After a mototaxi accident that broke his leg, nearly cost him his foot and confined him to a wheelchair for three months, Marc Vanhemelryck decided Phnom Penh needed a car taxi service.
The Belgian, a former administrator at a technology NGO, started Taxi Vantha nearly a year ago, dispatching two cars from his Tuol Kok home. The idea was simple: provide a safe, reliable means of transportation, with standardized prices.
The experiment appears to have worked.
“Business is booming! We can’t keep up with it,” beamed Vanhemelryck on Monday. The entrepreneur credits safe vehicles, meters and innovative marketing for the company’s success.
For example, the taxis are equipped with two-way radios and have digital meters, assuring customers that they are paying a standard price for their ride. A basic fare is 3,500 riel, plus 1,000 per km. In a city where fares are bargained and often argued over, Vanhemelryck considers the meters key to his fledgling company’s success.
In developing the company, Vanhemelryck called on his experience as a taxi driver for tourists in Europe in the 1970s.
But Taxi Vantha is more than a car service.
Vanhemelryck trains his drivers in English, safety and business skills, intending eventually to create a Cambodian-led company. He publishes a newsletter he hopes will become a magazine and he is preparing to build a Taxi Vantha Web page on the Internet. He plans to have a fleet of six cars within a year.
“We are a Khmer business family,” said Vanhemelryck, sitting barefoot in his family’s living room.
Vanhemelryck’s wife, Mom Sam Oeun, his niece and son also work in the company. Though still operating with only two cars, one an ancient Mercedes in constant need of tune ups, Taxi Vantha arguably is becoming an established force in the city.
According to the company’s detailed records, taxi fare revenue increased 50 percent in September from August, and increased still more in October. This coincided with a perceived increase in crime.
“What we try to sell is security,” says Vanhemelryck, explaining that foreigners are particularly concerned for their safety. “They feel safer inside a car.”
Conclusive crime statistics are unavailable, but anecdotal evidence suggests that a spate of robberies frightened the expatriate community. Vanhemelryck, however, attributes his success as much to aggressive marketing as fear of crime.
The Taxi Vantha Newsletter, a 16-page publication of the company’s history, Khmer legend, humor and even a food column, premiered in late August. It was delivered to 800 NGO workers. Vanhemelryck hopes the newsletter will one day develop into a monthly magazine highlighting Cambodian culture.
Vanhemelryck hopes Cambodia will soon catch on to the idea of metered taxis, but right now he is enjoying the open market and lack of competition.