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point of view

Chicago, Baltimore, Operators, Accountability, and PIE

John Van Horn

I had spent too much time in the office and was growing stale. These fingers simply couldn't churn out another column taken from bits and pieces of previous efforts. It was time to hit the road and get some fresh ideas. A quick trip to break the ice. Just three days to Chicago and Baltimore, and it worked.
Chicago means the Parking Industry Exhibition. Yes, we are already planning next year's fete, and I needed to review the venue, and it's going to be great. We are holding the affair at the newly redecorated Hyatt Regency just outside Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. The place is beautiful, the rooms reasonably priced and best of all, the grand ballroom is large and extremely well-appointed. PIE, held in conjunction with the Conference for Parking Management and Technology, is going to be another hit.
"Conference of Parking Management and Technology" -- what the heck is that, you ask? Well, it's the seminar and training portion of PIE. We are breaking it out as a separate entity so we can focus our efforts on bringing you an even better exhibition, and new and different informational sessions.
By the next issue of PT, the program will be set. Prepare yourselves to be amazed and excited ... well, just a little.
While in the Windy City, I also met with a property owner who said he would meet with me as long as I didn't print his name, company or directly attribute a quote. Let's see if the following is general enough to fit into that requirement.
His concern was that he felt that parking operators were becoming a commodity. He had difficulty telling the difference between them. That being the case, when it became time to select an operator, he generally went for price since the rest really didn't make much difference.
I tried to argue that hiring a management company was a personal thing and that perhaps he should interview the actual manager that was to run his garage. He noted it was difficult to do that, and that he felt uncomfortable tying the hands of his operator by insisting on a certain person here or there.
When I commented that parking had become an amenity in a building much like an elevator or restroom, he agreed. However, he did point out that it was also a revenue-generating operation. He was trying to get his asset manager to remember that parking generates money and doesn't just provide a service.
He wanted his operator to focus completely on revenue and parking cars, and was considering taking all tasks not related to that away from them. Most management agreements include many duties for the operator not directly related to parking, including cleaning the garage, maintenance, insurance, signage, and the like.
He noted that the associated office building had hired companies to provide those exact services, and why shouldn't they also handle the garage? This would, he said, free up the operator to focus all their efforts on what they do best -- park cars efficiently and collect the money.
Now there's something to chew on.
In Baltimore I had breakfast with my colleague Robert Milner. If you are a regular PT reader, you know that Robert is assistant director for parking at the University of Maryland and writes a monthly column for us. He always views parking from a more strategic and academic point of view (perhaps because he's working on his Ph.D.) This discussion was no exception.
We were talking about setting standards. He commented that the major problem with setting standards is actually collecting the data to see what the standard should be, and then continuing to maintain the data source to see if they are being met. He used this analogy:
"If the goal is to walk a white line from where we were sitting at breakfast over to the Camden Yards, a distance of about a quarter mile, it would take longer to draw the line, ensure it was straight, and then have someone go over to the Yards and check on your progress, than it would to do the actual walk."
But if you don't do that work, then you can never know if you have succeeded or not.
This brings me to the final leg of the trip, my interview with Jeff Sparrow, the head of the Parking Authority of Baltimore City. On the job just over a year, Jeff has turned the parking operation in Baltimore on its ear (see the article on page 32).
He's replaced the equipment in six garages (to POF); branded the garages so people can tell which ones belong to the authority; and come a long way to fully automating both the off and on-street permit operations.
The most impressive thing I saw, however, didn't have much to do with parking. He was wearing a cell phone that he checked periodically. "All my staff have these phones," he told me. "They are connected to a pretty fancy phone system." It seems that if you call Jeff, the system finds him wherever he is and puts you through. He programs every phone he has into the system, and it calls each until it finds him, 24/7.
"It's accountability. Our customers deserve to be able to get in contact with the people who can solve problems, anytime, wherever they are. But you know, we don't get many calls." Could it be that knowing the people you serve could call you anytime makes you a bit more concerned about solving the problems before they reach your customers?
Next month I will report from New Orleans and from Europe's largest parking extravaganza, the combined European Parking Association and Parkex events in London.

Article Abstract from October, 2003




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