathan, a short, garrulous man who works part-time in insurance, had been driving for a month. (It showed.) He first signed up with Uber, but found that the waitlist for drivers in the city was too long. Lyft’s wasn’t.

Uber may (rightly) point to this as a sign of its growing use. Girma, though, might assign it to a less hospitable approach. “Our competitor feels like a DMV,” Girma said back in the office.

I stand corrected: Lyft isn’t always the nice guy! Of course, you know what they say about the nice guys.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.