Spring is finally here for many of us, at least for the Northern Hemisphere, and along with the re-emergence of nature, we humans seem to be coming out of our long COVID winter as well. Yes, I know some places have been back to “normal” for a while now; but it seems most of the United States is finally back to the level of public activities occurring before the pandemic. This return to normal has also led several large businesses, Google and Apple being two of them, to instruct their employees to go back to working in the office regularly. While I disagree with this approach (see AKA June and July 2020), these changes, among others, will create new issues and opportunities for parking locations and, in many cases, require different parking management tools to meet the new challenges. Our question this month comes from someone looking to learn more about one of those tools.
Due to new parking demand downtown, we have installed a gated parking system at one of our locations for the first time. We are now getting requests for validations at this location. Managing validations is new to me. What should I know before rolling a program out like this to our customers?
Questioning in Quincy
Thanks for the question. While experienced parking professionals who have run parking locations with validations are familiar with this option, validations can seem complicated and overwhelming to those new to parking or newly managing locations with this option. To help bring everyone up to speed, we will start with an overview of validations, then discuss usage on gated vs. ungated locations, before finally touching on a few other considerations to keep in mind.
On a basic level, validations are a method to modify the value of a transient parking transaction. While they work slightly differently in gated vs. ungated locations, the overall concept is the same. On a gated location, a validation modifies the cost of a transient transaction on exit. The modification can be time-based; the first hour free, a reduction of two hours overall, etc. It can also adjust the transaction price, including a flat overall price (which could be zero dollars), a percentage reduction in the fee, a dollar amount reduction to the overall cost, or changing from one rate structure to another. I am sure there are other options, but the overall goal is the same.
Once a validation type is set up in the parking management system, there has to be some method to apply those validations to the parking transaction. Not surprisingly, there are quite a few ways to do this, primarily depending on your gated system. One option is electronic validations, where the ticket number is entered into a webpage or app, and the validation is digitally applied to the transaction. Another option is a validation device that physically applies the validation directly onto the ticket. This on-ticket method can include: modifying the data stored on a magstripe, printing a barcode on a ticket, or even applying a stamp to the ticket. However, the stamp method doesn’t work in automated facilities, so it has fallen out of favor in many locations.
Another approach provides a separate printed item (ticket, sticker, piece of paper, etc.) to the parker that represents the validation. The customer experience is different depending on the object provided. A validation ticket (also known as a chaser ticket) is printed on ticket stock and includes unique information about the validation encoded on a magstripe or barcode. That chaser ticket is typically inserted after the entry ticket.
However, depending on the system, the validation ticket is put in before the entry ticket. When not using a chaser ticket, the printed validation is not typically inserted but scanned by a separate barcode reader. It is worth taking the time to understand the capabilities of your system depending on the age and type of gated system you have installed.
On an ungated location, the validation method depends on the payment technology used at that location, but those validations are almost always applied soon after a vehicle parks. One method is a time-based validation system tied to the vehicle’s license plate and gives the parker a set amount of time to park without paying.
At locations leveraging meters or digital payment systems, they can use what many systems call a coupon code. The parker is provided with the code (typically before they arrive), and when they enter the code as part of their transaction, it will modify the price of their parking. (Sounds a lot like a validation, doesn’t it!) However, unlike a gated system, since you don’t know when a vehicle will exit, a parker has to pre-purchase the amount of time they plan to use. Some of these systems also allow parkers to use a coupon code when they extend their parking time, but this is rare.
Another method of validation requires a parker to utilize a payment system (physical or digital) to register their vehicle to get a set amount of time for free at the start of their parking session. For example, if the first two hours are free at a retail location, parkers could be required to register their vehicle when they park to obtain their free parking. If they only stay two hours, then the parking is no charge; if not, they pay for the time beyond the initial two hours provided.
When managing an overall validation program, a different validation type is typically created for each unique entity that provides validations to the parker. Examples could include a law firm in an office building, a specialty group at a hospital, or a particular restaurant at a mall. In some of these situations, these groups have to pay for the validations they use, while in others, they might be included for no additional fee. A quality validation system should have features to allow for the management, billing, security of the validations created. A billing system will enable you to track usage, send invoices, and in some cases, even accept payment.
Additionally, your validation system should be able to track and report on who created and/or provided the validations to parkers. In many cases, printing out a stack of chaser tickets or sheets of barcoded validations is akin to printing money. This method can be a more overlooked revenue leakage point in a revenue control system, especially if there are no checks and balances on who can create validations or how many are given out.
There are several considerations when thinking about a validation system. The primary one is customer experience. It is crucial to consider the difficulty for customers using the validations, the quality of signage and communication about using the validations, and if the validation method selected provides the correct combination of validation type and the delivery method for the situation.
Thanks for your question this month. Hopefully, your validation program goes well. There are no perfect solutions for every situation, so be open to trial and error to find what works for you.
If you have a question you would like to see answered in a future column; please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.