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The Six Ms A Formula for Success in Downtowns and Parking

April, 2020

David M Feehan

I spent a decade as president of the International Downtown Association, but before that, the organization I directed in Kalamazoo, Downtown Kalamazoo Inc., managed the city’s municipal parking system. Over the years, I’ve tried to figure out what makes downtowns (and parking systems) successful. I think I’ve discovered the formula, and Brian Wolff’s column in the December issue of Parking Today reminded me of this formula. So, let me share it with you.


When Business Improvement Districts became the method through which many downtowns were able to turn the tide on decline, they lived by the motto, “Clean, Safe, Attractive and Friendly.” 


If you are marketing your system, you had better be prepared to over-deliver on your brand promise.


Within a couple of years, every downtown organization was billing its downtown as clean, safe, attractive and friendly, or a great place to work, shop, live and play. Some were, some were not.


As time went by, these characteristics became what I call “table stakes.” If you play poker, you would know that table stakes are the chips you need to even get in the game; but the downtown game had become so much more competitive, that simply possessing these characteristics was not enough to win the business we were all looking for – the best shops and restaurants, the nicest hotels, the big office tenants, the swankiest condos and apartments.


What I discovered is that downtown organizations had to master and possess six attributes. And I would argue that the same is true for parking systems.


The first three attributes are Management, Maintenance and Marketing. The second three are Moments, Memories and Magic. Let me address them one by one.


Management is where it all starts. A poorly managed parking system is not going to be able to accomplish any of the other attributes. Management encompasses all of the basics – financial management, personnel management, operations management, facilities management, board management, and, of course, planning and communicating. The well-managed system has a vision and a strategic plan, knows where it is going and what it takes to get there. And that all starts with executive and board leadership; and I’ve worked with dozens of systems, and I’ve never seen a successful system without a skilled leader/manager.


Maintenance is where good management executes what it knows. When I directed the Kalamazoo system, we inherited a badly maintained system. Two of the three parking structures were in terrible shape. One had concrete chunks falling onto cars parked in lower levels; another had a whole floor out of service because the post-tensioning cables were rotting away. The City had purchased a set of first generation EPMs (electronic parking meters) and they were so erratic that we negotiated a return and exchange for old-style manual meters. Maintenance was clearly broken, and the customers knew it. Investing in maintenance was the first order of business.


Marketing was a challenge, Changing the image of a parking system can be a daunting task. In our recent book, we surveyed 130 women leaders, and their number one complaint about coming downtown was parking. Marketing a parking system requires an investment in time, money, and personnel. It requires a plan and a program. It doesn’t just happen. And we are all familiar with the saying, “Under-promise and over-deliver.” If you are marketing your system, you had better be prepared to over-deliver on your brand promise. Are you really as customer-friendly as you say you are? Do your front-line staff know and understand what that means? Do they all put the customer first?


 


This takes us to the hard part.


Moments are what people remember. We don’t remember decades or years, or even weeks. We remember certain moments that are indelibly etched in our brains. We can all remember the first time we got behind the wheel of a car. Or the first drive-in movie with a sweetheart. Or the taste of a spectacularly good meal. Or sitting on a veranda, watching the sun set over the ocean. And those special moments are what become lasting memories.


Memories are like addictions. They are what keeps us coming back to the same experience over and over again. And for parking systems, repeat customers are the best customers. Disney theme parks can count on new customers every year, year after year. But most parking systems depend on repeat customers – downtown workers or residents – or visitors who remember the experience of parking in your facility. We had an attended lot in Kalamazoo and we wondered why it was always full. The location was good, but there were other lots and structures nearby. Then I visited the lot one day and discovered that the attendant had a small library of novels he kept in the booth. His customers would donate an occasional book to his library, and he would loan out the ones he liked and had read to his customers. And his customers kept coming back to that particular lot.


Magic is the final M on my list. Can a parking system create magic? Have you ever been to a concert and found that the adjacent parking garage was playing music from the same artist or orchestra through their sound system? Just a bit of magic. When I first arrived in Washington DC to head IDA, I remember vividly coming out of the Metro station at Farragut Square and being greeted by an elderly, bearded saxophone player at the top of the stairs. He was really good! And being a fan of John Coltrane, I was mesmerized and waited while he played “My Favorite Things.” When I got to the office, a member of my team said, “The only difference between real life and the movies is that in the movies you have background music.” I felt like I was in a movie.


Consider, then the magical parking structure, the 7th Street garage in Charlotte, that lights up and plays music when you touch certain discs. I’ll bet any parent bringing kids downtown will choose to use this garage. Maybe not every garage can go to this extreme. But the use of color, sound, and touch (and even smell) can make an otherwise mundane parking experience somehow magical and memorable. 


So, remember the six Ms. If you do them all well, I guarantee that your customers, your staff, and everyone who encounters your system will remember it fondly – and keep coming back.


David M Feehan, President and CEO, Civitas Consultants LLC, can be reached at civitas.dave@me.com



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