This article was originally published in the June 2021 issue of Parking Magazine.
Parking is an industry that has shown rapid acceleration over the past few years but was brought to a screeching halt with the onset of the stay-at-home orders in March 2020.
A little over a year later, bluer skies are ahead: more and more companies are dusting off their return-to-work plans and, as a result, it’s the right time for our industry to prepare for the corresponding resurgence of commuter parking activity.
So where are we at right now with companies returning to work, and how do we position ourselves competitively to capture back-to-work parking demand?
In my opinion, which echoes what I’ve heard from much more experienced parking professionals who I’ve had the privilege of growing close with over the past year, success right now depends on nailing two essential things:
First, providing an in-facility experience that delivers on new post-pandemic consumer expectations; and, secondly, understanding how to maximize revenue per stall in this period of lower activity as demand starts to restabilize.
It all boils down to smart and thoughtful investments in technology that make our industry more efficient and our end-users more confident and comfortable.
Commuters Returning to Work: What Does the Data Say?
One place, outside of parking, that we can look to for reliable indicators of commuting activity is commercial real estate, specifically in the office sector.
According to the VTS Office Demand Index, the earliest available indicator of demand for new office properties, demand is only about one third lower than pre-pandemic levels and, for the first time since October of last year, is on the rise in all major markets.
What this means for parking operators is amply clear: commuting activity is coming back, and due to general sentiment around public transit, commuters will be back behind the wheel.
Parking facilities in San Francisco, where demand for office space has rebounded by a whopping 95%, will benefit strongly in the short term. And in New York City, commuter activity is on the cusp of recovery: demand is down just 40% from before COVID-19 and has jumped 120% since the beginning of 2021.
Let’s run through three essential solutions for operators preparing for commuter demand: touch-free access, online booking, and one-click inventory and rate management.
Essential Solution #1: Touch-Free Access
Prior to the events of 2020, commuters already had a slew of reasons to choose driving over other transit options.
Global studies have indicated that even when driving is proven to have a higher “travel cost” (calculated by factoring in price and time involved in a commute), commuters will choose it over taking public transit – up to rates of 2:1, according to a commuter preferences study published in Transport Policy. This points to psychological factors that may outweigh economic interest.
And one of those factors that is more pressing today is peace of mind due to the ability to fully control one’s own environment.
Extending those feelings of control, comfort, and confidence to the on-site facility experience is key to attracting and retaining customers in these crucial next new months.
One way to do this is through touch-free facility access. Equipping facilities with scan in/out functionality that eliminates the need for buttons or tickets is one option. Bluetooth access takes this one step further, eliminating the need for the customer to roll down the window altogether. License Plate Recognition, or LPR, is another touch-free alternative.
But touch-free access isn’t a byproduct of the pandemic; it’s simply an end-user expectation that has been put into overdrive. “Safety protocols are stricter now, sure, but this is always something we knew our customers wanted,” says Tim Maloney, VP at Flash Parking. “Touch-free access is a straight-up better customer experience and the events of last year just made it more urgent for the industry to adapt.”
Essential Solution #2: Online Booking
This segues us to the next solution that is essential to implement in order to serve up the experience that commuters are expecting – no, requiring – when returning to work: online booking.
According to Maloney, who previously worked at SpotHero, a leader in consumer online reservations, allowing customers to book their spot is another pivotal piece for parking peace-of-mind in the post-pandemic world.
“Customers are more sensitive now to occupancy in physical spaces and letting them book a parking spot ahead of time makes them feel more confident in the whole experience,” he says. It’s important, psychologically, to give them that power during the buying process, and it impacts if they park, and how they park again.
Online reservation platforms also have a built-in marketing component that is more important than ever: operators can highlight features of their facilities that customers care about right now (like ventilation, sanitation, and touch-free entry/exit)
Essential Solution #3: One-Click Inventory & Rate Management
Leveraging multiple sales channels comes with its own challenges – namely day-to-day operations, optimization, and the people-power that is required.
Commuters have been a reliable and relatively uneventful segment in the past. We could reasonably predict the period in which they would park and get a handle on occupancy based on a facility’s proximity to the city’s central business district or other office-heavy areas.
With the onset of technology that identifies trends in transaction volume (and, in some cases, predicts them), operators can even better forecast ups and downs.
But for parking, we can expect that to change a bit post-pandemic, and we need to be able to understand new occupancy trends and how to use them to our advantage.
Consider hybrid work models and the increasing popularity of flex space. There was speculation that stay-at-home order-mandated remote work for office employees would spell the end of an era for coworking providers like WeWork, who lost $3.2 billion at the onset of the pandemic. But recent trends actually indicate the opposite.
The tables have turned and the number of companies adopting hybrid or “hot desk” (when coworkers share desks by alternating periods during which they work from the office) work models has ramped up sharply this year. Leading real estate analytics firm Green Street predicts that in the United States, the amount of “flex space” leases in the office sector will increase from 2% to 10% by the end of the decade.
As for WeWork? They’re now planning (again) to go public.
So when it comes to understanding new commuter occupancy models, activating multiple sales channels, and maximizing revenue per stall, one-click rate and inventory adjustment – with “one-click” as shorthand for the operator’s ability to manage these across multiple sales channels in one central command center via integrations – is a smart investment right now.
Especially if you were in the tough spot of having to spread your staff thinner during COVID-19, logging on to multiple places every day to adjust rates and availability is too much work, even if you know that it’ll yield higher revenues.
Implementing a solution to streamline your operations while understanding and reacting to demand in real will certainly reduce overhead while maximizing revenue.
Conclusion: Parking & Pivoting
I’ll wrap this up on a somewhat personal note – in early 2020, my company had to overhaul its entire mission and business model. We rang in that year as an event parking operator and one year later, well, our world looks very different.
Before, during, and after our pivot, I had the opportunity to hear stories from many parking leaders about the times they’ve had to be elastic with their strategies and revamp their tech stacks. The highest performing leaders are consistently evaluating these situations and helping others to be elastic.
As Sam Medile, 30-year parking veteran and industry entrepreneur, says:
“When our industry looks back on today, we’ll see that the winners were those who built great teams, taken thoughtful care of their people, had very little leverage on their balance sheets, and made the necessary changes to adapt to a new chessboard. The opportunity in our industry is bigger and brighter than ever, especially for those who are good at chess!”
So now that the tides are turning, let’s not lose that agility and decisiveness. It’s time to put these essential solutions in place, positioning ourselves for success in a market that’s slowly, but surely, recovering.