Streets for People / Key West Transit’s New On-Demand Service Is Off and Running. Now the City Needs to Put Real Marketing Money Into It

On November 30 Key West Transit launched its innovative Uber-like on-demand transit service called “Key West Rides.” In just a week over 410 people have downloaded the app and a couple hundred people have taken one, two or five plus rides. This is a promising start. The Transit Director tells us that they are currently focusing their efforts on transitioning existing customers to the new way of riding.  

We’re rooting for Key West Rides to succeed because a healthy, green and prosperous island needs a well-functioning transit system as an alternative to the congestion and pollution the increasing number of vehicles brings to our paradise. Our beleaguered workforce needs decent options they can depend on, and we want visitors to bike or ride the bus. So, we’re perplexed that in a $5.7 M transit budget only about $30,000 is dedicated to marketing. The City spends almost $300,000 marketing the Historic Seaport, the TDC spends godawful amounts of money on general advertising and gives hundreds of thousands of dollars to organizations across the city to advertise events and destinations. So, why doesn’t someone provide our little transit system with some real money and real help via some marketing vendors?

There’s no substitute for frequent, easy-to-use service. And Key West Transit is working on doing just that. But studies show that you can get a 10 to 30 percent increase in the investment of putting bus service on the street by reaching out to people and educating them about the service and how to use it. You’d be surprised at the number of people who are intimidated about using a bus. Likewise branding and marketing can enhance existing riders experience and attract new riders to try the system. In a tourist town, where there’s constant turnover, this is even more important.

Market research also indicates that once someone tries a product, they are more likely to come back. But you’ve got to get them to try it first. We’d like to suggest to our friends at the City that they take marketing their bus service way more seriously because it’s good for the system’s bottom line. With this in mind here’s a baker’s dozen things the City should be doing to market the Key West Transit family of services: Key West Rides, the Duval Loop, and the Lower Keys Shuttle.

Current Key West Transit Marketing Efforts

We asked Transit Director Rod Delostrinos what marketing things they were doing for the new service beyond the few social media posts we’d seen. Here is his thoughtful response:

“We are currently running both fixed route and demand response during this soft launch. Our current focus is on transitioning the current ridership (generally transit dependent customers) to the on-demand transit. Beside the marketing items you have seen, all buses are handing out flyers. We are also posting flyers at every bus stop. We are scheduling presentations at the Senior Center, Poinciana Gardens, and in Bahama Village. We also have On Demand Transit information on the Infotransit screens on the Gillig buses. From there we will widen our marketing efforts to radio PSAs, more in-person presentations, and expand to print advertising. As we are still short staffed and learning the ins and outs of the system, this crawl, walk, run approach seems the best strategy to provide the best service possible. I want to improve Customer Experience rather than focus increased ridership numbers. I believe the former will fuel the latter.”

We like the Director’s approach and emphasis on improving the customer experience first rather than focus on getting people on board right away. But in a few months, when all the kinks are worked out and they’ve stopped running the North and South Line fixed routes, the City needs to give Rod’s team the tools to market all three of the services at a higher level than what is currently being imagined. 

Here’s how:

A Baker’s Dozen Things Key West Transit Can Do to Better Market Themselves 

Branding, marketing, outreach, and education isn’t done as a means unto themselves but rather to get butts in seats. Good communications leverage the investment in the service itself and gets you more riders per dollar of investment. The Small Business Administration says that companies should spent between seven and 12 percent of an annual budget on marketing. Our cursory look at Key West Transit’s budget shows that Promotional Expenses are about half of one percent (0.005%). Suffice it to say, a lot more resources need to be allocated here. With even just a five percent marketing budget of about $300,000 one could likely do most of the items here. 

1 – Hire Some Help

Key West Transit doesn’t have any marketing or communications staff. The existing team is already stretched thin. We can’t expect them to do the following 12 things well. So why not hire a marketing support team. The Historic Seaport does this. And many for-profit and non-profit and other government agencies do to. Put out the RFP, hire the firm and get the following done.

2 – Brand the Enterprise 

Bring in some professionals and brand the entire enterprise. Key West Rides, the Lower Keys Shuttle, and the Duval Loop. Are they all distinct services of the same Key West Transit family? What brings them all together? In 2016/2017 FDOT paid South Florida Commuter Services and an ad agency (the wonderful Diaz Cooper) to come in and brand the Duval Loop from the website to the buses, to the bus stops. It was a job well done. (Here’s the story.) Time to do it for the whole agency.

3 – Develop a Marketing Plan

Once the professionals have gotten the branding straightened out, develop a marketing plan that is tied to the fiscal year and budget. Follow it. 

4 – Create a Communications or Public Relations Center

The agency is too big and important to not have its own communications point person. This is a different skill and practice than marketing, but these days, especially with social media, they go hand in hand. Think of this as the system’s own, part-time Alyson Crean, who does such an amazing job for the Key West Police and City. Part of communications means putting out reports on ridership, budgets, what’s been done well, and what can be done better. Importantly, having a communications arm allows Key West Transit to share how it wants the system to grow in the future and what is needed to get there. It creates advocates! Lack of information/transparency sow’s mistrust. 

