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The COVID-19 Crisis is Giving Us a Golden Opportunity

July 2, 2020

Brian Wolff

Don’t get me wrong, it’s bad…really bad. But it has been bad before, and if I know one thing for sure, it is that the relentless pursuit of life, liberty and happiness will return. My hope is that by the time you reach the end of this article, you see that despite the difficult times, there’s a silver lining. A huge opportunity to accelerate change that was already happening, and come out on the other side, better, faster and stronger. But before we get there, I need a minute. 


This is one of those times we’ll all be able to say, “remember where you were when the NBA cancelled their games ‘until further notice?’” and we thought “what the hell does that mean?” And then the cancellation of March Madness followed shortly afterwards. Whoa. The hits just kept on coming. In fact, I don’t recall who said it, but they nailed it when they said, “March, was the longest year I have ever experienced.” Days felt like weeks, mainly because we went through four or five news cycles in one day, with information changing so quickly, it was hard to know what to believe, because it all seemed so unbelievable. I can truly say that I have never, in my entire life, experienced turbulence like that. And then it got worse.


The work from home orders started rolling in state by state, starting in California, along with the realization that “shelter in place” meant our customers weren’t going to be parking many cars. You know the rest of the story because you’re living it. Revenue down 90 percent and every parking company scrambling to take stock of their reserves and build a plan for long-term viability. Our plan, like our customers’, included slashing non-essential expenses and finding every possible way to conserve cash. Unfortunately, many of those difficult choices meant the immediate dismissal of their most precious resource – their people, desperately searching for a way to keep a core team intact, while trying to figure out how deep to make the cuts. 


We were fortunate enough to be able to continue supporting our customers while working from home, via our cloud-based platform. We’ve been able to deliver customer service to the precious few parking customers still in garages, while operators sent their people home to comply with work from home orders. Gates down was not just a way to capture meager revenue, it was also a way to keep their facilities safe, clean and inaccessible to squatters. Now that we have all settled into the WFH doldrums, a glimmer of hope is beginning to appear on the horizon with rumors of plans to lift shelter in place restrictions. Which brings me to our golden opportunity.


It seems to me the parking industry has a golden opportunity to hit a giant reset button and emerge from the crisis stronger than ever, both tactically and strategically. The downtime has afforded us space to take stock and reprioritize. It has given us the chance to move about quiet garages to freshen things up, but at the same time think strategically about how we can recreate our businesses to perform with the efficiency of a jet engine, while delivering the experience of Disney. We have been given a moment to upgrade our talent and accelerate the digital transformation that started long before the crisis.


Real change always starts with people, because people must execute the plan. When I think about someone with a reputation of being strategic with people, I think about Jack Welch, the former CEO of GE (God rest his soul). He was known for plain talk and ruthlessness when it came to getting the most from GE’s people. For those not familiar, every year, Jack would make his managers rank their people, reward the top 20 percent and eliminate the bottom 10 percent...every…single…year. 


In discussions with my customers, I consistently heard they were forced to cut 20 percent of their workforce either by furlough, lay-offs or worse. As parking activity ramps back up, it seems to me that operators may be able to apply Jack’s formula by bringing the best back, but perhaps only half of the 20 percent let go, rather than simply going back to the way things were. 


We can apply Jack’s model and wear the white hat because we are putting people back to work AND upgrading our talent. I’ve spoken with operators that believe they can leverage technology and services to accomplish this and are already thinking through ways to do it. During a podcast, Rick West said he believes operators must rethink their resourcing model. Now is their golden opportunity to do just that, by rethinking how they staff their facilities and how best to deliver a better customer experience with fewer people, rather than returning to old staffing levels because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” But getting there won’t be possible if we don’t adopt a new mental model for how to get customers in and out by leveraging modern technology.


The technology tsunami had already begun to wash over our industry long before the COVID-19 crisis hit. Many were already surfing the wave, but others were waiting for something. The crisis presents what I’ve heard Kevin Uhlenhacker refer to as a “covering event,” allowing us all to think like Rahm Emanuel, who is famous for saying, we should “never let a crisis go to waste.” 


Our industry has a golden opportunity to take a deep look at the technology available to deliver what our customers most certainly will demand…a touchless and frictionless experience. They will be reluctant and reticent to touch buttons or screens to get tickets or call for help. They will want to interact with the facility through known devices, like their own cell phone, to reserve, enter and pay for parking. We already know that they will need to call for help more than ever, because the new technology will confuse them, so we must make it easy and touchless for them to do that.


 Operators and owners now have an opportunity to embrace social distancing, and as the explosion of Zoom culture has illustrated, deliver service in a whole new way: virtually. This will make it easier than ever to park without touching anything or being within six feet of anyone. But this transformation cannot be technology-driven, it must be driven from a refusal to sink back into our old habits and to instead create something completely new and different. That will require us to reframe our operating model with a different focal point.


When it’s all said and done, the golden opportunity for our industry is to find a new guiding light for our rebuilding efforts. Perversely, we’ve been given a chance to shift our focus and align ourselves with a world bent on modernizing operations, while embracing the customer experience with authentic concern like never before. This crisis is giving us a blank canvas to hire differently, deploy technology more intentionally and return to prosperity. 


Having crossed the chasm of digital transformation, we’ll arrive at parity with the likes of Apple, Amazon and The Ritz. This is our chance to take the biggest bushel of lemons I have ever seen and squeeze it into the best damn glass of lemonade, served on a silver platter. Are you up for the challenge? I’ll bet you are, and…so am I. Let’s go!



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