An airport parking garage is where a passenger’s journey really begins but all too often airports forget that fact, according to Colm Codd, head of business development at Dublin Airport Authority.
Codd speaks from experience. As the busiest international airport in Ireland, serving more than 19.2 million passengers annually, the airport was often passengers' preferred place to fly out of, but the airport’s passengers didn’t always view the airport as ‘the’ place to park.
In the 1990s and 2000s, parking competitors moved into neighboring properties and began enticing Dublin Airport customers to park in their lots through a mix of better pricing and enhanced customer service. While the outlying parking lots and garages were 5 minutes or more away, these businesses offered complimentary shuttle buses to the airport every five minutes, 24 hours a day. Not only that, but by pre-booking and paying online, passengers could park their vehicles at rates far below the airport’s long-term parking fees. As a result, though Dublin Airport was the airport of choice to fly out of, it was not customers top pick for parking.
“Over a number of years, parking became neglected, expensive and less customer-friendly than it should have been,” Codd admits. “We were the big airport that didn’t think anyone could touch us until people began parking off-site. We had to stand back and try to understand why that was and what we could do about it.”
The resulting analysis led the Dublin Airport Authority to invest nearly $6 million in a new parking system that includes an online registration website, license plate recognition technology and a new parking revenue control system. Since adding these products in 2008, the number of people booking online has jumped from 4 percent to 75 percent, while parking revenue has grown steadily to reach the level it was at before competition moved in.
“We’re on our fourth year now of upward trending in terms of revenue and the numbers of customers who park with us,” Codd says. “We’re beginning to get back to where we were when this whole journey started.”
First Tackle Technology
“We introduced technology, processes and people to enable us to deliver better service than our competitors, and attract customers who were parking off-site,” Codd says. “Technology is an investment an airport can easily make because an airport is going to be here in 20 to 30 years. The off-site operators are business operations, and they’re more likely to change hands. This is not the kind of investment I see a lot of these guys making,” he says.
Upgrading parking technology, however, was more involved than it might seem. It was not as simple as adding a new parking revenue system, the improvements required back-end hardware and software as well as upgraded technology in the parking garage itself.
Codd says Dublin Airport first needed to improve back-end technology around the airport and at its remote lots. “We had to install fiber optic cable and link it back to a central control center so that customers did not get different levels of service depending on which lot or garage they parked at,” he explains.
They then needed to develop and install an online parking registration system. Dublin Airport Authority’s market research had identified online registration as a key component to attracting visitors to their parking lots. Vendors outside the fence sold their products online, and to compete Dublin Airport needed to as well, according to Codd.
The airport houses the pre-booking system on its website where it handles product management, pricing and transactions. “When passengers pre-book, they pay the full cost of their parking before they come to the airport,” he says. “It’s not a reservation where you pay to book a space and then pay for the parking when you actually use it. All fees are paid up-front.”
They recently moved from a server-based system to one housed in the Cloud, which enables airport administration to log in from wherever they are to view the administrative side of the parking process.
The airport then integrated the new online parking registration system with license plate recognition technology so that the two systems could work in tandem with each other. The online parking registration system requires passengers to enter their vehicle license plate number upon registration. The license plate recognition system compares this plate number to the registration database as customers drive up to the parking lot or garage entrance. The gate opens automatically if the system finds space booked under that plate number.
The license plate recognition system is extremely accurate, reports Codd, noting he believes the country’s standardization of its license plate designs helps improve accuracy. All plates are the same; there’s no such thing as a vanity plate in Ireland. “We have very high conversion rates, above 95 percent in terms of reads,” says Codd. “It’s a really great system for us.”
The parking garages and lots already employed a parking revenue control system, but the technology needed an update to integrate with the new tech. The airport installed high-tech barriers and pay-on-foot machines that accept cash and credit in all of its parking areas.
These changes allowed them to automate the fee-collection system. They converted the transaction process in stages to address concerns that customers would not utilize airport parking if it eliminated cashiers. They put a cashier’s desk at the terminal exit and customers could pay the cashier there or use a credit card at the exit.
“This cashier was to remain in place for 12 months; we eliminated the post after just three, because people paid with their credit card at the exit,” says Codd.
Market the Carpark
“If a U.S. airport installed all of the technology we did, it would bring some benefit, but they also need to employ a commercial/marketing team to help get the most out of it,” says Codd.
Dublin Airport created a commercial team to handle parking marketing. This team consists of a commercial manager, a marketing professional, a research and analysis expert, yield analysis personnel and an operations leader.
“This team is 100-percent dedicated to parking,” says Codd. “There are up to seven people on the team, depending on the time of year, and their jobs are solely focused on parking.”
Dublin Airport’s marketing team implemented a marketing and customer insights program to help them continually upgrade their products. They interview up to 15,000 parking customers throughout the year, asking them who they parked with and if they parked with the airport, how their experience was, how satisfied they were, and what changes they’d like to see.
These interviews help the airport classify parking customers and customize parking programs. The team learned most parking customers were either business or leisure travelers, each with a unique set of needs. When business passengers come to the airport they want to park as close to the terminal as they can and cost is not an issue. Leisure passengers, on the other hand, only come to the airport once or twice a year, and it’s a big deal for them. “They want it to be easy, but they also want it to be cheap, therefore they end up parking farther away and taking a shuttle bus in,” he says.
The airport then tailors marketing to each customer segment and advertises that the best parking prices are available online. “We are trying to let people know that if they go online and pre-book, they’ll get the best price, but if they just drive up, they’ll pay the highest price,” Codd says, noting customers might pay up to 50 percent less online than they’d pay at the gate.
Parking prices fluctuate according to demand, much in the same way that airline ticket prices go up and down. The marketing team performs ongoing yield analysis to manage pricing at peak and off-peak times. This analysis helps them manage parking inventory and profit margins to maximize revenue. “It’s not about giving everybody the less-than-50-percent rate,” Codd says. “We identify periods of time when parking is slow and introduce a competitive rate to entice those parking with the competitors to park with us. A 50-percent discount sounds like a lot but if we’ve got nobody parking at that time, there’s no revenue at all. We now have somebody paying us 50 percent of what they should’ve paid but that’s 50 percent more than we had.”
The team tweaked its promotions as more and more people began booking parking online. The first campaigns were designed to build awareness while latter ones offered more specific types of promotions. For example, on Valentine’s Day, if passengers booked their parking online, they got fast-tracked through security and received a platter of food and drink at one of the restaurants. But this marketing effort was only available to customers traveling a specific number of days over the holiday, adds Codd.
Finally marketing partnered with the airport’s two main airlines to book parking at the point of sale for airline tickets. “They sell our parking as part of their booking price,” says Codd. “Passengers book their flights, and then the system asks if they’d like to book their parking at as well. Both bookings go into a single transaction. This has been a great success.”
Dublin Airport learned a big lesson about parking: An airport is not the only parking game in town. They found that to maximize parking revenues, airports need to combine technology, know-how and commercial experience. And only then do they become passengers preferred place to park.