Lots and Lots of Parking Competition at Houston Airports

May 21--A complimentary newspaper when you arrive and free concierge service during your stay. No, it's not the Hilton. It's Park 'N Fly.

With competition heating up, airport parking companies are offering more perks and bigger discounts to lure travelers into their lots, making Houston one of the cheapest big cities in the nation for airport parking.

"We entered the market as the only player somewhere upwards of 30 years ago, and today there's got to be up to eight competitors," said David Grocer, a spokesman for Park 'N Fly. "We have a lot more competition."

The company's concierge service was designed for members of its frequent parker program, which lets users earn free parking credits -- and like other loyalty programs sprouting up among the operators, helps the company build a loyal customer base.

A quick call to the service's toll-free number puts customers in touch with a concierge who can make dinner reservations, check sports scores and arrange for flowers to be sent home.

Local parking operators say the abundance of land around Houston airports has given companies a cheap way to get good returns on their investments. But with so many companies now, they have to fight for every customer.

Complimentary newspapers and bottled water are common, and almost all offer discount coupons in the newspaper, online or in the mail, but the services offered by some can be more elaborate.

Air Park, for example, offers curbside valet service for a premium, and Xpress Park sells car-washing and auto detailing services for those willing to pay $25 to $95 extra.

As part of its marketing push, the Parking Spot is launching a sweepstakes in which it will give away three Hummer H3s and a parking spot for each. One vehicle will go to a Houston customer.

Such marketing blitzes mean the Houston Airport System has to work harder, too.

Parking is usually the first or second generator of revenue for an airport, said Tom Butcher, an airport parking consultant in Illinois.

Before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, airports enjoyed a stronger grip over parking. But as demand dropped off after the attacks, private off-airport companies racheted up the competition.

"Lack of customers opened the eyes of a lot of airports which said, 'We need to get more active in marketing and figure out what we need to provide to compete with off-airport providers,' " Butcher said.

In 2005, the city's parking lots at Hobby and Intercontinental posted total revenue of almost $62 million. In addition to its economy lots, which compete head-to-head with the private lots, the city operates more expensive long-term parking at the airport terminals.

"We see the increased competition as a plus for everyone involved," airport system spokeswoman Marlene McClinton said. "An increase in the number of off-airport parking facilities reflects the growing airport passenger traffic and represents increased choices and opportunities for airport visitors."

With growing competition around it, though, the airport system noticed that the city-owned lots were losing market share, she said. So it commissioned a study.

"What we found was that people didn't like the name because they thought it was cheap parking and they didn't feel they were going to get good service," McClinton said. "It was strictly a renaming."

The airports decorated their economy parking lot shuttle buses with pink pigs akin to piggy banks and renamed its economy lots "Parking Cents."

The $6-a-day fee gets passengers to the airport and back.

There are no extras yet.

The airport system also collects a fee of 6 percent of revenue, after accounting for some expenses, from off-airport parking operators for access to the airport's passenger pickup sites.

Out of eight companies near Intercontinental, Park 'N Fly paid the biggest fee in 2005, about $314,000 on gross revenue of $5.2 million, according to data from the Houston Airport System.

Near Hobby, PreFlight paid the most at a little more than $117,000 on revenue of nearly $2 million.

An airport spokeswoman noted that the fees go back into the airport system to pay for improvements.

Aside from offering extra services, off-airport parking lots have also been cutting rates and offering steeper discounts.

PreFlight Airport Parking has already sent out coupons offering up to 15 percent off all parking, and next month plans to increase the discount to 20 to 25 percent for valet and premium covered parking.

The rates are the cheapest the company has offered in any of the several markets it operates in, said John Walsh, a general manager for PreFlight.

But for many customers, convenience will be the deciding factor, no matter how low rates drop.

Barbara Mingarelli, who travels as part of her job at GlaxoSmithKline, has always used Park 'N Fly when flying out of Intercontinental, even though it's more expensive than most of her other options.

"The service is so good I just wouldn't. The drivers are always happy and are always willing to help," she said. "It's worth paying for the extra vans and the help."