5 – Ask Existing Customers to Spread the Good Word

To its credit, the Duval Loop has a 4.5 out of 5 rating and is ranked #2 of 11 services in the Key West Transportation (mostly private rental services) category off of 123 reviews on TripAdvisor. This is good news. Make a big deal of this. Ask customers through in-bus advertising to share their experience on TripAdvisor and other rating services and on their own social media. And these positive comments should be shared on and its social media channels. (Of course, that means redoing the website and starting some social media…)

6 – Rebuild the Key West Transit Web Site

Yes, the mobile version of the website is quick and easy to use, and so is the new Key West Rides app, but for the other 50% of people who often use a traditional desktop instead of a mobile device, the current Key West Transit website doesn’t build confidence in the system. There’s a number of good firms on the island, like who could rebuild the site in a jiffy. Let’s do it! 

7 – Do Social Media

Hard to believe but Key West Transit doesn’t have its own social media presence. It isn’t like they need to be everywhere, all the time, but come on now, at least get a Facebook page. This is low-hanging fruit these days. We don’t even need to elaborate.

8 – Reach Key West Workers Through Their Employers

Employers can influence how their employees get to work – use the connection to get more people riding the bus. In transportation demand management (TDM) research, the number one strategy for influencing commute behavior is working with employers. Key West Transit should develop an easy-to-use portal on their new website for employers to become partners with the agency. KW Transit can provide each employer with a big map of the transit system/info to display in a break room with bus schedules. They can provide discounted passes for Key West Rides and Lower Keys Shuttle.

9 – Reach Key West Visitors Through Hotels, Inns, B&Bs and Vacation Rental Companies

Without fail one of the first questions front-desk and concierge people get asked is how do I get around? Rather than have these folks send these customers looking for rental cars and rental scooters wouldn’t it be nice if their first instinct was to share information about the Duval Loop and other buses? But in order for this to occur Key West Transit needs to make it easy to do so by providing lots of map and schedule information. Perhaps a framed route map on the wall or something that can be laid out on the desk. Simple take-one boxes that are constantly restocked and reminders of the website address so people can type it into their smartphone. Hotel staff have a million other things to do, so make it easy on them. Join the Lodging Association and attend their events.

10 – Develop a Strong Ground Game

Look around town for some great examples of a strong ground game. Start with each of the major water sports companies or Key West Finest. They all have excellent maps and brochures. Their people make sure these are stocked at all the lodging and take-one boxes across the island. Their people regularly visit lodging staff to make sure they have information and are up to date on the latest offering and specials. Copy this approach and do it in-house or hire it out as there are a number of companies that specialize in this. That way Key West Transit can reach the employers, lodging and retail people to carry the system’s information to the potential end users.

11 – Partner with Others

 Key West Transit should have their routes, especially the Loop, on as many of the maps and guides around town as possible. Don’t expect companies to simply do this as a public service. KW Transit must barter, trade, and pay to get there. A partnership is a two-way street and that way everyone wins. Make sure Key West Transit are members of and active participants in the Lodging Association, the Business Guild, the Chamber, Mom n Pop Key West and others.

12 – Put Information at the Bus Stops

The point of purchase – or the bus stop – is one of the best places to sell the product. But you actually have to put map and schedule information at every stop. You have to brand the stop as part of the system, so it looks like the bus, the website and marketing materials. As well as a sign that tells you what route this is and how to use it. While we have some hope because of the Final Mile bus stop project, this needs to become a priority now for the new Key West Rides service.

13 – Promote ALL Alternatives to the Car, Not Just the Bus

Studies show that transportation choice and options are what people want. Those who use one form of alternative transportation, like a bike, are more likely to want to use another mode, like the bus, or a scooter or Uber, Lyft and taxis. So Key West Transit should promote and provide information for all alternative modes. People today often like to make one-way trip decisions, perhaps taking the bus in to work and catching a taxi home. Being a one-stop shop for all the alternatives to driving is a way to lift ridership on the bus. Hmmm… perhaps there’s already a brand that can do that like Car-Free Key West. So whatever branding Key West Transit comes up with needs to work with and be coordinated with Car-Free Key West. Better yet, the same agency hired to help transit should do the whole thing.


A Small Investment In Marketing Leverages Big Rewards

Nothing would move the needle on increasing transit ridership like more frequent service on the Duval Loop and Lower Keys Shuttle and success on Key West Rides on-demand service. But research also tells us that you get more use out of whatever service you put on the street if you market it well. This is something the City hasn’t learned, and they’ve hamstrung Key West Transit by not providing them enough resources. City leaders need to allocate the money now. Doing otherwise is pennywise and pound foolish. 

Getting more people to ride the bus helps our island’s workers, residents, and visitors. It helps us combat congestion and parking issues and cleans up our environment. It makes us healthier and helps our Mom-and-Pop businesses thrive. So, let’s help our transit system help the island by giving them the marketing resources to get the job done.

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Chris Hamilton is founder of the local advocacy group Friends of Car-Free Key West & Duval Street/Historic Downtown. A native of the District of Columbia, where for a couple decades+ he led nationally renowned efforts promoting transit, bike, walk and smart growth for Arlington County, VA’s DOT. Chris has lived in Key West since 2015. He lives car-free downtown and works and volunteers for a few non-profits. Follow him on Twitter here and his blog here.

You can find two years’ worth of KONK Life Streets for People column articles here and here and the 10 most recent 2022 stories below:

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