Meeting the Challenges in Off-Airport Parking
It’s hard to think of an industry that has been hit harder by the pandemic than travel — especially airline travel. It follows, then, that the parking assets related to airport travel have also been hit particularly hard, including the privately owned-and-operated lots located just off the airport.
“It’s been quite the interesting year,” said Jeff Foland, CEO of The Parking Spot, “to say the least.”
A Drop in Demand
With off-airport lots primarily focused on providing parking and transportation services to people accessing airports, their drop in usage tends to mirror that of the airlines. Those numbers can be tracked through the TSA’s website, which shows that U.S. air travel fell a staggering 95 percent in April.
The challenging travel environment has highlighted the importance of maintaining diversified revenue streams.
As to how that affected off-airport parking operators: “In Q2 alone, the industry was estimated to be down nearly $400 million,” said Foland. He also pointed out that while airlines and airports received federal assistance due to the travel shut down, off-airport parking companies have not yet been designated for assistance by Congress.
Although passenger traffic has recovered slightly in the past few months, it is still down about 70 percent from a year ago. “The good news is the numbers have been showing slow growth and are going in the right direction,” said Anne Edwards, vice-president of marketing for Park ’N Fly, “but they are still not even close to what they were last year.”
“It has definitely been a very challenging time,” agreed Charles Bassett, president of operations for the L&R Group of Companies, which owns and operates Wally Park and Joe’s Airport Parking.
Interestingly, the year didn’t start out particularly challenging — quite the opposite, in fact — “2020 started at a blistering pace after building on a record 2019,” said Foland.
“We had an amazing January and February,” said Edwards. “Our bookings were up over last year and we were super excited, and then COVID happened and everybody retreated.”
That quick shift forced off-airport operators to get creative. “We are learning that we have to be very efficient and lean as an operator,” said Bassett, who pointed out that the changes they’ve been making will help them be better prepared to handle whatever comes their way in the future.
One of those changes has been to continue to diversify the uses for the lots. “We offer more than just airport parking,” said Bassett. “We have mixed-use properties that cater to hotels and other uses that have been instrumental in helping us during this unprecedented time.”
The challenging travel environment has highlighted the importance of maintaining diversified revenue streams, according to Foland, who said their lots have also been used for commercial storage such as delivery vans, rental cars, tractor trailers and heavy equipment. “One third of our locations generate income unrelated to airline passenger parking,” said Foland.
Edwards said that they are constantly brainstorming new multipurpose opportunities. “We have always been creative and done things outside the box,” said Edwards. “So even though it’s a scary time, it has been bringing out our entrepreneurial spirits.”
Off-airport parking operators have also been using this time to improve their operations. “It’s a perfect time to leverage new technology to bring more efficiency and create better experiences for the traveling public,” said Bassett. “We recently implemented new access and revenue control equipment that allowed us to simplify the parking experience at our locations.”
Contactless technologies — including proprietary apps — have also increased in importance. “People like to use our app because it’s truly contactless,” said Edwards, “you book online and scan in and out without any interaction.”
Foland said he sees frictionless navigation as the future, whether it’s license plate recognition, electronic toll collection systems, mobile application utilization or beacon technology. “When drivers arrive at the entry and exit, they want to be recognized with ease, automatically acknowledged for their loyalty and provided all the benefits associated with any corporate or affinity program in an automated and seamless manner,” said Foland.
For those moments when it’s not possible to be completely contactless — for instance, on the shuttles that take customers from the lots to the airports — Bassett said they have been implementing new cleaning and safety measures designed to keep customers as comfortable as possible.
“We rigorously apply disinfectant on shuttle surfaces throughout the day and all of our employees are required to wear masks,” said Foland. “Hand sanitizer and masks are available for all passengers, and we have reduced shuttle capacity to allow for social distancing.”
Edwards pointed out that the implementation of safety protocols also includes new employee training, which is important as these are the people interacting with the customers most often. “Our customers love our employee team,” said Edwards “We get feedback all the time as to what a joyful experience they have with them and that they really see them as an extension of being home.”
Continued Focus on Customer Service
Providing exemplary customer service has always been a hallmark of off-airport parking operators, but it becomes more of a challenge when those customers aren’t traveling through the lots as often.
“Now that there is a long lead time between the last time customers were on our lot and the next, it’s important to keep them engaged,” said Edwards. She said they’ve responded by offering discounts for booking online and zero cancellation fees up until one minute before flight time, but that the messaging can be tricky.
“Some people might find an email about travel upsetting,” said Edwards. “So, we try to tweak the messaging to let them know we understand what they’re going through, but that we are ready when they are ready to come back.”
The “when they are ready” is, of course, is the big question. “We are really dependent on consumer confidence in traveling,” said Bassett. “Once that is restored, there is a big opportunity to rebuild the business.”
Although it might be hard to pinpoint exactly when that confidence will return, the fact that there is already some growth is a good sign. “Once people really feel safe — hopefully, by next summer or fall — we should start to see a steady increase in travel,” said Edwards. “After that, over the next 2-3 years, I think we will see a huge jump in travel because people are getting antsy and there is a lot of pent-up demand.”
And, when that happens, the off-airport lots will be ready. “We’re alive, innovating and confidently embracing opportunities on the road ahead,” said Foland.
Ann Shepphird is a technical writer for Parking Today. She can be reached at email@example.com