Bicycle messengers: The

The holiday season is the time for corporations to remember their top clients, business partners and, most important, public relations contacts with bottles of wine, liquor and floral arrangements. And pedal power has become a favored way to spread holiday cheer.

Published December 31, 2007 by Czech Business Weekly
By: Bryn Bailer

The holiday season is the time for corporations to remember their top clients, business partners and, most important, public relations contacts with bottles of wine, liquor and floral arrangements. And pedal power has become a favored way to spread holiday cheer.

All those items have to get from one point to another though, and in Prague’s city center they usually do so via bicycle messengers. Based on figures supplied by two of the biggest courier companies, bike messengers—which only comprise a fraction of local delivery and courier fleets— each month account for at least 1,000 consignments in Prague. But during the holidays, when businesses court potential clients and acknowledge good ones with perishable items such as cheese plates, holiday cakes and other goodies, the number of consignments increases 100 percent.

“This is the peak season of the year, when the [pace] is crazy,” said David Voverka, co-owner of Messenger, the oldest and largest courier service in Prague. “Two or three weeks before Christmas it becomes like an adrenaline sport—[with] double the deliveries, double the work.”

Messenger, which Voverka founded in 1991, fields more than 200 couriers—motorcycle messengers, van and car drivers, as well as about 50 bike couriers. Last year, the company’s annual turnover was more than Kč 105 million (€ 3.9 million).

Couriers who make large holiday gift deliveries via car or van are the most stressed segment of the market during the holiday season, going from an average of 10 or 15 deliveries daily, to more than 30. But bike messengers certainly are not spared the brunt of the consumer buying spree.

They are expected to ferry holiday items along with routine business correspondence, and when delivery demand outstrips bicycle messenger supply, the workload becomes crushing, Voverka said.

“The worst week of the year [in terms of volume of deliveries] is the week before Christmas, for all our couriers,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re on a bike, or a motorbike or a car. Everyone does double the work.”

At Prague-based Express Parcel System (EPS), a company with just five bike messengers in its fleet of 40 couriers, the story is much the same. “Companies send their clients gifts, bottles of wine, cards—and this is increasing,” said owner Barbora Cornelio, who said her bike couriers make 20 deliveries or more each day in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

To deliver a 5 kilogram consignment from the Vinohrady Business Center at Římská and Balbinova streets in Prague 2 to Monster Technologies Prague, on Wenceslas Square in Prague 1, the cost of an EPS bike messenger would be Kč 92 crowns for a standard delivery in 120 minutes and Kč 120 crowns for express delivery in an hour or less.

EPS, which was founded in 1992, reported an annual turnover of Kč 26 million last year. It offers daily delivery services in Prague, throughout the Czech Republic and in Slovakia.

While bike messengers continue to carry traditional cargo such as legal documents and contracts, during the holiday season they also carry gifts throughout business-intensive Prague 1 and 2.

“There are 20 to 25 percent more consignments in the Christmas season,” Cornelio said. “Bike messengers can take small envelopes up to packages of 5 kilograms. Anything they can keep in their bag.”

That said, there are some things that EPS bike couriers will not deliver—at Christmas or any other time—such as money, medicine, animals or very high-value items including fine jewelry.

A key service

Many businesses expressed an appreciation for the tough work, and some said courier services were an essential part of doing business in Prague’s city center. “They save us time and energy, which is crucial to any company,” said Jan Hrabovský of Prague-based PR firm Ewing Public Relations. “We send at least five packages per week, and the couriers we use are primarily on bikes. … With the number [of pickups and deliveries] that we use the couriers for, and the fact that they are always fast and effective, we consider them to be a very important part of our business.”

The story is much the same at law firm Norton Rose where partner Pavel Kvíčala said that direct delivery by bike messengers has become an accepted—and expected way of doing business.

“In the past you would have sent a trainee, but this makes the business more efficient, and it’s obviously much cheaper to charge a courier than if we spent [the cost of an hourly wage of] a trainee to do it,” he said.

At the Canadian Embassy, commercial counselor Sameena Qureshi said she encounters bicycle couriers from time to time. She jokingly compared them to the lifeblood of local business connections. “It’s like they are part of our circulation system,” she said. “You have the heart— the [logistics service] FedEx [Corporation] planes bearing packages from around the world—and then there are the arteries, the trucking systems that take them from the depot. Couriers are like the capillaries: They go everywhere.”

During the pre-holiday season, with traffic tying up Prague thoroughfares, and holiday crowds choking Wenceslas Square and other shopping areas, bike couriers become the easiest way to move business correspondence from point A to point B. But that does not make the job itself any easier.

“Prague is not the best place to ride a bike,” Voverka said, who was himself a bike messenger in the early 1990s. He added that the city’s hilly terrain—and the twisting and teeth-rattling cobblestone streets—make for tough cycling.

