The Man Behind the Curtain
A Q&A with Parking Today’s John Van Horn
Parking Today’s Jordan Weiner sat down with the man behind Parking Today Media: John Van Horn. In this interview, Van Horn discusses the last 25 years, the next 25, the PIE show, the future of the parking industry, and the great group of people that make up Parking Today Media.
Let’s start with your background, how did you
get into publishing?
My father ran a weekly newspaper in a small town near Los Angeles. From about 5 years old through high school, I would go to his office after school and work with him. He was the editor of the paper and he also created it. He ran the Linotype machine, the print, and the presses — very old school compared to today.
There have been a lot of great supporters over the years. That’s where I have been most fortunate.
When I came out of the military, my father invited me to take over the paper after he retired. I ran it for about eight or nine years, and learned I was not the best businessman. We had converted from basically the way Gutenberg printed with moveable typeset to the most modern printing using offset and computerized typesetting equipment. I overplayed my hand a little and eventually we had to sell it. I then came into the big city (Los Angeles) to make my fortune.
How and why did you start a magazine about parking?
I worked for three or four different companies, all of them in the card access, security type fields, until I tripped onto Secom International. They were a startup that made security equipment, as well as parking and revenue control systems. The owner asked me to come on as a sales manager. I worked there for almost 20 years. We expanded and grew internationally. It was a very exciting time.
Toward the end, I needed to do some advertising and couldn’t find a good medium to advertise in. There were two small publications at that time, including The Parking Professional from the IMPC, which is now the IPMI. Their combined circulation was probably under 4,000. I was able to identify about 15,000 people — including building owners, operators, manager, cities, and hospitals — that would have an interest in the parking business. I ended up cutting a deal with my boss: “You find yourself another sales manager and I will go put out a magazine.” I gave him a year’s notice. I don’t think either of us believed I was actually going do it, but I did and that’s how Parking Today began.
What did those early days look like?
It began in my spare bedroom with a few employees. I had to have somebody handle the books and I needed someone to help me sell. I had a friend that was looking for work and, between the two of us, we built the business for the first 10 or 11 years. We then decided we needed another salesperson and we hired Marcy Sparrow, who eventually took over the sales department and built it into what you see today.
How about the content?
What we sent out in the beginning was juvenile and did not look very elegant. We were publishing every other month in the first year and then monthly thereafter. It was difficult because back in the 90s things like Google and internet searching were in their infancy. We had to find stories by hook or by crook. Robyn (my wife) suggested I do a study on what people really wanted to see. We found that people wanted to know about revenue control. That was the number one issue at the time. We focused on revenue control and, sure enough, people ate it up. They liked learning about how people were stealing in garages and where the money was going. The first automated machines were just coming online, and it was a constant shifting of technology. We told stories about that. I like to say that the magazine was a place to come for information and where people could give information.
Over the past 25 years, what do you think have been the biggest changes in parking?
There is no question that technology has come to bear so strongly on the industry. Many years ago, at a trade show, I was speaking to a group of people and somebody asked me what the single most important tool will be in the parking industry. I responded, “this” [holds up his smart phone]. Everything has become related to the smartphone, it is “the” credential. It is a payment device, an access control device, a way to find parking. It will become the way everything is done. As new cars come off the assembly line, smartphone technology is now built into the car. Ultimately, it will be complete in its understanding of the garage, so when you roll up to the garage and get out of the car, it will park itself. It’s already happening.
What effect has that had on the industry?
It’s a double-edged sword, as far as I can see. On one hand, the technology makes the physical running of a facility easier, whether it’s license plate recognition or the way you control entry and exit of vehicles, collecting money and so on. The other edge of the sword is garage operators and owners can become complacent. They think, “I’ve got this technology in place, and therefore, I don’t need to be so involved because the computer will take care of it,” and they do that at their peril.
What other challenges have you seen?
Over the decades, we have seen hundreds of millions of dollars literally being stolen out of garages. I am not convinced that it is over. Some of it is theft, much of it is incompetence. Part of the problem is that garage managers are grossly underpaid. They are running a business that maybe collects $5-$10 million a year and making $56,000 a year. You are not going to get the quality of person that it takes to run that kind of business with that payroll. I would suggest 50 percent of the people in the industry are like that, but this is not necessarily the fault of the parking operator. It is the building owners. The building managers do their best to keep their costs down and one of the ways is by paying a pittance to the people who work in the garages.
Can you talk a little bit about the supporters you have had since that first issue?
There have been a lot of great supporters over the years. That’s where I have been most fortunate. Not only the companies that we have done business with, but the people. When I first started the magazine, I flew to Shreveport and I sat down with John Manno, Sr., the CEO of Southland Printing. I told him what I was going to do and he said, “I’ll tell you what, I want to run an ad in your magazine every month and I want it to be on Page 3, and this is what I’ll pay you.” It was under the rate card, but not by much. That is how relationships start.
