The Emergence of Handheld Use for Event Parking
“What I need is a stock of paper that is worthless until it’s sold.”
Such a Conundrum …
When I arrived at UCLA in 1998 as a new Parking Operations Manager, the department was manually processing parking sales for approximately 14,000 events a year. That averages over three dozen events per day.
Consider the technology at the time: There were no online event sales available, no field processing of credit cards. For parking sales in the field, we could use only pre-printed parking permits sold on a cash-only basis, unless a campus department had made arrangements in advance for their guests.
At the time, we had an extremely labor-intensive method for processing daily permits for event sales. Permits were ordered in bulk and stored as cash. We had a full-time employee whose only job was to count, issue and inventory permits.
The sales process began with our main supervisor estimating and ordering the number of permits needed for the upcoming weeks’ events. Then other supervisors would issue the permits to their assigned group of parking attendants.
At the end of the shift, the attendants would return the unsold permits to their supervisor, the process would reverse itself, and ultimately unsold permits would be returned to the Inventory Clerk for restock.
Depending on the number of vehicles expected for the various events each day, it could take between 40 and 60 minutes to issue permits to parking attendants, and approximately 45 minutes to 2 hours to check in attendants after an event.
As a manager responsible for these procedures, I was being driven crazy by the process. The hundreds of details involved, the security related not just to the cash funds but to the permits as well. Also, twice a year, Internal Audit showed up (usually unannounced) to count everything.
In 2001, I attended a local parking conference, where I was approached by a man who owned a computer company, had recently bought a permit company, and as a consequence, was combining the two, creating an Intelligent PARQing enterprise. This was something that only one or two companies were doing at the time.
The man, who for the purposes of this article I’ll call Tadd Hunter, began to try very hard to sell me permits. I politely declined. An aggressive salesman, Tadd basically followed me around during the entire conference, showing up to spew the virtues of his permits and accompanying database.
At one point, I said to him, “Tadd, I do not need permits. What I need is a stock of paper that is worthless until it’s sold.”
Tadd quietly asked, “How would I do that?” I told him I did not know, and we parted ways.
The next year, at that the same conference, I ran into Tadd once again. He quickly said to me, “I’ve been thinking about our conversation where you said you need a stock of paper that is worthless until it’s sold. What if I were to take your permit and program it to your specifications into a PDA?”
Intrigued I said, “How would you print it out?”
Tadd said, “I would attach the PDA by a cable to a portable printer. You would have a stock of paper that is worthless until it is printed.
“And you would have complete sales reporting on the back end.”
A Revolutionary Solution …
I immediately recognized that this could be a game-changer.
Consider technology at the time. This was before wireless, before smartphones and tablets, before cellphone coverage was even robust. A PDA (personal data assistant) was the precursor to handheld computers with far fewer processing capabilities than today’s devices.
So, there was no guarantee that this idea would even work. But if it did …
Over the next nine months, we developed the first handheld device made specifically for event parking sales. The back-end reporting suite and even just the look and information on the permit itself went through many modifications, and we conducted months of field trial testing. In the end, we had a product that had the potential to make our parking operation so much more efficient.
The unit was projected to save our organization more than $100,000 annually in permit and labor costs, and dramatically shorten supervisor, staff and cash processes. All of these efficiencies also resulted in increasing staff morale. And our customers loved seeing the new technology in the field.
Financial reporting, a process that would take approximately 12 to 24 hours to finalize, was created instantly and could be immediately forwarded to the Financial Department. Field processing of VIP and reduced parking lists were now automated. And all of that activity could now be easily billed back to the department.
Also, historical data for reoccurring events was stored to be used to fine-tune staffing levels for the next time the event occurred. Meanwhile, Tadd had christened the device the POD (Permits on Demand).
This was before wireless,
before smartphones and tablets, before cellphone coverage was even robust.
Once we were certain that we had a robust product and had justified the many efficiencies that would be realized, I set out to draft an RFP (Request for Proposal). However, the problem was that no other company offered this device.
I contacted every vendor I knew in the industry either by phone or while attending several parking conferences. Many told me that they would not be able to bid on the project, although some offered to develop the product if they were awarded the contract. That would delay implementation by a year or more.
Just as I was dealing with that dilemma, I accepted the position of Manager of Parking and Transportation Services at the UC-Irvine Medical Center. Tadd, however, took the product and sold it nationwide and into Canada, and it became very popular.
Several years later, in 2006, I became Parking Operations Administrator for the City of Long Beach, CA. Soon after taking the job, I gave Tadd a call. The city hosted hundreds of events every year, many quite large.
During my first year there, I brought in Tadd’s POD for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach event. We saw a significant increase in revenue from the year before, although records showed that we had parked roughly the same amount of cars. We realized that the POD had helped to substantially boost the bottom line.
Time to Upgrade ...
Soon after, I ordered handheld devices not just for events, but for our routine operation as well. Tadd and I had developed the POD almost six years earlier, and by this time, a couple of other companies were offering handheld devices for field sales.
But I needed a handheld with more capabilities than what were being offered in the industry at the time. So I called Tadd, and we spent the next several months brainstorming and field-testing new concepts.
The device was moved from a specialized hardware format to a more universal platform. Since Tadd’s first product in 2002, mobile phones had become a much more powerful tool. By 2007, they had advanced processing and memory abilities, so Tadd chose one of the most powerful phones on the market at the time to become the new POD.
I told Tadd that I needed the unit to use wireless technology for the printer (Bluetooth was just beginning to become robust and viable), and I needed the POD to work not only as a cash register, but also as a fee computer. That would allow me to staff several parking attendants in a lane taking payments and calculating the fee owed.
In effect, this doubled or quadrupled our pay-on-exit speed and capability. We also included the capability for credit card payment, online pre-paid parking and parking reservations recognizable to the POD; excess cash drop reminders for the parking attendant; real-time sales report storage and viewing. The POD was a mobile phone, eliminating the need to give every attendant at remote locations a radio for communications.
To Infinity … and Beyond?
The POD was truly revolutionary for its time. Today, many companies offer their version of a handheld unit for event parking sales. Tadd, as several companies have, has included many more upgrades and has developed the latest version of POD as an app that can be installed into almost any type of mobile phone.
As I look back, I wonder what the future holds, and what lies beyond? What might be the next truly revolutionary idea in the parking and transportation world?
Well, I think I’ve found it — but that’s another story.
Luis Maldonado has been in the parking industry for more than 32 years, working for organizations such as UCSD, UCLA, UCI, CSUN and the City of Long Beach, CA. Currently with the City of Las Vegas, Luis Maldonado can be reached at email@example.com.