Who's Beating the Parking Guy?
I arrived at work on a spring morning back in 1998. Damn! It happened again -- greetings from another broken exit gate, the eighth time this has happened in two weeks. The auto-cashier was suppose to save labor and collect our revenue; now we must fix a gate every morning and lose our revenue.
This was the problem I faced when taking over management of this new garage in the center of town. The 175-space garage was located below a new development that included major retail, upscale dining, Class A office space and hotel rooms. Rates were strong, occupancy was high, and all was good. Right? Wrong.
At first glance, all looked great. The garage was full, revenue was exceeding expectations, businesses in the building were thriving, and the Property Manager was happy. A closer look at the garage revealed a ticket-loss problem -- 10-20 tickets a day, a minor problem that should be easily fixed. An initial investigation determined that on any given night, restaurant and hotel employees were waiting until our attendant left, then exiting after the gate was raised in an effort to avoid paying the $5 parking fee.
The solution was simple: We would install an auto-cashier to collect revenue and operate the gate after-hours. The situation was monitored closely to quantify the lost revenue; it was worth the investment. We also witnessed the problem growing as word seemed to spread to other nearby hotel and restaurant employees. The auto-cashier could not get here soon enough! After several weeks of late-night visits to the garage and several stressful encounters with customers, the solution arrived. We installed the auto-cash unit, put up new signage, waited for the ticket loss to go away and overnight revenue to jump. Right? Wrong.
The auto-cashier was running and collecting from a few cars on pace for a couple hundred bucks a month. Problem fixed? Nope, still tickets missing. I had no choice but to return to my late-night investigations.
On my first night back in the garage after midnight, I witnessed two customers pull up to the exit lane bumper to bumper. The first one paid the auto cashier and the second followed very closely through the exit. Shortly after the next customer pulled up to the exit and slowly pulled forward, the gate arm easily slid up the hood of his car until he reached out the window and forced the gate up enough for his car to drive right under it with only minor damage to the gate arm.
The third customer pulled up to the exit and just sat there in front of the auto-cashier for a minute. My curiosity could not contain me in my hiding spot anymore, and I appeared to see if I could help. She informed me that she had placed "a five-dollar bill in the machine and nothing happened." (She had not.) I advised her that I would manually raise the gate, "but let me first open the machine and retrieve your $5 bill because it may be jammed in the bill acceptor." That was not what she wanted to hear, and she declared: "I'll just pay you again because I do not have time for this s*@t." I accepted the $5 and raised the gate, wishing her a good night. She responded with some sort of hand signal. For the record, when I opened the unit, there was not a $5 bill in it. I remained at the exit for the next hour manually collecting and raising the gate for the very curious wait and bar staff, who each complained of the unreliable new machine and wanted to know if I would be here every night. One even told how he had to leave his car and rent a hotel room for the night until the garage re-opened in the morning with "a real cashier."
The next night I witnessed a young gentleman drive right through the gate barely slowing his Ford Ranger as he passed the auto-cashier. Not the first time I had fixed a gate in the middle of the night and certainly not the last. While the auto-cashier would occasionally have a bill jammed, it was a reliable worker 98% of the time.
It was determined that additional controls needed to be put in place. I already had all the loops, lane counters and an auto-cashier, what else could be done? We decided to spend a little more money and install a camera and a video recorder that would record activity at the exit area. The recorder was placed in a locked utility room behind the booth; the camera was installed so that we could capture each transaction and the license plate of each vehicle for documentation. For two weeks, we recorded activity and simultaneously educated as many people as possible on proper use of the auto-cashier after-hours. It was improving and the unit was collecting more money each night. Unfortunately, some persisted and the gate was broken almost nightly.
License plates, makes, models and time were recorded for each and every violator that left without paying. Many were repeat offenders. The Property Manager decided it was best to set up a meeting with the restaurant manager to discuss our plight; the majority of violators were his staff. The restaurant manager was reluctant at first and very supportive of his staff. Then a list was produced, and he confirmed that each was one of his evening employees. He was asked if he wanted to view the videotape and he declined. I was going to be nice about it, but the Property Manager had a different take on the matter and demanded payment, including damages, from the restaurant or charges would be filed against each of his employees listed. You can imagine the restaurant manager was not prepared for this. He retreated as gracefully as possible with a day or two to figure out how he was going to handle this dilemma we had just dumped on him on a Friday night before his dinner rush.
Monday morning arrived. Amazingly, the gate was still intact and did not need to be repaired. I was pleasantly surprised to find the auto-cashier had collected more revenue in one weekend than it had collected in the previous three weeks. By lunchtime that day, my phone was ringing and people were trying to make arrangements to pay for their mistakes. Word of mouth had worked against us and then worked for us. The auto-cashier, video camera and recorder paid for themselves and allowed us to reduce payroll even further in the first several months of operation.
Today, it still requires attention and effort, but technology advances make it possible to explore other cost-effective measures. It may be possible to remove the gates entirely and use a pay-and-display mode of operation that would enable the operator to reduce or even eliminate payroll. In addition, many operators are now using digital video feeds of their locations straight to monitors on their desktops. While technology is rapidly advancing, the underlying need for these control aids remain the same as it did 50 years ago. Someone is always trying to beat the Parking Guy.
Robert Baer is Parking Manager at Cincinnati Childrens Hospital Medical Center, one of the top pediatric hospital and research centers in the country, with more than 8,000 employees and 24 parking locations. He is a 14-year veteran of Parking Management, having previously held positions with Central Parking and Imperial Parking.