If you’ve ever had to drive a rental car with more than two people and all their luggage, you know how important reliability and customer service can be.
But you have no idea how critical a vehicle is for a band traveling from one date to the next across America. It became painfully clear to Sharky Laguana, when he left Reno and the van he rented for his band died in the desert.
That one experience led to him founding Bandago, a luxury van rental company that provides exceptional service to bands on tour.
Sharky Laguana was the founder, guitarist and songwriter for Creeper Lagoon, a San Francisco-based indie rock band that was — as Laguana says today — “more poised for massive success and failed” than any band in history.
After the band’s 1998 release I Become Small and Go, the band was named Spin magazine’s Best New Artist in 1998.
DreamWorks signed them to a significant record deal for a followup — 2001’s Take Back the Universe and Give Me Yesterday — but it succumbed to the issues that often wash over bands as they realize the dreams they were working so hard to accomplish.
“We clutched defeat from the jaws of victory, and the band dissolved,” Laguana says from his office in San Francisco. Laguana says he threw himself into music with everything he had, forming another band and hitting the road, in an attempt to recapture the success of Creeper Lagoon.
“We booked a tour and we rented a truck from a large rental company,” Laguana says. We assumed it was a 15-passegner Ford E-350, but Laguana corrected us. “Actually, it wasn’t a van. We couldn’t find one at that time. It was a box truck. We carved out a section in the back for seats and belted in with nylon tiedowns. It was completely illegal, ridiculously unsafe and violated our contract with the rental company.”
Facing a nationwide tour and with no other options, they set off from the Bay Area to Reno, Nevada. “On the second night of the tour, we were driving from Reno to Salt Lake City and the truck died.”
Even the best of vehicles can experience a malfunction, but it’s what the rental company does to fix it that can make or break a band on the road, hectically running from one gig to the next. “The corporate entity’s interest in fixing the situation couldn’t have been a lower priority,” says Laguana. Over the next ten days — with paying gigs dissolving night after night — the band was stuck in Elko, Nevada awaiting the rental company to get them on the road again.
“It was financially devastating. I had personally underwritten the tour on credit cards, and I ended up with credit card bills I was still paying off five years later. The tour had gone on without us, and 10 days later we had 24 hours to get from Elko to North Carolina,” Laguana said. As the sun broke over the horizon and Laguana hallucinated at the wheel, he started asking the questions that ended up being the genesis of Bandago. “Why doesn’t someone have a company to do this?” he asked himself.
He had a laptop with him that came loaded with Microsoft Word, as well as Excel, which he’d never even opened before. “I started a spreadsheet and created a formula that was the very first business model we used to start this company,” he says. With his experience with DreamWorks, Laguana knew Interscope A&M’s vice president of artists and repertoire (A&R), Luke Wood. “He’s the Ari Gold of the music industry,” Laguana says, comparing Wood to the super-agent in the HBO series Entourage. Wood later went on to preside over Beats Electronics with Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine.
“Luke had a cousin-in-law who was always on the lookout for good business ideas,” he says. “I had been talking with him about an idea for rehearsal spaces, but that didn’t seem to make sense. I mentioned the van rental idea to him. It took him no more than three minutes to decide he was in.”
Laguana founded Bandago in 2003. “We bought a van on eBay and started renting it to friends,” he says. “I did all the day to day as we got off the ground.” Quickly, the idea gained traction as more and more friends of his in other bands were interested in transportation options that were suited specifically to musicians.
“We bought 10 more vans and pretty quickly, I found myself managing 15 people. The business demanded that we be in locations where music was happening, so we opened offices in Los Angeles and Seattle. We got a lot more sophisticated and built our own software to manage the rentals and contracts,” he says.
Today, Bandago has over 400 vehicles in service, in nine locations around the country: Austin, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Nashville, New York, Orlando, Portland and San Francisco. Over the next year, Bandago will open new locations on the East Coast, but always with the goal of maintaining the business while providing exemplary customer service. “We’re not venture capital supported, so growth has to be financed by the money we’re making,” he says. “We’re trying to grow aggressively while being cautious and sustainable. We’ve built better processes for opening new locations.”
The keys have always been customer service and attention to detail. “We’re like the Virgin Atlantic of ground travel, he says. “We’re committed to our customers’ business model. We’re not trying to turn them upside down and shake out every dollar. We don’t train our staff to upsell. We look for opportunities to downsell,” trying to figure out if clients actually require insurance from Bandago, or if they have some other coverage that’s already taking care of their insurance needs.
The attention to detail part of the equation is evident in the vans. Big rental companies buy fleet vehicles that are essentially stripped of options in service of the bottom line. “We buy options from the OEM that we think will deliver value, like heated mirrors and heated seats,” he says. Bandago also upfits the vans with creature comforts like in-vehicle wifi, DVD players and a video game console packed with games.
That attention to detail has allowed Bandago to spread beyond its original customer base and acquire customers that want a better way to get a number of people from place to place. “Musicians still make up about 40 percent of our business,” he says, “but we’ve grown to rent to church groups, film productions, sports franchises, corporations, the Department of Homeland Security, the military and families.”
Bandago rents three categories of vans, depending on the budget and requirements of its customers. At the top of the line, there’s the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, with passenger configurations ranging from 12 people on bench seats, to 10 with on-board Captain’s Chairs.
Bandago also rents the Ford Transit, which can accommodate up to 15 people inside its long-wheelbase, medium roof configuration.
Bandago’s van selection is a combination of availability, passenger comfort and — with Laguana’s background as a visual artist — aesthetic value. “Van manufacturers can offer vehicles, but can they deliver 100 to 150 units at a time?” he asks. “We haven’t flirted with the RAM ProMaster van yet because our experience with Dodge service when Dodge sold Sprinter in the United States left a lot to be desired. The Promaster is also aimed at a more contractor-grade customer, while we’re looking for something with more passenger comfort. And they don’t look quite as elegant.”
No matter who provides the van, though, issues are bound to crop up when a van is covering an average of 4,000 miles in just two weeks. “It happens to everybody. Nobody is immune. If something goes wrong, though, we’re all over it. Nobody’s ever spent more than 24 hours waiting for us to replace a van,” he says.
Bandago even provides some counseling to bands, free of charge. Its FAQ on the website offers suggestions for saving money on the road, like driving the speed limit, booking gigs logically, rather than zig-zagging across the country, and taking care of the van while its under contract. Because the vans can be out so long, Bandago asks customers to take care of regular oil changes and service, saving receipts which Bandago reimburses at the end of the tour. It even provides on-board tire gauges so drivers can get the best possible fuel economy out of the vans while staying safe on the road.
It’s a spectacular service, with new locations opening this year. If you’re within driving distance of one of Bandago’s nine locations and have a need to move a lot of people and their gear, one of their vans may just be the ticket you’re looking for.