We didn’t have a lot of money in the first issues, but within that first year, people started coming to us to advertise because their competition was in it. Just after Marcy came on board, we took a trip to Skidata’s offices in New Jersey. Tom Rollo was running it at the time. He had a long history in the revenue control business. I didn’t know him that well and when we walked into the conference room, he looked me and said, “John Van Horn, I hate you.” I thought Marcy was going to pass out. He then said, “you have cost me tens of thousands of dollars now that you have this publication. I have to go out and create legitimate ads and set up a marketing department and compete with my competitors.”
There are a lot of people who have grown up in this industry with us, people like Tom Rollo, Tom Carter, Clyde Wilson, Barbara Chance and Ruth Beaman. We all grew up together and we all survived.
Tell me about the very first PIE show.
It was 2000, three or four years after we started the magazine and we pivoted to doing trade shows. It was held in Chicago, at a Holiday Inn in Rosemont. We hired a guy to help us promote it and he came up with the name: Parking Industry Exhibition (PIE). He designed the ad, it was a huge apple pie, circling like an alien spaceship, over the city of Chicago, and that’s how we began.
At that first show, I was shocked when I walked in and people were actually signing up. There were maybe 400 people. We were sort of the second or third kid on the block and we have grown to be the second largest show. The IPMI is still number one, they do a great job, but with a couple of thousand members, they have a built-in attendance.
What are you hoping to accomplish at this year’s PIE?
We had to move the show to a state that was open and could provide plenty of room to expand and be comfortable. The Gaylord Texan Resort in Dallas is the perfect location. We are working very hard to ensure our exhibitors and attendees have a good time, while practicing all the social distance guidelines and safety protocols. After the pain of not being able to do business face to face, this year will be our largest year for exhibitors.
How did the theme Parking Experience Collaboration come about?
Last year’s show in San Diego was going to be the Parking Experience. My feeling is that for the industry to be successful, it must be transparent, especially since parking has a bad reputation. I don’t think we truly understand who our customers are and, if we do, we don’t treat them well.
My feeling is that
for the industry to be successful,
it must be transparent.
I hope we can accomplish two things: One is that we can instill in our attendees and in our exhibitors the need to go out and communicate good things to our parkers. Two, the collaborative portion, is that it’s important that the vendors understand that they need to work together even though they are competitors. We are seeing a lot of collaboration, working together and helping each other out to make the best deals.
What has it meant to celebrate Parking Today’s 25th anniversary during a pandemic?
My favorite person to quote is Winston Churchill and he said, “When you are going through hell, keep going.” And that’s what you need to do. In 2019, we were profitable and last year was one of the worst years we have ever had. We lost a fortune because half of our revenue is the PIE show and all of that went away. It’s just the way it happens, and sometimes there’s not enough whiskey on the planet to numb the pain. We’ve spent a lot of time with our bankers and with the Small Business Administration trying to get some financial support, which we did. We never would have managed survive without it. 2021 will be marginally successful but 2022 is going to be gangbusters. We can feel it talking to our customers and know that we will be successful. That is why you just never stop; you persevere and keep going.
Talk a little about your team. I notice some of your staff have been with you a very long time, including your wife.
They say if you’re a good our leader what you do is you surround yourself with good people, you give them direction, and you provide the money to make it happen, and then you get out of the way. This is more difficult to do in a small organization. We have only eight employees, five full time, and some stringers that fill in the blanks. The key people on the money side are Marcy and Brian. Marcy built us to what we are today and took over PIE last year. Brian came on board at the worst possible time (the start of the pandemic) and this issue is among the largest we have published. Astrid has been running Parknews.biz and it has become the most read section of PT. She also helps me with creative ideas. These three are invaluable. Jordan is my assistant and helps tremendously with social media. Kelley guards our most valuable asset, our mailing list, and ensures that the web site is up to snuff. Melissa checks all the articles and makes sure each sentence has a subject and a verb in it. Shelly and Romina take a pretty shaky product and turn it into something the printers put on paper. Carla is the genius that makes PIP unique, Suda is our web master and sees to it that parkingtoday.com does what it’s supposed to do. What you see is what they do. Sue is our most long-term employee and keeps the books and writes the checks. I have to say, I have never signed a check in 25 years. Robyn was here at the beginning and kept me sane during some pretty rough times. These people are the best of the best. We are like a family, and from time to time don’t see eye to eye, but it works out in the end. What you see every month is a product of their labors.
What do you see as the future for Parking Today and PIE?
I see nothing but growth. There are a couple of things I would like to do, but we don’t have the resources to do them right now. I would like to expand more internationally. I think there are tremendous opportunities for communicating parking information, particularly in Asia. We’ve got people who provide content for the UK and Europe, and from Africa. I am pleased to have stories from these major metropolitan areas that have major parking issues. If I were a company that supplies parking equipment or parking expertise, I’d want to be there. The same is true of India, it is a huge parking market. The future for Parking Today is that kind of growth, and of course, making PIE bigger and better.
What is something that we might be surprised to know about John Van Horn?
I sometimes think that I have a reputation for being outspoken and sometimes abrupt, and that’s probably valid in certain aspects. I would hope that people think that I am thoughtful about a lot of the things that I see in the industry and that the independence we have as a magazine offers the opportunity to see a different side of the industry that they couldn’t see any other way.
Jordan Weiner is Parking Today's publishing assistant/events assistant. She can be reached at email@example.com