Luxury ride-hailer Wheely’s big bet on Dubai is that the region’s burgeoning demand from wealthy individuals and digital nomads will make the city a prime fit for the company.
Wheely, a luxury-focused competitor to ride-hailing giant Uber, is launching in Dubai as the company looks to reembark on an international expansion effort that was quashed by Covid in 2020.
The company, founded by Russian-Swiss entrepreneur Anton Chirkunov, told CNBC it will offer rides in the United Arab Emirates city beginning Wednesday, catering mainly to wealthy clients.
As part of its Dubai debut, Wheely will start offering users rides in BMW 5 Series cars for the first time, a precursor to adding support for BMW’s i5 electric variant in the future.
That’s a notable step, as the i5 is a cheaper vehicle than luxury electric SUV competitors such as the Mercedes-Benz EQE and the Tesla Model X.
Mercedes’ 2024 EQE EV starts at $79,650 while the 2024 BMW i5 series starts at $66,800.
Wheely didn’t at any point suggest it plans to ditch Mercedes cars anytime soon, but the move provides some insight into how the company is thinking about the electrification of its fleets.
Chirkunov said Wheely is targeting the Dubai market, which it’s been planning on entering since 2021, as it already serves as a hub for wealthy business people emigrating from Europe, as well as young digital nomads.
“European families and entrepreneurs have been moving to Dubai in the last five years,” Chirkunov told CNBC in an interview ahead of the launch. “It is the most requested destination by our guests and our members. It sees the highest immigration of millionaires in the world.”
Wheely’s move into Dubai will present existing ride-hailing operators in the business capital with some competition. Dubai is primarily dominated by Uber-owned Careem when it comes to the ride-hailing market.
The Middle East startup, which was bought by Uber for $3.1 billion, offers users delivery of hot meals and groceries as well as taxi rides on its app.
Careem has faced struggles under Uber ownership.
It suffered losses of $218 million for Uber from Jan. 2, 2020, to Dec. 31, 2020, according to Uber’s 2020 annual report. Uber also sold a majority stake in Careem to the UAE’s e& for $400 million in late 2023, in part to raise cash.
Wheely’s platform is tailored toward a more high-end clientele, however, and Chirkunov thinks his platform has an opportunity to stand out. It competes in a similar space to Blacklane, another luxury-focused ride-hailer.
Chirkunov compares his product to more of a luxury product than a general service for consumers. He compares the Wheely brand to American Express’ high-status Centurion and Platinum membership credit cards.
Headquartered in London, Wheely is a startup that offers a car-hailing app similar to Uber, but targeted toward a high net worth clientele. Fares, for example, average around £46 ($57.72) for a 30-minute journey from Mayfair to the City of London.
Prices aren’t the only thing that’s “high-end” about Wheely. The company provides trained chauffeurs who greet customers, collect their bags and take other measures to make riders feel special.
Users can make specific requests to their chauffeurs on the Wheely app — for example, having a driver collect flowers for a loved one before they get picked up.
Wheely even has its own tailor-made “chauffeur academy” program in place to train up drivers. That program already exists in London, at Syon House, the lavish home of the Duke of Northumberland.
Wheely is now replicating that model in Dubai, too.
Wheely’s standard offering provides users with access to three main services: airport pickup trips, Wheely XL and business class, a new service that lets users take trips in BMW 5 cars.
Its members-only services — which users can only get access to via invitation or after 15 trips with the app within six months — offers access to more premium tiers, including a first-class service with Mercedes-Benz S-Class vehicles that come with bath towels, and an option to reserve a chauffeur for a whole day.
From Covid crash to global expansion
Wheely is making a renewed international drive in Dubai after several years of turbulence for the company.
Wheely had a tough time when Covid lockdowns came about.
“The pandemic was tough because, unlike, say, Amazon, where order volumes skyrocketed in the pandemic, for us our volumes dropped by 99%,” Chirkunov said.
Since then, however, demand has bounced back from its high-end clientele.
He says the platform recently reached operational profitability everywhere except new markets like Paris and Dubai.
Back in 2020, right before the pandemic, Chirkunov told CNBC in an interview that he was planning on raising $30 million in fresh capital to embark on expansion into the U.S.
Chirkunov, when asked whether Wheely had decided to raise more cash, disclosed that the company discreetly raised an additional sum of money internally from existing shareholders.
The funding, which has not previously been disclosed, amounts to $15 million, and brings Wheely’s total cash raised to date to $43 million.
Wheely’s existing shareholder base includes venture capital firm Concentric and AdFirst.vc, as well as Chirkunov himself.
Wheely plans to expand its Middle East team and chauffeur network to more than 1,000 in the next three to five years, the company told CNBC exclusively.
Wheely reported revenue of £22.5 million in its 2021 financial year, according to a Companies House filing.
The company, which remains loss-making at a group level, reported losses of £6.1 million. That was as headcount grew significantly to 221 from 157.
U.S. expansion next
The Middle East isn’t the only stop on Wheely’s global expansion route, though. The startup, which earlier launched services in Paris, now plans to pursue operations in the United States, Wheely’s co-founder and CEO told CNBC.
Chirkunov said that the pandemic scuppered Wheely’s short-term plans to enter the U.S. market, and so Dubai “eclipsed” the U.S. in terms of focus for the firm.
Now, though, he sees an eventual U.S. launch in his sights.
“We have many North American travelers using Wheely, especially on transfers and flights,” Chirkunov said. Wheely’s app enables its chauffeur network to check on updates about the status of travelers’ flights in real time.
“We’re still looking at launching in the U.S. at some point,” Chirkunov added. “The reason we haven’t launched yet is because we’ve been squarely focused on Dubai.”
But eventually, Chirkunov says, “New York will over take London as our top market.”