Does the Early Bird Still Get the Worm?


Does the Early Bird Still Get the Worm?

The early bird has ruled the roost for decades in the parking industry – and with good reason. When early bird rates were first rolled out a few decades back, garage operations were much more manual, and processing payments was time consuming. The early bird was meant to alleviate congestion during rush hour by incentivizing parkers to roll in earlier, staggering labor and allowing operators to more effectively manage payroll.

It worked. And, on top of that, it allowed operators to set higher rates for non-commuters and non-residents of the buildings in proximity. Providing a benefit for folks who work and live near the building, while milking extra cash from in-and-out visitors who were willing to pay – well, that killed two early birds with one stone.

But, gradually, parking technology started solving operational problems for operators and allowing for deeper insight into revenue patterns. To many industry experts, the benefits of the early bird rate started to look less and less compelling.

All that remains of the early bird’s legacy, really, is that getting customers in the door as early as possible lets operators set themselves up for predictable daily revenue. What’s better than predictable revenue? Predictably increasing revenue – which is possible, now that we’re in an era when revenue data can easily drive dynamic pricing strategies.

Plus, the early bird setup is notoriously inconvenient and inflexible, requiring drivers to squeeze their commute into a specific time frame in order to qualify for the discounted rate. Providing a top-notch customer experience is more important than ever in today’s transportation environment. And as that experience becomes more about flexibility, this all begs the question …



Early Bird Rates in an Evolving Industry

With the advent of ridesharing and intuitive mobile technologies, it’s easier now than ever for people to get from A to B – and the diversification of the industry shows zero signs of decelerating. In an environment where there’s so much choice, providing a flexible, affordable and reliable way for drivers to dock their cars is crucial to losing customers to less flexible, less affordable, less reliable modes of transportation.

In response, many forward-thinking parking companies are shifting to a customer-first mindset that brings the sustainability of the early bird model into question. They’re adopting newer and smarter ways to monitor inventory and set appropriate rates, without the trade-off in driver experience.

Ultimately, the integration of technology and data translates to more revenue for parking companies and a happy, empowered driver. It proves that what’s good for the customer really can be better for business.

The Early Bird’s Impact on Revenue

Let’s start by test-driving the early bird experience from a customer’s point of view.

You’re a commuter who leaves at the same time every day – but today, for whatever reason, traffic is worse than usual. You typically build in time to park but find yourself down to the wire. If you arrive at the parking garage before 9 a.m., you’re in luck: The early bird rate is all yours. But if you get held up and arrive at 9:15, you’re get hit with a higher rate. It feels like a penalty to end up paying more money for less parking.

In just 15 minutes, your commuting experience withered from empowered to defeated, and your distrust for the parking industry simmers. You start considering transportation alternatives with more predictable rates (such as public transit or ridesharing), even though you know they’re less efficient and convenient than driving to work. After all, why keep driving if factors that are totally out of your control – such as construction or weather – not only inconvenience you, but actually cost you?

In the context of online reservations, early bird rates prove even more frustrating. Customers who reserve parking online are going the extra mile to plan a predictable experience. They like to think they’re set. So if they miss the early-bird cut-off by mere minutes, it’s that much more infuriating to make up the difference out of pocket.

One thing that drive-up and online customers have in common is that if they feel wronged by an early bird rate, they’re inclined to complain. Even if you refund the difference, the whole situation still leaves a bad taste in their mouth. Restricted commuter rates account for 63% more customer issues than unrestricted online rates. Customers clearly feel penalized when they have to pay more.

So if an unhappy customer is less likely to park again, why implement a rate restriction that feels, and really is, arbitrary? Today’s future-focused parking companies are not only asking this question, but have found an answer that doesn’t compromise revenue. The key is in technology.

Is Technology Outpacing the Early Bird?

Customers today want flexibility; that’s one of the big reasons they drive instead of relying on public transit, rideshare or other less predictable ways of getting around.

Parking companies that have embraced technology are able to provide a “frictionless parking” experience, keeping customers convinced (and convincing new ones) that parking is almost always the smartest choice.


Technological advancements such as scanners, sensors and automated gates give real-time capacity updates and capture operational data. And data afforded by online reservation apps allow operators to strategically manage their mix of drive-up and online customers in order to maximize revenue.

When drive-up demand slows, operators can add inventory online to bring in more customers (and vice versa). They also can set rates based on proven inventory patterns and apply optimized pricing during periods of higher or lower demand.

And, most important, axing the early bird rate increases revenue. Even though you’re likely to see a drop-off in drive-up at first, there’s an element of attrition: You can backfill with online reservations and earn incremental revenue in the short term until your customers come back.

What’s the Verdict on the Early Bird?

Let’s recap the facts:

To stay profitable in the evolving transportation industry, parking operators are shifting focus to providing a flexible customer experience that keeps parkers parking.

Part of that shift is embracing technology that gives them the insights they need to take action, identifying trends in demand and adjusting pricing accordingly.

Technology gives operators more control of their bottom line, while providing a better customer experience both for drive-up customers and customers who prefer to reserve parking online.

The future of the transportation industry is in the hands of the empowered parker who believes that parking is a flexible enough solution to fit their schedule and guarantee them a good experience at any given time.

Rethinking traditional pricing strategies is one crucial piece of improving the customer experience. The other related piece is integrating technology that doesn’t just predict revenue, but gives operators control over it – knowing when and how to optimize pricing while prioritizing the needs of drivers.

Sarah Becherer, B2B Manager in Marketing at SpotHero, can be contacted at

Article contributed by:
Sarah Becherer
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