The Operator is Deadů Long Live the Operator!
This industry is changing at a breathtaking pace, no question. I feel fortunate to have participated in two digital transformations as an entrepreneur and business owner. It’s hard to exaggerate the angst that grips you when you’re not quite sure what’s going to happen. What you know for sure is that things are going to change.
That takes me to the first of two phrases that came to mind as I was brainstorming ideas about this month’s column. I’m reminded that “The more things change, the more things stay the same.” We see it over and over again; leadership matters and good guys who seek win/win outcomes really do finish on top. But in this instance, the thing that changes, yet stays the same, is the importance of parking operators.
Much like the autonomous car that was going to put the parking business out of business, futurists and technologists alike are predicting the untimely demise of companies that manage the parking operations for their own, or their owners’, parking facilities. I just don’t see it.
Why, you ask? Because, as long as humans are involved in the transaction, there will be a need for someone to reconcile what the “stupid human” did. Sometimes the human isn’t even part of the transaction, like the individual who uses the stairwell as their own personal commode. No app is going to clean up that mess.
It’s true, technology can handle a very large chunk of the heavy lifting when a patron wants to reserve, pay, enter, and exit a parking facility. But what about the last person expecting to pay cash or the human who has decided to “beat the system” with fake validations? You see, there is no end to human ingenuity for screwing up a finely-tuned technology operation. And that’s what parking is and will continue to become.
That’s just the front end of the house, what about the back end? Yes, of course, there are new and fabulous ways to aggregate and report the transactions occurring in every facility. I have seen some very slick software that is counting every penny, but who’s checking the numbers? That would be a human. In fact, even if the computer checks the numbers, call me old fashioned, but I want a human to check the numbers to make sure they make sense. Who’s going to do that? The parking operator.
Technology is certainly making these things easier to do. The role of a parking operator, like the roles of an airplane pilot or passenger car driver, is morphing into a review and adjust function. But, as long as the industry remains as fragmented and heterogenous as it is, an operator will still be heavily relied on to monitor, manage and report on what is happening in each facility.
As the technology changes, parking operators must evolve their operating model. They must modernize and retrain their staff to do more with less, review rather than write, and become better at working across multiple technology platforms to squeeze inefficiencies out of their operations. The good news is the systems will get better, too.
We’re already seeing many examples of software platforms that facilitate connectivity to PARCS, reservation systems and credit card processing to make the capacity planning and reconciliation of accounting easier. We’ll need much more of that before parking can claim total digitalization of their operations. But these systems won’t just run themselves. It’s going to take someone with knowledge of parking to pull it all together – it’s going to take a parking operator.
And so, I circle right back to where I started: the more things change, the more things stay the same, because you know what didn’t stop? The cars. Like the sun coming up the next day, the cars will arrive with humans in them, on their way to a baseball game, a concert, a campground, a court hearing, or the new fancy restaurant. And there certainly will be plenty of options to find and pay for that parking.
However, as long as humans are parking the cars, or the cars that transport the humans need to be parked, there will be anomalies and reasons that exceptions occur. It will be up to other humans to help with the exceptions, report on them and aggregate all the non-exceptions so that another human can review and certify the results. In other words, a parking operator will be reporting to an owner.
Which brings me to my second quote. Legend has it that Samuel Clemens sent a letter to a newspaper reporter who had asked Clemens about rumors that he was dead or dying. To which Clemens was quoted as saying “the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
Sound familiar? Yea, me too! The operator is dead…long live the operator!