Interview with Mark Fancher, CEO, Parking Advisors
Malls are becoming increasingly high-tech with touch screen directories and virtual reality goggles. Now the technology trend has shifted to parking, as customers increasingly value convenience and ease of service. Mall owners are investing in mapping functions and sensor technologies to allow customers to find parking quickly, and to get in and out of lots and garages as efficiently as possible.
Kirkland, Washington based INRIX is one such technology designed to help shoppers spend less time circling for parking, and more time in stores. The application will employ GPS enabled heat mapping to detect open parking spaces in close proximity to a customer’s destination within the mall.
PLACES sat down with Mark Fancher, CEO of Parking Advisors, the leading U.S. Parking Investment Asset Management and Advisory Firm to discuss some of the new technologies hitting the parking industry.
What are some of the biggest trends you’re seeing in the parking business right now?
We work with several large US retail owners. Primary ownership concerns include the quality of the parking experience, the ability for shoppers to quickly know how many spaces are available upon entering, and the ability to quickly navigate to those spaces. Mall parking lots are often large and it’s often hard to figure out how far you have to go at the outset to find an available space.
Outside the U.S., mall owners have been ahead of the curve for a while now, both in Western Europe and Australia. They’ve provided a solid and successful model at airports and shopping malls for U.S mall owners to parallel. One technology being adopted by centers today is technology-enabled way finding. When a car enters a section of the parking facility it trips a sensor, which adjusts the count accordingly. A digital sign tells the driver the current space availability in that section of the facility. These systems have been on the market for a number of years, and legacy systems have been prone to inaccuracies, which can be frustrating for drivers when they think a space is available but the count is inaccurate. Newer technologies provide more accurate space counts. For example, several companies in the U.S. offer solutions with individual sensors in every space in the pavement or overhead, which can sense the presence of the vehicle. A red or green light display guides drivers down the parking lane and toward a readily available spot. These provide more accurate counts in each section of the garage because there’s a sensor in every space – so it becomes a much more reliable solution and the process has become more streamlined. As accuracy has improved, the per-space costs have come down. As a result, you’re seeing more and more of these individual current generation systems in large shopping malls.
Another technology that has become available is a License Plate Recognition (LPR) camera in every space that takes a picture of a license plate. As you park your car the LPR camera reads and recognized the license plate number. Using a phone app or pay station, you can type in your license plate number and it will tell you exactly where you parked.
There’s also a big emphasis on making sure parking spaces are clean, well-lit, brighter, owners are improving signage and focusing on a lot of these basic elements that have been overlooked in the past.
Are shopping centers using this technology to mine data?
In many locales there are privacy laws limiting what you can do with customer data, including license plate numbers – so right now the technology is all about customer convenience. Another program becoming more widely used is the ability to recognize frequent customers. For example, at a large mall where there are regular patrons, utilize LPR cameras that recognize frequent visitors and allow them the advantage of entering and exiting the parking garage more quickly based on the facility tracking their license plate.
What’s happening with parking apps?
One of the big trends in the industry is the ability to go onto a website or app, identity parking and pre-purchase a spot, or use personal credentials to enter a parking facility. There are several companies that offer this service across the country – they are aggregators similar to Hotels.com in the hotel industry. While they are convenient to parkers, there is a concern about the misalignment between customer and property owner benefits. Parking owners and operators are highly frustrated with the high commissions and transaction fees charged by these online resellers. We see a coming trend toward lower fee or no fee solutions that will provide a higher level of customer service.
A lot of the larger parking facilities have parking operators who can answer questions and provide hands-on troubleshooting, but the companies that will succeed are ones that are not just there to provide a financial service but to offer inbox technology for ease of use and efficiency.
What does all this mean for valet parking? Do you think some of these new digital trends will fade out valet?
Valet in retail centers is still a necessary factor in the equation. For example, we have a client who owns a suburban mall outside a major city. The restaurants are all clustered into one area with a high volume of car traffic on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Not everyone can park close to the restaurant’s front door, so valet parking is essential for this purpose, although it is true that a lot of people don’t like to valet their cars.
What we have seen work is the technology involved in checking in the vehicle, calculating the fee, retrieving the vehicle and the ability for a customer to text ahead when the car is ready. There are some really great solutions out there for that. We’re really excited about all the new applications streamlining our industry.