The firm Messenger provides couriers for nearly 4,000 registered clients, and has accounts with large companies like telecom firm T-Mobile Czech Republic, bank Citibank and online computer retailer Alzasoft. For the latter, Messenger dispatches couriers hourly to handle the transfer of goods from company to customer. Products that weigh more than 5 kilograms are consigned to couriers in vans or cars.

The use of motorbike carriers outnumbers other vehicles for mobile phone operator Vodafone Czech Republic. Company spokesman Filip Hrubý estimated that 90 percent of the company’s courier needs are handled by a courier on a motorbike.

“Bicycles are worthy just for short ways … [but] motorbikes are essential for Vodafone,” Hrubý said. “Motorbikes are generally more flexible in the city than cars or bicycles. [They] can sneak out from traffic jams, don’t have problems with parking and are faster than cars.”

Over at Prague accounting firm and consultancy Pricewaterhouse-Coopers Česká republika (PwC), couriers are called upon for between 70 and 80 outgoing consignments weekly, according to communications manager Lenka Čábelová. For some deliveries in crowded Prague 1 and 2, her company specifically requests that the courier company send bike messengers.

“We send small presents to our business partners [this time of year] and thus we need more deliveries than usual— twice or three times more,” said Kristina Voráčková, office manager at PwC. “The proportion of bicycles remains about the same … [and] we also use our drivers to deliver these presents.”

Prague public-relations agency New Deal Communications uses couriers of all stripes, including bike messengers, said Martin Hamšík, spokesman for the firm. And the extra deliveries during the holiday season only occasionally cause less-than-effective performances. “I remember only one problem before Christmas. … Otherwise, the rest of the year it works quite properly,” he observed. “When everyone is sending out gifts and Christmas wishes, the messengers are quite busy. [It was] the only time period throughout the year that we were waiting several hours for a pickup.”

EPS’s Cornelio admitted that the holidays play havoc with delivery times. Deliveries that would normally take two hours can stretch to three. Consignments that might have gone to bike messengers in the past—such as corporate party invitations, which at holiday time snowball into literally hundreds of greeting cards—are passed off to motorized drivers, which further slows the system. But EPS couriers still keep to the one-hour-or-less delivery guarantee for urgent deliveries in Prague’s city center, Cornelio said.

Freelance lifestyle

Although the holiday season is taxing for couriers and courier company owners alike, Voverka said it can, ironically, help courier companies become more efficient during slower times. He said that he does hire extra couriers for the holiday season, but declined to say how many, other than to note that only 15 percent of all applicants actually make it through the testing and training process to become couriers for Messenger.

“At this time of year, it is a challenge for me to improve the system, and manage more people,” he said. “But it is also [an educational tool], and you learn what you could do better for next year.”

In Prague, as in many other cities, bike messengers are independent contractors who are responsible for their own medical and other insurance needs. According to local companies, a bicycle courier can earn from Kč 15,000 monthly up to about Kč 30,000 monthly for a veteran rider who can juggle the logistics of multiple deliveries on each run.

At Messenger, bike couriers are independent, and even though they wear apparel with the corporate logo they are not prohibited from working with other courier companies. “We would like to give them so much work that they wouldn’t have any reason to have contacts with [competitors], but we can’t say they will only work for us,” Voverka said. “But they know we pay regularly, and quite well, and they stay with our company for quite a long time.”

A long history

Another part of the problem is the expanded role that bike messengers play in today’s economy, noted Bob DeCaprio, executive director of Washington, D.C.-based Messenger Courier Association of the Americas, which represents 510 courier companies in the U.S. and Canada, as well as in Romania, Russia, France, Spain, Turkey, the Netherlands and the U.K.

“The courier business has branched out and is more sophisticated and more integrated into the overall transportation supply chain,” he said. “It’s not just a couple guys on bikes taking letters from one law firm to another.

“You can have a container from China, docking in Los Angeles [California, U.S.] and [its contents are] sent to warehouses all over the country. From the warehouse to the final destination, it could be taken by courier. They’re the end of a supply chain that started miles and miles away.”

It’s a chain that has been repeatedly tested by modern communication techniques, but still holds strong, said Bill “Buffalo Bill” Chidley, a former bike messenger who now edits Moving Target, an online magazine for London bike couriers. He said the site gets 25,000 hits a month.

“I jokingly say that the death of the messenger has been predicted since Pheidippides [who was credited with running from Marathon to Athens in ancient Greece with a message in 490 B.C.],” he said. “The story in the 1980s was that the fax would kill the demand for messengers. In the ’90s, it was e-mail. This decade it’s broadband,” he added. “The broader picture is that given rising fuel costs, and the fact that some things still need to be [delivered in person for an original signature], pedal power is going to become more and more powerful.” It also makes sense from a cost-effective point of view, Chidley said. Once a courier’s bike has been purchased, “the only running cost is food for the rider.”