The Report

For the well-heeled, the rise of the 'sharing economy'

Posting in Cities

The American dream isn't necessarily about owning nice things anymore. Sometimes it's about accessing them, as part of the sharing economy.

As I neared the northern end of the Golden Gate Bridge and traffic opened up, I pressed a wee bit harder on the accelerator pedal in my BMW ActiveE, and sped through the S-curves. Yes, it was my ActiveE. At least, it was for a few hours. In September, the German automaker brought its carsharing program, DriveNow, to U.S. soil with a fleet of 70 ActiveE's -- an electric iteration of the carmaker's 1-series coupe and its first foray into electric vehicles.

The sharing economy, which carsharing, bikesharing, whatever-sharing and services as diverse as Airbnb and Netflix all fall under, accounts for a growing portion of the national economy. If the sharing economy conjures images of the resource-conscious Birkenstock set or young and scrappy hipsters, you'd be right. But you'd also be wrong. More and more, the sharing economy is creeping into the land of luxury brands and high-end services.

To some degree, this isn’t new. Services that rent high-end women's handbags, jewelry or couture clothing have been around for a while. But, as cities become more populous and people's lives become increasingly stressful and complicated, owning things is not always the most logical or simple path to enjoying things -- regardless of one's personal wealth.

"We're moving to a world in which access to goods, services or talent triumphs over ownership," says Lisa Gansky, whose 2010 book The Mesh: Why the Future of Business is Sharing examines the ways that the Internet, new business models and technology are fostering the sharing economy. "Owning a lot of things is complicated," she says. Plenty of very wealthy people could purchase a private jet, or a small winery in Napa Valley, or a luxury villa in Tuscany. But that, says Gansky, doesn't mean they want to take on the responsibly and costs of then maintaining and insuring them.

A family might want to fly down to, say, Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the weekend. Whether in first class or coach, flying commercially into Albuquerque and then driving to Santa Fe could take up a whole day. A service such as Social Flights, however, would let you find other people who want to take the same trip and then share the costs of chartering a private jet, direct to Santa Fe.

Exclusive Resorts is another service that links members not only to high-end resorts, but also private vacation homes and VIP access to events such as golf tournaments, sport fishing trips or fashion shows. It's like Zipcar, except that instead of a fuel-efficient car, members get luxury vacations. Fancy a yacht trip without ownership? Voyage Yacht Share has some ideas for you.

The sharing economy has even extended to winemaking. "People who are rich think they want to own a winery, but what they really want is to have their own label, access to a swank place for entertaining. They want the gestalt of owning a winery without having to actually do the work," she says.

Enter The Napa Valley Reserve. Members are allotted rows of grapes and in the fall they work with a team of winemakers to pick and sort them, and then visit with the winemaker at key times throughout the fermentation and vine pruning processes. They eventually select a specific blend and then consult with designers to create the label, select a bottle type and name the wine. There are special events and parties held throughout the year and in the end members have a bespoke wine that "they" made. They won't need to do much manual labor or learn through trial and error to make the wine, but they'll pay at least $155,000 to join the club.

Transportation Alternatives
BMW certainly isn't the only carmaker to join the carsharing fray. Daimler has brought its two-seat Smart car (both gas and electric) to the Car2Go carsharing program in Austin, TX, and San Diego, CA. Volkswagen has a program in Germany. General Motors has invested in RelayRides, a peer-to-peer carsharing program, and enabled the 6 million users of GM's OnStar satellite communication service to put their cars in the RelayRides carsharing pool.

Every major carmaker has realized that as the global population chugs up from the 7 billion mark and more people move to cities, individual car ownership will simply no longer be tenable. But BMW is the first to make a premium car sharable. (It is also launching an entire series of cars -- the i series -- focused on urban transportation. The ActiveE is a precursor to the i3, an EV that BMW plans to release in the States early next year.)

DriveNow CEO Richard Steinberg says the time is ripe. "We see room in the shared economy for a premium offer. There are enough [carsharing] services now that are getting traction. We think there is a real possibility for a premium experience – that's why we're in the space."

Premium cars come at a premium price -- the ActiveE DriveNow program costs $12 for the first 30 minutes and then 32 cents each minute thereafter. Compared to Zipcar, which starts at $8 per hour, that's a higher bar. But Steinberg believes the program, which launched in September will attract visitors to the Bay Area who want the flexibility the program allows. Cars can be picked up in San Francisco and left at another DriveNow location, such as the soon-to-open Palo Alto lot, and all DriveNow lots are close to public transit arteries.

The move is strategic as well. SF residents who use DriveNow likely do so because they don't have a car, either because they live in a part of the city where having a car is a hassle or because they can't afford the car they really want. With DriveNow, Steinberg says, "an urban dweller gets experience with our cars and then later in life, his situation might change. He might move out of the city and be ready to buy a car, and at that time he is familiar with BMW."

Images: BMW (top); Napa Valley Reserve (bottom)

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Mary Catherine O'Connor

Contributing Writer

Mary Catherine O'Connor has written for Outside, Fast Company, Wired.com, Smithsonian.com, Entrepreneur, Earth2Tech.com, Earth Island Journal and The Magazine. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure